How Do Stray Cats Survive Winter? The Cold Truth & Tips on How to Help
By Ed Malaker
If you spend time outside in the cold weather, especially in the city, there is a good chance that you have seen a few cats running around, which might cause you to wonder how they can survive harsh winters. Fortunately, cats are extremely intelligent and can find places to hide and utilize several tricks to stay warm and alive. Keep reading as we discuss the places that cats use as shelter and how they find food. We also discuss a few ways that you can help them out.
Stray Cats vs Feral Cats
Feral cats have never had an owner and have spent their entire lives outdoors. These cats will usually avoid humans and are unlikely to become pets, but they have more experience dealing with cold weather and are more likely to survive.
Stray cats were pets at one time but have lost their home for one reason or another. These cats are more likely to approach a human when it gets cold, especially if they haven’t been out long, but they can become feral as time passes. Stray cats are more at risk of hypothermia as the temperature drops, since they don’t have as much experience finding warm hiding places.
How Cold Is Too Cold for Cats?
The coldest temperature that a cat can withstand depends on their age, breed, size, and experience. Heavy cats can handle colder temperatures, as can cats with thick coats of fur, like the British Shorthair, American Shorthair, or Maine Coons. In contrast, cats like the Sphinx don’t have any fur and will struggle to stay warm even at room temperature. Most stray and feral cats are mixed breeds that will start to get cold and look for shelter when the temperature drops below about 45 degrees Fahrenheit. At these temperatures, the cat’s body temperature is in danger of falling below 100 degrees, which could cause hypothermia.
How Do Cats Stay Warm in Cold Temperatures?
The primary way that stray cats stay warm in cold temperatures is by finding shelter. Cats like tight and enclosed spaces where they can hide and get out of the wind. You will often find them in abandoned buildings, under porches, or in sheds or garages if they can find an entrance. Cats also like to hide under cars and in the wheel wells and engine compartment. You might even find them in a dumpster or doghouse, and they will often hide in dense grass or brush if nothing else is available.
Scavenge for Food
As the weather gets colder, it becomes harder for stray cats to find food, since many birds fly south, and insects and other animals hibernate. The lack of food will cause the cat to spend more time hunting, which can help keep them warm. They must also scavenge for food in dumpsters and garbage cans, which can provide shelter from the cold.
Stray and feral cats tend to team up during the winter months so they can huddle together to stay warm, and they will also share their food when times are tough. You can often see evidence of cats teaming up in old, abandoned buildings, which can attract many cats.
How Can I Help Stray Cats Survive the Winter?
Create a Shelter
If you have space on your property and don’t mind a stray cat using it, you can create a cat shelter out of a large box. You can make it out of inexpensive wood, or even a cardboard box will work temporarily. Make an entrance no larger than 6 inches wide, and ensure that any water that gets inside can drain out quickly and easily. Insulate the inside of the box with plenty of straw, creating a comfortable spot for a cat to rest. Don’t use blankets, towels, or newspapers, as these can absorb moisture and heat, making the shelter less efficient. Placing the shelter on a platform can help make it more attractive to cats, and adding a tilt to the roof will help water drain away.
Leave Out Food & Water
It will be difficult to leave out water for cats when the temperatures are below freezing, but you can leave out solid food, which can help the cats get the nutrition that they need to stay healthy. Placing a bowl of water on a heated pad can help prevent it from freezing, and you can also put out fresh water whenever you see the cats. However, it’s important to remember that the cats might come to rely on the food and water that you provide, so you will need to do it every day once you start.
Leave the Garage Open
On especially cold days, you can help local cats find shelter by leaving your garage door open a few inches so they can climb under to get in.
Always Bang on the Car Before You Start It
Another important thing that you can do to help keep stray cats safe is to bang on your car before starting it. Doing so will awaken any cats that might be taking shelter and scare them off before they get injured by the engine or wheels.
Spay & Neuter Cats
Many areas have catch-and-release programs where a veterinarian will spay or neuter any stray cats that you bring into a shelter. After the procedure, you can return the cat to the wild. Although this won’t necessarily help the cat survive the winter, it will help reduce the number of cats that will face cold weather in the future.
Stray cats can survive winter by finding shelter, often in abandoned houses and other buildings, under porches, in thick grass, or even under your car. If there are several cats, they will often huddle together to stay warm and even share food. They will also spend more time hunting because food is scarce, and the activity will help keep up their temperature. You can help stray cats by providing a shelter that they can use if you have the space on your property. You can also set out dry cat food and even water when possible, and leaving the garage door open a few inches is a no-fuss way to help them out on especially cold days if you don’t want to set up a permanent shelter.
Featured Image Credit: Peter Gudella, Shutterstock