Winter is a harsh and unforgiving time of year in which animals and humans alike can suffer from hypothermia, frostbite or worse. Yet, sometimes it is a necessary evil to banish our furry friends to the outdoors during the cold months (though not an easy choice, to be sure). If your own pet stays outside or if there are feral animals in your area you’d like to help out, there are certain things you can do to improve a cat’s well-being and longevity during the bitter winter months, starting with an outdoor cathouse.
The outdoor cathouse is the feline’s answer to the classic doghouse, a simple but effective shelter that keeps cats warmer in winter and cooler in summer. There are many models available to buy, some relatively inexpensive, others more elaborate. Typically, they are made from weather-resistant woods or reinforced poly plastics and are waterproof, insulated and ventilated.
If you are not able to procure an outdoor cathouse when you need one, or else you want to look after the strays but can’t validate spending a few hundred on a cathouse for a cat that’s not even yours, it’s easy to build your own insulated version of a cathouse. Crafty types can do wonders with wood, but for the rest of us, what you’ll need is two Rubbermaid containers, one that fits pretty snugly inside the other. To start, cut matching sized circular holes on one side of each container. It needs to be big enough for a cat to lie down comfortably and turn around in, but not as big that valuable heat is lost. Place foam or polystyrene around the inside edges of the larger container to act as an insulator. Next, position the smaller container inside the larger one so that the insulating layer separates the two containers.
On the floor of the smaller container, spread out straw or cedar shavings. Unlike towels, blankets and paper towels that become stiff and actually retain cold, straw is an ideal natural insulator. And cedar contains tannins that repel insects like fleas. These materials need to be changed out regularly for sanitary and health reasons.
Another thing you can do with a homemade outdoor cathouse is cover the outside with a solar pool cover. These are made to keep swimming pools warm by retaining the sun’s heat, but it will work equally well on a cathouse. Just make sure if you go this route that you keep the cathouse out in the open so that it’s actually exposed to enough sunlight.
For heat retention, it’s easy to also attach a basic flap door, usually made from vinyl, to the front entrance. This will also keep out a lot of wind. For feral cats, you may have to install two entrances on either end of the house, because stray cats may be wary of staying in a structure with only one exit if they are fearful of predators.
Though slightly risky, especially when paired with dry, flammable straw, a heat lamp may or may not be for you. If your outdoor cathouse isn’t hardwired, you’ll need a lamp with an alternate source of power, like solar energy or batteries. Just make sure that whatever power you use, stick with low watt light bulbs to reduce overheating. If that’s not an option, a window in the side of your cathouse lets in natural light and warmth. The larger the window, the more heat will be lost through the non-insulated area, so keep it small.
This next feature is more of use to the owner than the cat. A detachable or hinged roof makes access to the inside of the outdoor cathouse much more convenient. In this way, you can lift out animals that need help, and more easily clean out the inside.
In addition to housing, you will need to monitor their eating habits. Feeding cats fish oil and proteins will give them stronger coats. To sustain normal energy levels, many cats will require more food in colder months. If you keep their water dish in their outdoor cathouse or outside, check often to see that the water doesn’t freeze. If the water is frozen, a cat will look elsewhere to drink, including out of dirty and potential chemically tainted puddles. Also, never use a metal water dish; a cat’s tongue can stick to it. The best course of action is buying a heated water dish.
They’re easy to find and don’t cost that much. Like water, wet food will also freeze, so stick to dry food in cold weather.