Where I currently live, the winters can be bitter cold. Sub zero wind-chills for 8-12 weeks straight is mighty cold for a cat. Here are some tips to keep outdoor cats warm in the winter:
Our cats are outdoor cats, AKA “barn cats”. They live outside, guarding the homestead from mice, possums, and other creatures that could threaten our chickens or bees. They are important on our homestead for this very reason. We love them as pets too…when they “allow us” to love them.
During the summer they are happy as larks to be outside doing what they want, when they want. That is the true way of the cat, is it not?
Cats are rather independent creatures and like it just fine that way. They can sleep in the cool of the dirt in the mint garden during the hot of the day or find a mouse to play around with.
How Cold is Too Cold?
You might be curious what kinds of temperatures your outdoor cats can handle. It’s important to keep track of the weather conditions, because weather that is too cold can cause a variety of health problems and medical conditions like frostbite and hypothermia. It can even result in death.
It’s tough to say what temperatures are too low, because there are various factors that will determine this, such as the age, size, fur length, and disposition of the animal. In general, however, if a cat is not acclimated to cold weather it should not be left outside without provisions when temperatures are any lower than 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
If a cat already spends most of its time outdoors, it can survive just fine down to nearly freezing. Once it drops below that temperature, you might want to bring it inside or add some extra provisions to make sure it survives the chill.
There are other conditions that necessitate some extra help, too. For example, if it is snowing or raining heavily, the temperature guidelines listed above don’t apply. It’s much easier to catch a chill when you are wet – and that’s true for all animals.
Tips for Keeping Barn or Outdoor Cats Warm in the Winter
They can stalk the chickens or ducks if they want, climb a tree, or walk along the fence tops. We don’t have to worry about them freezing or their water dish turning to ice in the summer time.
Winter is a different story. Sub zero wind-chills for 8-12 weeks straight is mighty cold for a cat. Here are some tips to keep outdoor cats warm in the winter:
1. Keep the barn door open a crack
We leave the chicken barn door open enough for the cats to slip through and sleep in the warmth. With the chickens and the bedding on the coop floor, it makes a pretty nice place for our feline friends to sleep if they so choose. A bonus to this is that they can catch any mice before they wreck havoc in the chicken feed.
2. Keep their drinking water from freezing.
This isn’t hard, really. Our cats have a plugged in heated water dish to keep their water from freezing. We use this one here. If you don’t have one of these, or live off grid, you can simply add warm water to their water bowl when you go outside to do chores.
It’s smart to place the bowl in a location where it is less likely to freeze, too. It should be protected from the wind and subjected to some sunlight. A dark colored bowl that is thick and made out of silicone is also a good idea.
3. Give them a warm place to sleep. (If you don’t have a barn or coop)
Not everyone has a large chicken coop or a barn on their homestead for a cat to sleep in. If you have an outdoor cat in this situation, you’ll need to provide a warm place for them to sleep. We made a “home” for our outdoor cats on our front porch.
It is made out of an old 35 gallon Rubbermaid container. You can do this too by simply cutting a hole in the side for the cat to get in and out, then securing the lid on tight. We taped cardboard inside to help insulate it, and when we can find straw bales, we surround the container with those for even more protection.
You can buy or build a cat shelter – it doesn’t need to be fancy. You can use an igloo type shelter or even an unused calf hutch. Usually, a shelter only needs to be about 12”x 18” x 12” per one cat.
You can add a door flap to trap heat. If you have more than one cat, don’t fall victim to the assumption that you need a large shelter – a shelter that is too large won’t hold heat.
You should also make sure your shelter is secure enough to prevent it from blowing away in a strong wind. Insulation is important but you can often substitute this with bedding. The shelter should be raised up of the ground by a few inches and placed in a safe location away from lots of foot and car traffic.
4. Add extra dry food to their dish.
In the summer, our outdoor cats can add to their diets by catching and eating mice, birds, etc. In the winter, when prey is a bit more scarce, we make sure to keep their food dish more full.
This will give them the extra calories they need to stay warm in the cold, winter months. One note here: I can’t keep the cat’s dry food near the chickens. The chickens will fight the cats off to eat it.
Outdoor cats are going to have a harder time hunting in the winter than in the summer. Not only is prey more scarce in the winter, but the average cat is only successful about 20% of the time it goes out to hunt.
You don’t want a cat expending extra calories that it could be using on staying warm! And as a I mentioned, the more food you can provide, the better – your cat will stay warm as it digests the food.
An adult cat will eat about 200 calories per day – which is about six ounces of dry food. Make sure the cat feeding station is not near an incline or drip edge where rainwater or melting snow can turn it into a sloppy mess. It should also be away from lots of foot or car traffic and you should check it regularly.
Now, you can use wet food if you prefer with your outdoor cats. However, the problem is that it freezes very easily. On the flip side, it takes less energy to digest so it may be better for a quick source of energy. If you use wet food, make sure yo put them in plastic containers.
5. Consider setting up heaters.
If you have the budget for it, you might want to consider setting up a heater. You can use one of those enclosed oil-filled radiator heaters, which will reduce the risk of fire but also give some extra heat to your feline friends. They are usually pretty durable.
You could alternatively use microwavable heating pads in your shelters. These usually only last for a few hours before needing to be warmed back up, but they are a great and inexpensive alternative if you just need to get your cats through a few overnight hours of chill.
6. Add more insulation
I mentioned this when I discussed shelter, but it’s so important that it deserves a second point. You want to make sure your doorway is small to keep out predators, but also large enough so your cat can go in and out.
An open doorway will also add some ventilation, which is important to prevent condensation and extra moisture in the shelter. You can use a plastic flap to improve ventilation while also repelling wind, rain, and snow.
Pad the shelter thoroughly with soft bedding. Use straw instead of hay or even cut-up Mylar blankets. You don’t want to use hay or other conventional fabric towels or blankets, as these can absorb moisture.
7. Build separate feeding and watering stations
Not only will these provide additional protection so the food doesn’t get soiled by the elements, but they’ll also reduce the likelihood that multiple cats compete for food.
8. Clear snow promptly
Prepare for major snowstorms by providing your cats with extra food and water. When it snows, make sure you clear it quickly so they don’t get snowed in to their shelters.
9. Spay and neuter
It’s always considered best practice to spay and neuter outdoor or feral cats – and you may or may not choose to do this if you are keeping barn cats for pest control.
However, if you have concerns about the vitality of your cats during the winter months, it may be worth your while to spay or neuter them before the cold sets in. Having kittens can be an additional challenge to deal with in cold weather – plus, it improves cats’ overall health.
10. Watch out for other hazards.
Just as cats are going to have a harder time hunting during the coldest days of winter, so are other predators – like opportunistic coyotes and foxes that might try to snag your cat. Make sure your cat’s shelter is protected against these kinds of threats.
If you’re feeling super motivated, you can even put your cat shelter in a tree. You will just need a tree with wide-growing, low-hanging limbs that are easily reached by your cat – but not other predators. Make sure it’s not a tree prone to damage during winter storms.
Be vigilant. If you have outdoor cats, it’s important that you are vigilant about your behavior. Make sure you check on your cats’ feeding and water stations – as well as their shelters – every day, and several times a day during inclement weather.
Take extra precautions around the homestead, too. For example, when you start your car, bang on your hood and look underneath to make sure there aren’t cats hiding there.
Try to avoid using harsh chemicals or salt to melt snow, as these can hurt cats’ paw pads and be toxic if they are consumed. Similarly, you should be careful when using antifreeze, too.
Got other animals on the homestead? Read more about their winter care here.
What do you do to keep your outdoor cats warm in the winter? Be sure to pin this for later!
updated on November 5th 2019 by Rebekah White