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Whilst the temperatures don’t get too cold in Australia, for many of our cat-loving readers winter is a time when your cat becomes a heat-seeking missile targeted at snuggling up on your lap. But spare a thought for those less fortunate felines who are feral or stray, and lack creature comforts during the harsh winter weather.
Whatever your opinion on how to deal with stray cats, it remains true that unnecessary suffering and hardship should be avoided. For the neighbourhood strays frost, wind, rain, and snow mean an extra challenge to an already tough existence. But a few simple actions can ease their distress.
1. Provide Shelter
Imagine yourself living outdoors in winter without an adequate shelter. Once your clothes are wet-through, with nowhere to dry off you lose body heat, your immune system weakens, you are less able to fight off infection, and on the slippery slope to ill health. The same is true for stray cats.
Providing a windproof, dry shelter gives them a place to escape the elements whilst they sleep. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, but double insulation is ideal, such as an outer plastic carton containing a sturdy cardboard box with straw insulation in the gap between the two.
Try to raise the shelter up off the ground, so the earth doesn’t act as a heat sink. Also, create the smallest, cat-sized entrance possible, so there’s less opportunity for heat to get out and the weather to get in. If possible, rig up a porch or weather-shield over the entrance, such as a projecting roof or a plastic curtain.
2. The Right Bedding
Blankets or newspaper for bedding are a nice idea, but once wet they stay damp and drain the cat’s body heat. Instead, loosely fill a pillowcase with packing peanuts, which are an excellent insulator and don’t absorb moisture. Alternatively, provide a deep layer of straw for the cat to burrow into and keep warm.
And whilst we’re talking about keeping warm, consider ‘papering’ the walls of the box with Mylar (a heat resistant plastic sheet). This helps reflect back the cat’s body heat to keep them extra snug.
3. A Feeding Station
Cats need food as fuel to keep warm. Provide a feeding station within a few feet of the shelter, so that the cat doesn’t have to waste energy in severe weather, to seek out life-sustaining food. A plastic packing crate or toy storage box on its side keeps out the worst of the elements and protects the food from getting water-logged.
If you’re feeling super conscientious then rig a makeshift roof between the shelter and the feeding station so the cat doesn’t get soaked going for a meal.
4. The Right Food
Canned or wet food contains a lot of water, which means it’s lower calorie and also prone to freezing. If frost and snow is expected, opt for dry food instead. Not only will dry food not freeze but it’s more calorie dense, so each mouthful provides more energy than the equivalent in canned food. Most calorific of all is dry, kitten food, so if you’re concerned about a particularly scrawny stray, offer them this.
Also, consider warming canned food, since it takes requires less energy to digest than a cold meal.
5. Set a Routine
Each time the cat emerges from their shelter, they risk becoming cold or wet, which saps their reserves. Set a feeding routine and put down food at the same time every day. This way the cat knows when to venture out without wasting precious energy.
6. A Water Supply
Water is vital to health, but ironically in winter it can dry up or freeze. Make sure to provide fresh warm water twice a day. Also insulate the bottom of the water bowl by spraying it with insulation foam, so that warm water retains heat for longer.
7. Insulate Everything
Nothing kills stray cats faster than chilling in sustained low temperatures. Do what you can to prevent this by providing insulating bedding, insulate the shelter and feeding station, plus the water and food supply.
Modern materials such as Mylar and spray insulation foam are effective, but don’t forget the simplicity of placing one box or bowl inside another larger one and stuffing the gap with straw.
8. Environmental Awareness
Winter hazards include spilt antifreeze (its sweetness is bizarrely attractive to cats, who lap it and go into kidney failure), salt (salt on paws once licked off can also cause kidney damage), and being snowed in. Be careful with what you put on the ground, and don’t forget to dig the cat shelter out when it snows heavily.
Also, a warm car engine will attract strays desperately seeking warmth. Always check the engine before starting up your car, and look underneath the car and behind the wheels before driving off.
9. Install a Cat Door
If you are able to, install a cat door into a sheltered place such as a shed or garage. It could provide vital life-saving access to a dry place in times of extreme weather.
10. Involve the Neighbours
Ask cat-loving compassionate neighbours to take part in a feeding roster or even set up temporary shelters of their own. Remember, take pity on the strays during the winter and come the spring they will return the favour by keeping down the vermin population.
This blog post is part of the quarterly campaign for Be the Change for Animals – advocating to make the world a better place for all animals.
Top image: Andrey via Flickr