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The Chew: How To Help Stray Cats During The Winter

The following bi-weekly column is written and sponsored by Bark + Boarding, which provides a heart-centered and safe environment for your pets. Conveniently located at 5818-C Seminary Road in Bailey’s Crossroads, Bark & Boarding offers doggy daycare, boarding, grooming, walking and training services, plus in-home pet care.

Winter brings below-freezing temperatures and icy or snowy conditions, and for stray cats this can pose a potentially deadly problem.

Cats’ fur can only keep them so warm, but there are plenty of ways you can help. If you’ve seen a stray cat hanging out in your neighborhood, don’t assume it is able to take care of itself or that someone else will help it. There are a few simple steps you can take to help these animals.

Provide Food and Water

Leaving out food and water for cats is helpful for several reasons. Besides the obvious of keeping the cats fed, it also keeps them from consuming scavenged food or water that might make them sick.

It also means they don’t have to roam as far looking for food, which can lead to them getting hurt by a cars, predators or other dangers. Wet food requires less energy to digest, leaving more energy to keep warm, but it is also in danger of freezing.

Serve it in a plastic bowl and warm up the food before putting it out to help prevent this. If it keeps freezing, switching to dry food is always better than nothing.

If you put food out at the same time each day, you create a schedule that the cats can come to expect, meaning that both the food and the animals spend less time in the cold.

To keep water from freezing, use bowls that are deep rather than wide, and place it in sunlight. Avoid using a metal bowl, and adding a pinch of sugar lowers the freezing point of water, ensuring it stays liquid longer.

To take extra caution, you can spray insulation foam into the underside of plastic feeding dishes and water bowls. Another solution is to place a microwaveable heating pad under the bowls, and you can even make your own heating pad using a sock filled with rice.

Make a Shelter

Creating a shelter doesn’t need to be expensive or time consuming. A few modifications to something as simple as a heavy cardboard box make a perfect place for cats to sleep.

Raise the bottom of the box a couple inches above the ground so it doesn’t get soggy, and cover the top with plastic, such as a garbage bag, to protect from the elements. Cutting a hole in a plastic storage bin is also an easy way to create a shelter. Generally, a good size is about two feet by three feet, and 18 inches tall.

Smaller spaces keep the heat close and allow the cats to lay next to and on top of each other to share heat. The door should only be large enough for a cat, about six to eight inches. Adding a flap is a good way to keep out ice and rain and keep in heat.

Straw is by far the best choice for bedding in a shelter. Blankets, towels and even hay will absorb moisture and then potentially freeze, providing no help at all. Straw will help insulate the cats while staying dry.

Be sure to shovel snow away from the entrance so it doesn’t pile up too high and prevent the cat from entering or exiting.

Practice Winter Safety

There are a few things you can do around your house to help keep stray cats safe. One is to check under your car before starting it and driving away. Animals are often drawn to the heat emanating from the car, and may be curled up underneath to stay warm.

Don’t use antifreeze in areas that are accessible to cats, as consuming it can be lethal. Similarly, be sure to use a pet friendly ice melt to melt snow.


Possibly the best thing you can do for the feral cats in your area is something often referred to as TNR: trap, neuter, release. Trapping cats and giving them to an animal shelter may just add to an already overcrowded shelter, and, depending on where you live, may just lead them to be euthanized.

Neutering or spaying the cats and then releasing them allows them to continue to live as they like, while also limiting the population. Spaying and neutering also improves cats’ overall health.

Contact your local shelter for more information on how best to do this in your area.

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