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How To Protect An Outdoor Cat From The Extreme Cold

Incorporating a vestibule, like seen on this house, in your cat-shelter design will help prevent cold air from reaching the cat as it beds down for the night.

Incorporating a vestibule, like seen on this house, in your cat-shelter design will help prevent cold air from reaching the cat as it beds down for the night.

In the Midwest, we experienced some of the worst cold-snaps -- and as I write this -- last night's wind chill temperatures dipped to 20 below zero throughout the Miami Valley. Temperatures that extreme can be deadly for domesticated animals.

We have an outdoor cat -- so a few years ago I took several steps to protect the pet from the bitter cold.

Protection From Wind

Wind chill is calculated based on wind and actual temperature. Animals are extremely susceptible to wind chill -- especially when it starts dropping into the sub-zero zone. So one of the first steps to take when finding or creating shelter for your cat is to block the wind. When my daughter and I visited Cherokee Nation a few years ago, we visited their cultural center which included a replica home used by Native Americans centuries ago. The home had what is commonly referred to as a vestibule -- hikers who camp in the extreme cold often use shelters with the same idea.

A vestibule is basically a 'door in front of the door' and the concept works extremely well because it serves as a wind break, preventing the elements from entering the shelter. Some of the fancier outdoor cat shelters, like this one (pdf), incorporate the use of a vestibule.

Another option, if you own any type of shed, is to let the shed works as the vestibule. By building an insulated shelter -- and then placing that shelter inside a shed -- you have, in essence, added a layer of insulation to the cat's bedding. This is the approach I took, I placed the cat's smaller shelter inside my shed, and then used plastic sheeting to cover the entry to the shed -- to help keep the wind and cold from entering where the cat bedded down at night.

Insulated Bed

I built an insulated bed for our cat using a pattern I found online. The bed is easy to make, simply take an 18 gallon plastic tub with a lid, insulate it and create an opening so the cat can enter and exit. I used duct tape on the edge of the opening to eliminate any potential sharp edges.

In the video I've included in the article, you will see a very fast way to build the shelter. Take a Styrofoam cooler and slip it inside the plastic tub. I went a different route, though, since I had some rigid insulation laying around in my shed, I used a cardboard box for the center-bedding region and then placed the rigid insulation between the cardboard board and the plastic tub. I filled the cardboard box with bedding and then closed -- and taped down the lid.

To add one more layer of protection, I placed the plastic tub inside a larger plastic tub -- employing the vestibule concept -- so now the cat has a warm bed where his body heat can be trapped and keep him warm.

When it comes to the actual bed -- larger is not better -- make it an ample size for the animal to sleep in -- but small enough that their own body heat will not easily escape.

Add A Heat Source

On one especially cold night last winter, I placed a temperature sensor inside the bed (before the cat entered it), because I was curious of the actual temperature. I was getting a reading of 13 degrees (the actual outside temperature was -11). Even though, the cat would have probably been fine inside the bed since the plastic, insulated bin would trap the animal's body heat, I went one step further. I draped an old heating blanket over the small bin to create a heat source for the cat.

I only do this when the actual -- not wind-chill -- temperature is getting to the sub-zero level. I actually got the idea from my late father. In my youth we raised chickens and the birds, I learned, are not necessarily the most intelligent creatures. They seem to find a myriad of ways to end their lives prematurely -- including smothering each other to death when its cold.

Dad placed an old wood stove inside the chicken pen and would build a small fire after it was dark and 'load up the stove.' It would provide enough heat in the un-insulated structure to keep the birds warm throughout the cold southwestern Ohio night.

Plenty Of Food

Lastly, an animal needs food to generate heat, so I placed a night-time supply of high-quality cat food inside the shed near the cat's bed. I've never really understood why some folks buy inexpensive and ineffective food for their pets. Cheap cat food is filled with fillers that provide nothing of value to the cat -- spend the few extra dollars on high-quality food because in the long run it doesn't cost all that much more anyway since you use less of high-quality food per feeding.

Trust me, the cat will be thankful since the animal can derive more energy from high-qualityfood -- energy that will help it stay warm.

Build Your Own Bed Patterns

There are plenty of online sites that have nice bed ideas for your outdoor cat. Here are a few:

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  • Alley Cat: I like this site because it has a page of images you can scroll through to spark ideas on the type you want to build. The page does include paid options -- but they are clearly mark. For the DIY versions, most have links to pdfs for building instructions.
  • Neighborhood Cats: This is another non-profit site with a list of shelter ideas -- most borrow heavily from the box inside a plastic tub approach, but one interesting option suggested is using Mylar blankets when the temperature is extremely cold -- to reflect the animal's body heat back to the animal. The page does include links to products you can purchase.
  • Indy Feral: This non-profit groups has created a nice resource page filled with images, links and ideas of how to either construct your own shelter or where to purchase one. Some of the more innovative ideas include feeding stations built from recycled materials.
  • Alley Cat Advocates: Although this site only shows you how to build the oft-mentioned plastic tub option, I'm including this site because it has some really good tips on where to place the tub (for example, why you shouldn't place it directly on the ground). It's a quick read with lots of good, practical advise.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2015 Charlie Claywell


John Welford from UK on May 01, 2015:

I have never understood the concept of an "outdoor cat" - unless you live on a farm that is. Cats should be free to come and go as they wish - inside and out - otherwise how can you enjoy their company?

Charlie Claywell (author) on February 19, 2015:

I agree with you about people just dropping off cats and expecting them to survive. We have a stray cat that roams the neighborhood and occasionally eats my cats food. Every now and then she/he also beds overnight in my shed.

Debra Allen from West Virginia on February 19, 2015:

CharlieClaywell, I also feed the birds and the cats and all the other creatures that come up to my back deck. I have seen a few squirrels that were killed by my cats, but if you watch them and their behavior..squirrels around here that play games with the cats deserve what they get.

The one stray cat that I see coming to our deck is not spayed. He sprays everything but he was dropped off. I will get him fixed in a couple of months. I do not have the money or the time to get him fixed right yet. I hate when people just drop off their animals and expect them to know how to survive.

Charlie Claywell (author) on February 19, 2015:

I agree with the spay comment completely -- our cat is 'fixed'.

Although some cats may kill songbirds that's not been a problem in my case. I actually feed and attract birds to my backyard and our cat has never preyed on them -- possibly because he always has available food. My dog, on the other hand, I have to monitor when he is in the back yard because he has preyed on a few squirrels.

Thanks for the comments.

Debra Allen from West Virginia on February 19, 2015:

DrMark1961, that is complete myth. There are many other things that kill birds....other birds of prey, snakes, coyotes (the biggest one), foxes and the like. Coyotes also kill cats and other small animals.

My outdoor cat has plenty of places to stay warm and dry. There are also many other cats that are strays that people just leave off around here. My advice is to get them SPAYED/NEUTERED.

Mark dos Anjos DVM from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on February 19, 2015:

Outdoor cats kill songbirds and other small wildlife. What is the best way to keep your cat warm in the winter? Keep it inside where it belongs.

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