Protecting Outdoor Cats In Winter

Rain, snow, and winter temperatures are just as hard on cats as they are on people. The World Animal Foundation of Vermilion, Ohio offers these tips for protecting outdoor cats in winter:

Young or old cats - especially arthritic or sickly - should be brought inside for the winter if at all possible. Cats should also be brought in the house or into heated garages or enclosures at night. Bring cats inside during cold snaps or when it rains.

If cats cannot be brought inside for the season, create a wind proof, waterproof enclosure. Put the enclosure against the house and cover with a tarp, tied down. Provide plenty of clean, dry bedding. Check weekly or after a major storm for leaks, damage and wet bedding.


Outdoor cats may need more calories to maintain their weight during winter weather. Safflower or vegetable oil mixed in with the cat food will help prevent your animal's coat and skin from becoming dry. Older cats on a low-protein/low-fat diet may do better on regular adult food for the winter, but get advice from a veterinarian first. Kittens or pregnant/nursing females may have special needs during cold weather. Again, seek a vet's advice.


An outdoor cat needs plenty of fresh (not frozen) water. Avoid metal water bowls, since a cat's tongue can stick to the freezing metal. If low temperatures have frozen the water in a bowl or bucket, replace it with fresh water. Frozen water is unavailable water. Snow is not a substitute and neither is "wet" food. Dehydration becomes a real risk for outdoor animals in very cold weather. One solution to frozen water is a "pail de-icer," available from pet supply stores and online.


A warm shelter, preferably in a south-facing or sunny area, is vital for an outdoor cat. Face the entrance away from prevailing winds or drafts. The shelter should be well insulated and the floor should be elevated several inches off the ground. A cat will hold body heat inside the shelter if extra bedding, such as hardwood shavings (not pine or cedar) or straw, is provided. Old rugs or blankets should not be used for bedding - a cat will track in moisture on her feet that can turn to ice. Heavy fabric or pieces of carpet attached to the top of the shelter entrance will cut down on drafts (beware of protruding nails or hooks). Throwing an old blanket over the top will increase the insulation factor. The shelter's roof should be slanted or angled so that rain and snow will not collect there. At least weekly, check the inside of the shelter for damp bedding mold and mildew. Cut ventilation slits in the shelter walls to help get rid of mold and mildew.


Fleas can thrive on a thick-haired outdoor animal even in the depths of winter. See your veterinarian about a recommended schedule for flea and tick preventives. In areas that do not completely freeze, fleas may be a problem year-round.


Antifreeze (ethylene glycol) is the most common winter poison danger, and can be fatal to companion animals, wildlife, and even children. Most commercial antifreeze contains ethylene glycol that has a sweet taste many dogs and cats can smell at a distance and will actively seek out. A tiny amount can be fatal - less than two ounces is enough to kill a dog, one teaspoon enough to kill a cat, and as little as two tablespoons can be hazardous to a small child. Most companion animals - and wildlife - will rapidly drink many times the fatal dose.

The first symptom is acting "drunk" - staggering, vomiting, copious drinking, and urination, often followed by a period of apparent recovery. One to three days later, there will be signs of kidney failure such as not eating, depression, vomiting, dehydration, coma and eventually death. If you are even a little suspicious that your companion animal has consumed antifreeze, see your veterinarian immediately. Early detection can save a life. Treatment must be started within hours to prevent irreversible and fatal kidney damage.

Fortunately, antifreeze poisoning is totally preventable. A small amount of diligence and effort can save lives: 

  • Dispose of drained antifreeze properly, in an environmentally safe manner. Before dumping it in sewers and septic tanks, make sure it's safe and legal to do so. 
  • Don't leave an antifreeze container open, even for a minute. A minute is all it takes for an animal - or a child - to drink a lethal dose.
  • If possible, hose down and dilute boil-overs. If it is still green, it is still toxic! 
  • Store concentrated antifreeze in tight containers, out of reach of animals and children. 
  • Repair leaky car radiators, hoses and water pumps. 
  • Use a non-toxic antifreeze, such as Sierra, which contains propylene glycol. This substance can still cause illness, especially in cats, but is far less dangerous than ethylene glycol.


Warm car engines can be hazardous to cats. Outdoor or stray cats seeking warmth and shelter often make the fatal mistake of climbing up near a car's engine to sleep. Prior to starting your car, be sure to bang on the hood of your car or beep the horn to roust any cat that may be inside.