4 Ways To Help Outdoor Cats Survive in Every Season

My adventure with helping outdoor cats began in 2011.  I’ve learned a lot since then.
Most of my experiences are based on the cats in my yard. We are currently feeding two outdoor cats. The most we’ve had at one time is four adult cats. We’ve found indoor homes for kittens twice.
I’ve also helped friends with Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) for over fifty outdoor cats. Most of them were unfriendly feral community cats.

It’s easier to care for cats on your property. However, the advice and tips below could also help those who care for cat colonies in other locations.
The winter months are more challenging for cats. You can provide shelters to help them stay warm.
Trap Neuter Return (TNR)
One of the best things you can do for an outdoor cat is to get it fixed. Here are some of the benefits:

They will stop adding to the cat overpopulation problem in the United States.
They usually become nicer cats to have around the neighborhood.
Usually, they will fight less with other cats.
Usually, they will spray and mark less.

The basics of TNR are trapping the cats, getting them fixed, and then returning them to the location where they were trapped.

Alley Cat Allies has an excellent Step-by-Step TNR Guide. I read many of their articles and watched YouTube videos to learn more about the process.
Low-cost or free options are available in many areas for outdoor cats.  Usually, a rabies shot is included, and they will tip the cat’s ear. The ear tip is a visual way to show that the cat has been fixed. This helps prevent them from being trapped again by someone else who may encounter the cat.

Returning to where they were trapped, which is their home, stabilizes the colony. The colony should stabilize once all the cats are fixed – so no more kittens!  They may also protect the area and not allow new cats to join the colony.
During the winter months, some clinics may not fix outdoor cats. The cats are shaved as part of the process, so it can be too cold to release them. And it’s unlikely for most people to be able to hold outdoor cats for two weeks or more in a heated indoor area for recovering.
TNR Tips:
Here are some TNR tips based on my experiences with trapping cats:

Check with the clinic in advance before trapping the gets. Many locations require an appointment.
Only trap cats when you have an appointment to get them fixed, as extended time in traps is stressful for the cat. Some cats will not eat in traps.
Keep the trap covered to keep them calm.
TNR is most effective when ALL the cats are fixed, including the males.
Drop traps are another option that can sometimes be easier than a regular trap.

Read: Cat Drop Trap Tips
Provide Food and Water
Another easy way to help the cats is to provide fresh water and food every day. Keep in mind the other animals might be interested in the food.
I only put out enough dry food during the day that the cats can eat during the day.
Another option is to bring in the food every day at dusk. Doing so will reduce the chances of attracting raccoons, possums, or other animals that come around in the dark.

I’m afraid of the raccoons, so for my safety, I try to deter them from coming. I don’t mind the possums coming so much because they eat ticks and other bugs.
However, the raccoons can be more problematic because they can go after kittens and may fight with the cats. We haven’t noticed any raccoon vs. cat fights in our yard.  However, raccoons did attack kittens once in my neighborhood.
I put out extra food in the winter, as the cats may be eating more to stay warm. I worry less about the raccoons coming in the winter, as life is harder for all the animals (in my area) in cold weather.

Feeding Tips

Don’t feed cats out of cans. They can cut their tongues on the sharp edges.
Don’t be a litterbug when feeding in public locations.
Feed the cats using plates or bowls. Doing so will reduce the chance of the cats damaging their teeth on concrete or eating dirt.

Tortillas may be an option, as raccoons and possums will eat them. Note: I haven’t tried this, but others report success.

If you can, have separate areas for the cat food and water. I do this, but I’m not sure how much difference it makes. Experts say cats prefer water that isn’t near their food.
You can make elevated feeding stations to deter animals that can’t jump. They need to be made so the cat can jump onto it, but the raccoons can’t climb onto the platform.

See our food shelter: Outdoor Cat Feeding Station (our DIY design + tips)
During the Warmer Months
Wet food will attract bugs. The hotter the weather, the quicker the bugs seem to come.
To limit the bugs, only put out as much wet food that the cats will eat in fifteen minutes or less. You can discard uneaten portions. In time, you will learn how much they are eating.

Sometimes, I forgot to pick up leftover wet food, only to discover fly eggs in the food later.
Also, remember to provide fresh water every day.  And, when possible, place the food and water in the shade.
During the Colder Months
Preventing water from freezing will be impossible without electricity. However, there are ways you can slow down the freezing.

Read: How To Delay the Water From Freezing for Outdoor Cats Without Electricity
A heated water bowl makes everything so much easier.
Also, don’t use metal bowls in the winter. Don’t take a chance with your cat’s tongue freezing to the bowl. When I was in elementary school, a kid licked a frozen pole. The ambulance had to come to help him.
Provide Shelter
Many different types of shelters can be made or purchased for cats.

I show some of them in the video below or a list here.

The easiest Do-It-Yourself option is a storage container or a doghouse with insulation and straw added. These shelters are small and help the cat to retain their body heat.
You could also use a shed. After several years of only having the container shelters, we set up a small shed for the cats.

Using a Shed as an Outdoor Cat Shelter for Multiple Cats for Winter
How Many Entrances Should the Shelter Have?
There are different theories on how many entrances the shelter will need. In my area, there are not very many predators for the cats. The most significant risk would be a loose dog.
If there are coyotes or other predators, you might want two entrances to make the cat’s escape easier.

In the shed, we have two entrances. In the other shelters, we only have one.
Only one entrance keeps the cat warmer.  However, we have two entrances in the shed to reduce the chance of a cat preventing another cat from entering or leaving it.
Outdoor Cat Shelter Tips
The entrances to the shelter should be positioned away from the wind. You may also face it towards a wall or brush to reduce the amount of rain and snow that can get it.

You can use straw inside the shelters. Don’t use hay or blankets, which can retain moisture and freeze.
Not all of the shelters sold are 100% waterproof. For example, the K&H Heated Cat Houses are made of fabric that is only water resistant. They must be placed in a shed, covered with a tarp, or used on a covered porch.
Also, I like to have extra shelters in my yard for when a new cat shows up.

During the winter months, my outdoor cats use the shed much more than during warmer months. Somehow they know the shed is the warmest option.
Rescue Friendly Stray Cats
Every cat you see outdoors may not be a feral cat. Abandoned or lost cats may show up at your cat colony location. These cats have lived indoors and do not have the skills to live outdoors.
They might look too thin to live outdoors or appear ungroomed.  Alley Cat Allies has a guide about identifying a stray cat versus a feral cat.

They will struggle to survive, especially in the winter. When possible, the cat should be rescued.
You can also post on social media in community groups, such as on Facebook and Nextdoor, to see if anyone is missing the cat. Or if someone is already looking for their missing cat.
Please look for a rescue or shelter that can take in the cat. The shelters may not be able to help immediately.

We had a stray cat appear in January. I made arrangements with the Humane Society. The weather was about to be extremely cold, so I put the cat in my garage in a cat playpen until the shelter had space for him.
Read Next: How to Help a Sick or Injured Outdoor Cat

Heidi Bender is the writer and founder of the Joy of Cats. She enjoys sharing cat information and providing helpful cat tips. She considers herself a cat lady and currently cares for nine cats.


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