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How to Keep Your Outdoor Cat Warm in Winter

Updated on February 16, 2018

Keeping Your Outdoor Cat Safe and Warm in Winter

For those who care for an outdoor cat, having a suitable shelter is important. A cat's coat is not sufficient protection from winter temperatures below freezing to prevent hypothermia or frostbite. Find out more about how to provide the shelter and protection cats need in winter.

On this page I'll show you what we devised for our three cats and provide some other ideas for affordable alternatives that you can make yourself.

About Outdoor Cats

Although many people feel cats should be indoors at all times, there are a number of reasons why this isn't always the case.

  • Some people maintain feral cat colonies
  • Some people end up caring for an individual stray, which isn't a cat they are willing or able to bring indoors. (severe allergies are a common reason)
  • Others may simply have a cat that won't stay indoors without becoming extremely disruptive and/or destructive.
  • In some cases, individuals live in an area where allowing the cat outdoors poses minimal threat and they feel cats do better physically and psychologically with more time outdoors.

Whatever the reason, if you live in an area with cold winters, it's important to assure any cat that is left out for longer than a few minutes has access to a suitable outdoor cat shelter to protect it from wind, snow, ice, and freezing temperatures.


About My Cats

And How We Put Together Our Outdoor Cat Shelter

Several years ago, my husband and I moved to a rural area. Our home sits about a half mile off of the road, which isn't heavily traveled. Our back and side yards are surrounded by woods and farm land. Just a few months after moving in, we came across three abandoned kittens. We ended up taking them in, neutering, and caring for them.

My husband and I are both allergic to these cats, but since there aren't any "no kill" shelters in our area taking pets, we chose to do the best we could for them. These cats were also accustomed to being outdoors. Although we do bring them inside to eat, they seldom stay longer than an hour or two.

During our first winter we would put them in the garage at night. Unfortunately, this wasn't what they wanted. They managed to scratch and manipulate long enough that they got the door open and fled outside. When we used the dead bolt the next night, they nearly dismantled the door jamb. (yes, we had to replace all of the door trim) We also tried keeping them inside the house.They were fine for about an hour; then it started; howling, leaping, and scratching until I had to give in and let them out.

Clearly this wasn't working.

New Back Door
New Back Door

In the end, we fabricated our own cat shelter. We took the easy route since neither of us is terribly handy.

1. We bought a pet house we found on sale. A bit large for a cat, but we had three of them and they were accustomed to sleeping together. It wasn't an insulated cat house. We installed our own insulation with some styrofoam insulation and downsized the front door so that nothing larger than the cats could get in.

2. We bought and installed a "hound heater" which is mounted on the back wall of the house. We ordered it online. It works perfectly, coming on at the designated temperature and putting off a bit of a glow so that we can always tell that it's functioning just by looking out the window.

3. We also bought a heated cat bed, or actually more of a pad, and put it on the floor of the house.

The cats used their new home for a while but then began avoiding it. We determined that an oposum entered it. Typically, I think cats like to know that if something else comes around there's an escape. So we ended up cleaning out the house to get rid of any odor, cutting a door in the back for a quick exit, and then making sure the house was sitting so that neither opening would expose them to the prevailing wind but also wasn't blocked.

The picture here was taken while we were cleaning it up and putting a "door" in the back. The picture below is of one of the cats entering the house (no insulation in it yet). You can see the heater above and the heating pad on the floor.

As a note: We had to entice the cats with food to stay in their new 2 door home once they had abandoned it earlier. We fed them there for a short time.

New House Without Insulation Yet
New House Without Insulation Yet
The Kitty Tube Gen 3 Outdoor Insulated Cat House with Custom Pet Pillow
The Kitty Tube Gen 3 Outdoor Insulated Cat House with Custom Pet Pillow

Instead of making your own, you can of course purchase an insulated house for outdoor cats. These are particularly useful for ferals. This is one that a neighbor kept and it was indeed used on a regular basis. Other than cleaning it out every few months there was no work involved in using it.

Neighborhood Stray
Neighborhood Stray

More Options for Keeping an Outdoor Cat Warm in Winter

Whether you're concerned about an outdoor pet or feral cats, there are a number of options for keeping these animals safe and warm during the winter. Here are just a few thoughts on how to purchase or build a good outdoor cat shelter.

  • Purchase an insulated cat house at retail stores or online.
  • Construct your own insulated dwelling. You can use styrofoam sheets of insulation, bubble wrap, straw, and more to do the job. Houses can be as simple as a plastic storage tub. (see specific suggestions via links listed at the bottom of the page.) You want the house to be "cat sized"; not too large, with openings that would restrict larger animals from entering. Many cats prefer two doors to allow for a quick escape and some also prefer an elevated location.
  • Get some heating when possible for the cat house. Place the house in the sun but not completely out in the open. Solar pool covers can add a lot of heat in these conditions. Cats feel safer when tucked away, but the sun can help keep it warm. If not in the sun, a simple light bulb installed in the house can help. A device like the Hound Heater uses this idea but helps cut down on the lighting aspect with it's cover.
  • Bedding should be warm too. Straw is often recommended but it should be changed routinely to avoid any dampness. An outdoor heated bed can also work if there is an outlet nearby. They use low wattage and heat only the area where the cat lies.
  • Food and water is needed anytime of year. To assure water is not frozen however, a heated water bowl can be very useful.
  • A thermometer can help you monitor warmth. If you have an outdoor cat that is a pet, I would suggest that you should routinely monitor the temperature of their shelter. If it's not warm enough, they need to come inside. (even my stubborn boys give in at some point)

Outdoor Heated Cat Bed

These beds are designed for outdoor use but generally speaking, they should be under cover (on a covered porch, in a shelter/house, etc.) They aren't suited for direct contact with rain and snow. They require access to an outlet to operate, but they can be left plugged in.

K&H Pet Products Lectro-Soft Outdoor Heated Pet Bed Medium Tan 19" x 24" 40W
K&H Pet Products Lectro-Soft Outdoor Heated Pet Bed Medium Tan 19" x 24" 40W

This was the heated bed we chose. It doesn't really get terribly hot, but where the cat lays on it is warming. I made sure to leave part of the floor uncovered so that they could lay on an unheated area if that is what they preferred. It lasted for 8 years.


A Heated Cat House

Some insulated cat houses come with a heated mat, some can be placed next to a vent with air coming out from your crawl space to help heat it. But for most of us, adding a heater via a bulb or something similar is more reassuring. We used the Hound Heater which you can find here. With this device the bulb is not exposed to the elements as much, the animal isn't subjected to the constant light, nor to the risk of contact with a hot bulb.

More Ideas on Building Your Own Outdoor Cat Shelter


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