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How to Keep Your Outdoor Cat Warm in Winter

Updated on July 11, 2018
RuthCoffee profile image

I've owned pets most of my life and volunteered many hours to help others. I've written on topics regarding their welfare for over 10 years.


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.

In this article, 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 a 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 farmland. 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 deadbolt 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 opossum 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" on 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
Kitty Tube - New GEN 4 Design - Outdoor Insulated Cat House w/Pet Pillow
Kitty Tube - New GEN 4 Design - Outdoor Insulated Cat House w/Pet Pillow
Instead of making your own, you can, of course, purchase an insulated house for outdoor cats. These are particularly useful for strays ferals. This is one that a neighbor after seeing how our homemade version was well received by the cats. It was used on a regular basis by a neighborhood stray. Other than cleaning it out every few months there was no work involved in using it. It did seem to heat up in the sun and the insulation was enough to keep the environment adequately warm as temperatures dropped at night. They also had no problems with raccoons getting into the shelter and scaring the cats away. It was probably protected from the intrusion of other wildlife because of a motion sensor flood light located just a few feet away and the intermittent noise caused by windchimes.
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 additional thoughts on how to purchase or build a good outdoor cat shelter.

  • Purchase an insulated cat house at retail stores or online just as our neighbors did.
  • Construct your own insulated dwelling with very little cost. You can build something even more economical than the one we constructed. Houses can be as simple as a plastic storage tub (see specific suggestions via links listed at the bottom of the page.) with styrofoam sheets of insulation, bubble wrap, straw, and so forth to provide warmth.

    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 under 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. You can learn more about the product we chose below.
  • 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. You will see the heated bed we chose below.
  • Food and water are needed any time 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 undercover (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.

We chose the K&H heated pet bed. It didn't really get terribly hot, but it was warming directly under where the cats would lie. We left part of the floor uncovered so that they would be able to lay on an unheated surface any time they preferred. It lasted for 8 years, so I would consider it to be durable.

In our instance, it was used inside of the cat shelter, therefore, it was not exposed directly to snow or rain. We kept our cat shelter next to the house where we could easily keep the bed plugged in during the winter months.

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 and the animal isn't subjected to the constant light or to the risk of contact with a hot bulb.

More Ideas on Building Your Own Outdoor Cat Shelter

© 2010 Ruth Coffee


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