Dear Ms. Kitty,
Now that it appears the Colorado winter weather has returned, I’m worried about two neighborhood cats that have been hanging out under my front porch. I’m allergic to cats, so I can’t bring them inside. But I want to do what I can to keep them safe. I’ve already put out food and water. Do you have any other suggestions on how I can help them?

Concerned About the Cold

Dear Concerned,
I appreciate your concern and also applaud your efforts to take care of these kitties in need.

Of course the primary requirement for outdoor animals during cold weather is staying warm and dry. Even with a warmer winter coat, cats will need an extra source of warmth especially at night during freezing temperatures or when extreme wind chill is a threat.

It’s relatively easy to build an outdoor dry, draft-free cat shelter with an opening just big enough for cats to sqeeze through and predators not to follow. A simple Google search for outdoor cat shelter will give you plenty of options – some that can be built with common materials you may already have like insulated coolers or plastic storage bins and duct tape.

Some quick tips are to make sure that the floor is raised a few inches off the cold ground and use straw, not hay for bedding, hay absorbs moisture, and fleece-type blankets that can dry quickly. Make sure to turn the entrance away from the wind and cover with a sturdy flap or thick plastic. If electricity is available you can purchase an outdoor heated bed – but don’t mix electricity with straw – use an extra blanket instead. Also – plan to build the shelter just big enough to house the cats, but not too big to lose precious body heat. Most plans recommend a 2 foot by 3 foot space for 2 or 3 cats.

The cats are going to need extra food during colder weather since keeping warm takes more energy/calories. This is one exception where you can feed an ample amount of wet food, as it is easier to digest and takes less energy to process. But while wet food may freeze you’ll want to provide plenty of dry kibble as well (12-15 ounces total). You can use a birdbath heater to keep their water bowl from freezing. If there is no source of electricity the water will need to be changed out several times a day and refilled with very warm water. Use a deep plastic water bowl which will freeze slower and there’s no danger of the cats’ tongues sticking to metal.

Remember if it snows more than a few inches to keep an entrance under your porch shoveled out so there is always easy access to food, water and shelter and a way to get out. Try not to use de-icing agents near your front porch. The salt and other chemicals used to melt snow and ice will irritate the pads of the cats’ feet.

You might consider putting a cat door into your garage or outdoor shed, but there are some precautions to keep in mind there as well. Warm car engines are dangerous for cats as they may crawl up under the hood looking for warmth. To avoid injury, bang on the hood to scare them out before starting your engine. Commonly stored fluids and cleansers can be poisonous. Antifreeze is a deadly poison, yet it has a sweet taste that is irresistible to cats. Make sure to wipe up spills and store antifreeze and other fluids in cabinets out of reach.

Lastly, if you think the cats could make someone good house pets and they are friendly enough to be handled and transported, you may want to take them to a local no-kill shelter where they have a chance to be adopted out to an indoor home. Make sure first that they don’t actually belong to anyone in your neighborhood! [Some no-kill shelters like Happy Cats require 30 days of continuous indoor living before they can test for contagious viruses.] I hope things go well for you and the cats until warmer weather returns.
— Ms. Kitty