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What I've Learned While Caring for a Feral Cat in a Very Cold Climate

What do you need to do to help a feral through a very cold winter? Here is what I'm doing.

 |  Dec 26th 2013  |   54 Contributions


We have had an outdoor cat visit our house lately. Problem is, our winter has gotten off to a really cold start. We've regularly had nighttime temps ranging from -10 to -35F. This severe weather made me concerned for this cat. What could I do for this boy (assuming he is a boy)? As I've said in previous articles, we don't get a lot of feral cats around here. I live in the woods and the nearest neighbor is a quarter mile away. My hunch is that if there are feral cats around here, they have a low survivability rate. There are so many predators in our woods -- it's one of the reasons my cats don't go out, in addition to the normal risk of car injury, etc.

I wish that every cat could have a warm fire, but I probably need to get okay with the face that some cats don't want a warm fire inside a house.

About the kitty

I can't say for sure that this cat is feral, but one day, I accidentally scared up a beautiful, long-haired cat in our garage. I couldn't get close to him, and he took off. But he seemed to keep coming back to the garage. He has a raccoon mask and long creamy fur. He has ice blue eyes.

The closest I've ever been able to see him is out the window, as he sat at the opposite side of the garage door. Through binoculars, I could see that he is a big cat, with big legs and paws and a wide face. I assumed he was male because of his size. I was able to see the color of his eyes once (through binoculars) as he intently watched a squirrel at the bird feeder.

When the sun was high, on a balmy -9 afternoon, the cat came out of the garage and groomed his face.

What we've done so far

We started leaving the garage door just open enough at night so that the cat could come and go, and crawl under the door. I've seen him doing this, so I know he figured it out. I started feeding him and giving him warm water. Additionally, I built a shelter for him, based in part on this Catster article. However, I'm not sure he has ever used it (the fleece I put in the bottom of it is never pressed down). It may be too small. I'm thinking about cutting a rear exit in the shelter so he doesn't feel trapped or enclosed.

I also had an extra litter box, and I thought that I'd put it out there and see if he used it. Sure enough, he did! But his use is sporadic. Sometimes I'll find big poops in there, sometimes nothing. He has urinated in the box, as well.

Our garage is not heated, and I worried about him getting cold, especially if he wasn't using the shelter I built. But the garage seems to be doing the trick, even though it is big. If I can trap him, he'll be neutered and vaccinated.

The shelter. The inner layer is a styrofoam cooler. I stuffed insulation between the cooler and the blue tub, including between the top layers.

Is he really feral?

Good question. Not having a lot of experience with ferals, once the litter box was out and I saw that he was using it, I wondered if a feral cat will use a box. Readers, can you help? I did a quick browse of online articles, which suggest that a feral might need to be trained to use a box. However, I thought that all cats had the inclination. However, maybe he's not feral and just a very scared stray? I can't be sure. I can't get anywhere near him. He's not interested coming in to the heated house.

Here's what I've learned

I've been amazed at his ability to survive these cold temperatures. Area vets have told me that outdoor cats can survive around here if they have shelter, but I always doubted that. Heck, sometimes I'm not sure I can survive it! However, I think it is very cat dependent and shelter dependent. This cat is big and has a long thick coat. Our garage is not heated, but the only open space in it is the space under the garage door. I'm also learning to try not to worry, and I think every feral caregiver goes through this.

I haven't seen him in a few days, though the food is being eaten. I worry that he'll get too comfortable on the warmer days, stroll around, and get snatched by some predator. Caring for ferals takes a special love and toughness.

So, readers, especially those of you who care for ferals or strays in a tough climate, what have you found? We can all learn from each other -- please share your tips in the comments!

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About Catherine Holm: Told that she is funny but doesn’t know it, accused of being an unintentional con artist by her husband, quiet, with frequent unannounced bursts into dancing liveliness, Cat Holm loves writing about, working for, and living with cats. She is the author of the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, the creator of Ann Catanzaro cat fantasy story gift books, and the author of a short story collection about people and place. She loves to dance, be outside whenever possible, read, play with cats, make music, do and teach yoga, and write. Cat lives in the woods, which she loves as much as really dark chocolate, and gets regular inspiration shots along with her double espresso shots from the city.

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