Every winter, I’m extra grateful to have my cats with me indoors. I love watching the three of them cuddle on the couch, knowing they are safe and warm even as the temperatures are dropping and the sky is spewing ice pellets outside. They’re my favorite bad-weather buddies, and they never judge me for taking two naps in one afternoon when the roads are too bad to leave the house.
I know my cats are more resilient than I give them credit for – they are, after all, finely tuned killing machines covered in thick layers of warm fur. I also know not all cats are as lucky as Bubba Lee Kinsey, Phoenix and Salvador – I see that every day driving down the street in my neighborhood, where feral cats and kittens often lurk behind abandoned homes or bushes. But even the most resilient kitties can use a little help staying warm and healthy during the winter months.
In Bethesda, Maryland, Alley Cat Allies is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the humane treatment of cats. In addition to outreach and advocacy on behalf of stray and feral cats — community cats, as it were — the group, which was founded in 1990, focuses efforts on providing food and shelter for outdoor kitties during harsh winter weather.
“Cats live and thrive outdoors in all kinds of climates,” says Becky Robinson, president and founder of Alley Cat Allies. “But a little extra help during the winter months can go a long way for protecting community cats.”
To ensure community cats have protection from the cold in the wintertime, Alley Cat Allies offers the following tips:
- Provide shelters to keep cats warm. Shelters are easy and inexpensive to build – an insulated storage bin, for instance, makes a great shelter – or they can be purchased online. Alley Cat Allies offers a do-it-yourself video for beginners. (I also wrote a guide on building a low-cost shelter in 2013.)
- Insulate shelters with straw. Straw is cheap and plentiful, and it repels moisture.
- Remove snow from all shelter entrances and exits. It’s important to keep cats from getting snowed in.
According to Alice Burton, associate director of animal shelter and animal control engagement, community cats are often healthier than people think – and oftentimes they’re doing well enough living outdoors. But she also points out that a little human intervention can go a long way.
“In Atlantic City, we’ve got our boardwalk cats, Tooh and Tux. These are cats that live there, they’re healthy, we’ve got shelter for them, we’ve got feeding stations, we’ve got volunteers out there daily taking care of them – and they’re thriving. Without Alley Cat Allies, we don’t know if they would have it as well. Alley Cat Allies does a tremendous job taking care of them.”
Alley Cat Allies also provides some guidelines for ensuring outdoor cats are getting enough food and water in the winter:
- Increase food portions to help cats conserve energy and stay warm. Canned or wet food, which takes less energy to digest, should be in insulated containers. Dry food, which will not freeze, also works.
- Keep water from freezing to prevent dehydration. To keep water drinkable, use bowls that are deep rather than wide and place them in a sunny spot. Or use heated electric bowls.
Burton also points out the benefits of spaying and neutering. and an effective trap-neuter-return program. Before coming to Alley Cat Allies, she worked for animal control in Arlington County, Virginia, where she learned the benefits of TNR firsthand.
“We started TNR for community cats in 2009,” Burton says. “Unfortunately, I was not a supporter of TNR at that time when the shelter decided to implement the program, so I wanted nothing to do with it. After about six months, I realized it was an effective lifesaving tool. I saw the positive benefits it had on the community and the cats – and the shelter staff. At that point I jumped right in and became a supporter.”
One of the biggest benefits turned out to be a drastic reduction in the number of nuisance calls the animal control office received regarding the community cats. Within five years, Burton says the office saw a decrease from more than 900 calls in 2009 to 40 in 2015.
“You’re not just getting fewer calls,” Burton says. “What that indicates is your community is much happier with the cats that are out there.”
The remaining community cats are happier and healthier, too, having received veterinary care at the time of their spay or neuter surgery. TNR also leads to behavior modification among cats, resulting in fewer fights and a reduction in unwanted kittens. When cats are rereleased into their outdoor communities following TNR, Burton says, it’s important to remember they’re going to be just fine outdoors.
“We need to remember that cats are okay outside; they just need some help,” she says. “They are outdoor animals, but we need to make sure they have shelter. Alley Cat Allies is a great resource. If you know someone who has some community cats, don’t be afraid to reach out and see if you can help them and give them some pointers.”
More winter weather tips for outdoor cats are available at Alley Cat Allies’ website.
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