A group of feral cats.
A group of feral cats. Photography ©Songbird839 | Getty Images.

How to Make an Outdoor Cat Shelter

It’s winter … and you've noticed some community cats roaming your area. Make an outdoor cat shelter to keep them warm, healthy and safe. Here's how.


Making an outdoor cat shelter is a project that saves cats’ lives. When John Medaglia built his home on a wooded street in rural Long Island, he didn’t realize the property was already inhabited. As a lifelong animal-lover, he was undaunted to find free-roaming cats settling in under his porch. He strategized on the best ways to help the cats. After making sure all the cats were fixed (via Trap-Neuter-Return aka TNR), he quickly began building outdoor cat shelters. Surprisingly, outdoor cat shelters are as cost efficient as they are easy to make, and they’re a game-changer for community cats.

How does something simple like an outdoor cat shelter save lives?

Outdoor cat shelter made by John Medaglia.
Outdoor cat shelter made by John Medaglia. More details on this type of outdoor cat shelter,  below! Photography by John Medaglia.

“Outdoor cat shelters are literally the difference between life and death,” says Donna Baldridge, community cat expert. Donna has been running a successful feline feral program in conjunction with the North Fork Animal Welfare League for over a decade. The benefits of an outdoor cat shelter to the cats are multifaceted. “Cats seeking refuge from the elements can put themselves in dangerous situations – from being injured in a car engine to being trapped in a basement or accidentally locked in a shed; an outdoor cat shelter mitigates these threats.” She also emphasized that having access to an outdoor cat shelter dramatically reduces the risk of serious illnesses like upper respiratory infections. Upper respiratory infections, if left untreated, can result in blindness and can be fatal.

You don’t have to be a cat expert to be part of the solution to animals facing the death sentence in shelters across the country. According to Austin Pets Alive!’s Cat Program manager, Monica Frenden, “70 percent of cats entering the shelter system die.”

Donna’s work with the North Fork Animal Welfare League is a testament to TNR’s lifesaving properties: the North Fork has a 97 percent save rate for dogs and cats. Managing a sterilized community cat colony requires a few straightforward ingredients: food, water and shelter. And you don’t need an architectural degree to make a fabulous outdoor cat shelter!

It’s easy to build an outdoor cat shelter! Here’s how.

Outdoor cat shelter.
Outdoor cat shelter. Photography by Denise LeBeau.

Building a DIY (do-it-yourself) outdoor cat shelter is inexpensive and easy. Feline internet darlings Cole and Marmalade shared a great minute and a half video on how to create one.

Materials needed for an outdoor cat shelter:

Outdoor cat shelter.
Outdoor cat shelter. Photography by Denise LeBeau.
  1. Large plastic tote (with removable lid)
  2. Styrofoam cooler
  3. Straw
  4. Knife

Assembling an outdoor cat shelter is as easy as 1-2-3-4-5:

Outdoor cat shelter.
Outdoor cat shelter. Photography by Denise LeBeau.
  1. Cut hole in plastic tote
  2. Place Styrofoam cooler into tote
  3. Cut hole in Styrofoam cooler (align cooler and tote holes – this is the entrance way)
  4. Add straw for bedding
  5. Replace Styrofoam cooler cover and tote cover
Outdoor cat shelter.
Outdoor cat shelter. Photography by Denise LeBeau.

The removable lids on the tote and the cooler make changing the straw a simple task! “This one-hour project saves countless lives,” extols Donna.

Get creative with your outdoor cat shelter

Outdoor cat shelter.
Outdoor cat shelters made from dog igloos. Photography by John Medaglia.

In addition to the tote/cooler/straw community cat outdoor shelters, there are other sliding-scale, cost-efficient items available to create perfect year-round shelters.

“For the dozen community cats in my colony, I use mostly dog house igloos,” shares John. He buys used dog igloos off Craigslist for about $20 each. Other than the initial cost of the igloos, it’s mostly free as they’re lined with old bedding. “They’re great because they have a relatively small entrance but a large interior.”

As John built his house, surplus materials were readily available. One of his community cat structures is constructed like a mini-house with a rubberized roof. For handier folks, John recommends repurposing wooden pallets. They’re not only free (ask your local retailers!), pallets are also good for using as a base for a variety of cat enclosures, especially for areas of the country that experience a lot of rain or snow.

Pro-tips for outdoor cat care

A group of feral cats outside.
What are the dos and don’ts of feral cat care? Photography ©metamorworks | Getty Images.

Caring for a community cat colony isn’t complicated but there are some best practices. The following pointers can help keep the outdoor kitties happy, healthy and safe:

  • Place the outdoor cat shelters away from their feeding stations. (This helps keep wild animals away from slumbering cats.)
  • Mulch piles can act as a natural heating source. (You can place the structures atop the pile.)
  • Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences blog recommends taking sick or old cats and kittens indoors if it’s below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are unable to bring a cat inside, adding additional bedding or insulation to the structures is advised. Also, increasing their feeding portions is a great way to ensure the kitties are getting the calories they need to maintain proper body temperatures!
  • Clear snow from entrance and exit ways (Click here for more tips on keeps cats safe in winter.)

While community cats can be secretive, the formula for saving them is no secret: creating outdoor cat shelters is a direct lifeline to saving the most at-risk companion animal demographic in the nation. For the cost of two lattes and an hour to spare, you can be a real savior for animals in need.

Thumbnail: Photography ©Songbird839 | Getty Images. 

Read more about outdoor cats on Catster.com:

2 thoughts on “How to Make an Outdoor Cat Shelter”

  1. An easier outdoor shelter for me (72 years) is a 10 gallon(single cat) or 18 gallon(for a couple buddies-but even good buddies have a falling out so I do singles usually) storage tub with a 4 inch wide hole close to the top of the tubs smallest side. I put a large stepping stone in the bottom to prevent the tub from tipping over. Under the stone I carefully spread a 1/8 cup of medical grade orthoboric powder to keep ants, fleas, earwigs, etc. under control. Over and around the stone I tightly pack hay until the tub is half full(pack it tight it will expand later). Place the top on tub and secure it by poking a couple (small as possible) holes through the edges of both the top and bottom of all 4 sides and securing with small zip ties. If necessary I can quickly snip the ties and replace them but the lid won’t fall off. Finish by stuffing the box with all the hay you can while the lid is fastened on and with gloves and long sleeves, burrow a hole into the middle toward the back to make a nest but leave some hay all around. Check for a few days to make sure there is still hay above the nest hole and if you have to loosen the hay up some or pull some out to help the cats bed down. The tops of the tubs will break if under pouring rain or sat on or in full sun. Hidden under bushes works for longest for me and water cannot splash in the opening easily. I broke the stone so I could lift it. I put all except the first tub together where I wanted it. I bought a $10.00 wood burning kit from the lumber yard to make the door and poke tiny holes in the edge. CAUTION: Cats are not the only animal that shelters in the hay box.

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