How to make a feral cat shelter

Winter is a dangerous time for feral cats. Cold, wet snow and the freezing temperatures that accompany it can be deadly for a cat that lives outside. Unfortunately many feral cats are past the point of being able to be rescued and socialized but that doesn't mean they need to suffer during winter. Many rescuers and feral colony caretakers make and place shelters to help the cats through winter.

Little grey cat looking out from a winter cat shelter

An insulated, dry place to sleep can really make all the difference. A shelter will provide a dry, comfortable place for the cat to get out of the elements. Since many feral cats live in colonies, they will often use the shelters together and the combination of body heat and protection from the elements keeps them much warmer than if they were sleeping on the ground.

The last time my rescue group got together to make cat shelters for the colonies we help I took some pictures. One of our ladies gets medical supplies sent to her daughter weekly in a cooler, so she donated several months worth of coolers to the project. You can also use those big steak company coolers if you get meat deliveries, or even the ones meal kits come in.

How to make a feral cat shelter

To make a cat shelter you'll need:
Large Styrofoam cooler
Thick black plastic
Duct tape

1) Start by marking off and cutting a door for the cat to get inside the shelter. A kitchen knife works pretty good for this.

2) Duct tape the lid onto the base near all four corners.

3) Position the Styrofoam cooler on top of thick black plastic. We used landscaping plastic. 

4) Duct tape the ends closed and reinforce all seams with extra duct tape. 

4 pictures, first 4 steps of making a cat shelter for winter

5) Cut an X into the plastic where the door hole is. 

6) Fold the X inward and put duct tape completely around the door hole to make sure no water can get under the plastic on rainy days.

7) Once the plastic covering is completely attached with duct tape fill the shelter with straw. We use a nice thick layer of straw so the cats can snuggle down in it and stay warm. Don't use hay, it doesn't keep heat in as well.

8) Place the shelters outside somewhat near the feeding area for the feral colony. Try to squeeze them into a secure spot so they cannot blow away easily.

4 pictures, last 4 steps of making a cat shelter for feral cats in winter

Check the shelters after a hard rainstorm and make sure they did not get wet inside. If the straw is wet, simply pull it all out and replace with dry straw.

Lots of people take a Rubbermaid tote slightly larger than the cooler and cut a hole in the same spot as the door hole in the cooler then place the first shelter inside the tote. Fill the space between them with straw for extra insulation. 

Unfortunately we did not have the funds for 40+ Rubbermaid containers...but it's not completely necessary, just an added layer of protection from the elements. 

Where to place a feral cat shelter?

1. Private property with permission: Shelters aren’t allowed on public property without permission of the city/township; or on private property without permission of the owner. They are in their legal right to remove the shelter. 

Many colony caretakers have reported shelters on public land being removed or destroyed by the neighborhood busybody. Ask permission from a neighbor to put the shelter on their property and there's less of a chance it will be messed with.

2. Protect from wind: Place the entrance away from the wind. Place multiple shelters facing each other in a square in order to cut down the wind. If you do this you can also place a sheet of plywood on top the shelters with a couple of bricks to hold the plywood down. 

This will also help keep the elements from entering the shelters. Make sure you leave space between 2 of the shelters for the cats to get in!

3. Platform: Place the shelter up on something (if possible) to keep the bottom out of the rain and snow. For instance, use a wooden pallet, cement blocks, bricks, or lumber.

4. Something heavy on top: Place a brick, board or something else with some weight to it on top of the shelter if you are concerned of high winds blowing the shelter over.

Pile of white cooloers used for feral cat shelters and picture of final product

5. Stability: Make sure the foundation on which you place the shelter is flat and the shelter remains stable, not wobbly.

6. Dry straw: Filling the inside of the shelter with a thick layer or straw acts as an insulator – helping to retain the body heat of the cat. Fill the shelter about half full with straw and the cat will burrow in and create a warm nest for itself. 

Check the straw from time to time. It really only needs to be changed if you are worried about flea infestation or if a critter has defecated or urinated in it or if it got wet. Make sure that you use straw, not hay. Hay holds moisture. Straw is hollow and dries quickly.

7. Under a tent: Build a tent/prop up a tarp to cover the shelters if possible. This will help keep it dry and offer additional protection from the wind and cold. Put a weight on top of the lid to help form a peak for the tent. Cut wooden tent pegs if you have grommets on your tent. Old shower curtains serve well as a tent and can be found cheap in thrift stores.

8. Evergreen branches: Use fresh cut pine branches to weigh down your shelter and to help it blend in with natural surroundings. They can also help protect the shelter from winter winds. Once they are covered in winter snow, they add greatly to the insulation of the shelter and the warmth for the cat.

9. No food or water inside: Do not place food or water in the shelter. It can dampen and soil the straw. 

10. Catnip: Put some catnip near the tunnel entrance to draw cats to the shelter. Don’t put it inside the shelter. Here is how to grow your own catnip.

11. Check often: You'll want to check the shelters often to make sure they are staying put and have dry straw inside. I like to feed the cats in the colony first to draw them away from the shelters before I check them.

Hopefully these shelters will help your entire cat colony make it through the winter with no problems at all!


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