Generally, I endorse keeping pet cats indoors. However, for various reasons, living inside is not always an option. This is the case with most community cats. The majority of these cats are quite feral and moving them indoors is typically not a practical option. There may be other unique situations where a cat must spend at least part of the time outdoors as well. During inclement weather conditions, these cats face dangers that are not present during warmer months.
Even if you are not responsible for the care of any of the many cats that do live outside, your actions may still pose a threat to them. Taking precautions to lessen these dangers could save a feline life.
Antifreeze is one danger that can be especially lethal to cats. Antifreeze is toxic in even small quantities for those cats that ingest the substance. Watch your car for evidence of leaks and clean up spilled antifreeze immediately. Never pour used or discarded antifreeze into the environment. Check with your local sanitation department to find out how to discard of the chemical safely. If you see a cat (or any other pet) drinking antifreeze, notify the owner or caretaker immediately so that veterinary help can be sought.
Ice melt is another potential threat. Some forms of ice melt can damage skin or cause other illness if ingested. Consider using sand or cat litter for traction or use a pet safe brand of ice melt.
Cats seeking warmth and shelter often seek refuge inside a warm car engine. Unfortunately, if the car is started unexpectedly when a cat is resting under the hood, serious injury can result. To help avoid this scenario, before starting a car that is kept outdoors or in a garage which cats can access, bang on the hood of the car or honk the horn. Doing so will usually frighten the cat away from your car and out of harm’s way.
If you are the caretaker for a cat (or cats) that live outdoors, you’ll need to provide adequate shelter as well as food and water. The shelter does not have to be large but remember that cats that live in a colony may prefer to seek shelter together. The size and number of shelters necessary will be determined by the number of cats which need to be housed. Larger shelters, however, are not always better. Smaller areas hold in heat more easily.
A small shelter can be easily constructed through the use of a rubber storage bin with a sealable cover. Simply cut a hole in the side or front of the bin large enough to allow a cat to enter or exit. Straw can be used for bedding and the shelter can be easily cleaned by simply removing the cover, washing the bin, and replacing the bedding as necessary. The shelter will stay warmer if it is elevated and not sitting directly on the ground. Don’t forget to remove snow from the entryway as necessary so that the cats can enter and exit the construction at will.
You’ll also need to make sure the cats in your care have clean fresh water. In cold temperature, you’ll need to check frequently to be sure the water has not frozen. Using insulated bowls can help. If there is a power outlet nearby, a heated bowl may be an option.
Winter months can be brutal for cats forced to live outdoors. But with a little planning and creativity, you can help keep these cats safe and healthy.
Dr. Lorie Huston
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