Weather.com is predicting the “Coldest Arctic Outbreak in at Least Two Decades” will hit the Midwest this week, so we wanted to send out this special edition of the Cat Faeries Newsletter because saving the lives of feral/community cats is critical. We did not include our usual photos of customer’s cats (which this month are calicos and torties) as we wanted to get this important message out right away. We’ll send another newsletter later this week with our usual “cute video” and the cat of the month… plus a sale!
We asked A Friend of Cat Faeries who is a good researcher and a great friend to all cats including the ferals and community cats what she does in her super cold upper Mid West Winters. Here’s her report on REALLY easy to make shelters with lots of links to which she’s made her comments. She also gives us her own personal instructions which have been tested and perfected over many years.
To make a cat shelter
An outdoor cat shelter can be easily made in several ways. What works very well are those knee-high Rubbermaid tubs with the snap on lids or a large Styrofoam cooler. I’ve done both. The Rubbermaid tubs do weather over time, becoming brittle after 3 years or so, but they’re very sturdy and cats do use them easily.
Rubbermaid Tub – I use the Rubbermaid Roughneck 25 gallon storage container. They cost around $6 each, generally come in blue or gray and are knee high. You can find them your local hardware store or a big box store.
You will need to cut a 4 or 5” circle into the side of the tub about 4” above ground level, to avoid splash back with rain or snow burying the entrance. You can cut with a box cutter, but make sure you don’t have the blade slide unexpectedly, be careful. The plastic is fairly thick. I used a saw to do it. Use a file to smooth down the rough edges as much as you can.
Find a cardboard box that will fit into the Rubbermaid bin snugly, set it inside with open end up and put a pad of folded newspapers under the cardboard box. Draw a circle on I where the side meets the hole you just cut. Cut out the circle on the cardboard. Slide more folded newspapers in around the box on three sides which provides excellent insulation. You can use straw instead of newspapers if you have it.
Inside the cardboard box put a layer of straw or a folded blanket. Straw is usually recommended but I’ve had cats pee in it and it’s easy to remove and start over – if there is urine present, they don’t want to use the shelter afterwards. If you use a folded/rumpled blanket inside, you’ll need to check it once a week to make sure moisture wasn’t tracked in and cause the blanket to freeze. The blanket will need to be washed at least every few weeks as well in fragrance free soap and dried in a dry sheet free drier.
I really love the outdoor farm animal heating pads that can be plugged into an outdoor outlet or garage outlet. They cost in the range of $40 from a farm store and has worked fine for 5 years now. It’s only plugged in during winter but left inside the shelter year-round. It has a fleece covering on it which definitely needs to be washed every two months or so. To allow for the cord to be used, you’ll need to cut a 1 ½” wide hole at the bottom of the bin and cardboard box to feed the electrical cord through. The wattage used by the heating pad is minimal, it never overheats and it provides a lot of warmth for the cat WITHOUT requiring the use of straw or a blanket in the box. In fact, the instructions on the pad is that it not be covered by anything or have anything other than a bare surface under it.
If the cardboard box has flaps on the top, fold them closed and add more newspapers on top. If there are no flaps, set a piece of cardboard over the top and add the newspapers. Snap the Rubbermaid lid back on and set a brick or something weighty on top to avoid wind from lifting the lid off.
Placement of the shelter should be near a garage or under bushes with the hole facing away from the main wind direction. One too close to a door of a house may spook the cats so the garage area is often going to feel safer for the cats. I’ve noticed that the shelter near my side door isn’t used anywhere near as often as the one in the back.
Styrofoam Container – I found a pair of knee high flat sided coolers at Goodwill for $3 each. They were square which is what you want, you do not want one with slanted sides. This link shows the type similar to the ones I found (though it’s rectangular). https://www.indiamart.com/proddetail/foam-corrugated-box-7986443148.html
Slant sided coolers have less interior space so try to find one that’s vertical sided. Look for coolers that are 16 – 20 inches tall. When I cut a small hole in mine, I first made it 3” wide but didn’t think a cat could get into that. My Siamese didn’t even hesitate, she took one look and snaked into it in three seconds. Given that she’s a small cat and the outdoor ones are generally larger, I made the hole a bit larger, at 4 ½” and that works fine for any adult cat I’ve seen outside.
If you use this type for a shelter, the Styrofoam is very easily cut with a steak knife. Place the hole above ground level. A 4 or 5” round hole is easily sawed in and large enough for an adult cat (but not a raccoon and generally not an adult opossum to get in). I made mine wider by taking two of the knee-high coolers and cutting out one side of each and duct taping them together to make an extended shelter. The lids were duct taped too, and to avoid any rain seeping into the shelter from the top I set a wide plastic sheet over it and anchored it down with two bricks. Coolers are generally white, which blends well with white siding or white walls on structures. You can put a tarp over the container if you wish, also, for coverage, anchoring the sides down with a weight of some sort.
You won’t need to use a cardboard box inside these because Styrofoam is an excellent insulator by itself. Adding a heating pad, blanket or straw inside is going to work just fine. Make sure to place the opening AWAY from the major wind direction.
For a cat to feel even safer, a second hole can be cut for a quick exit, but I’ve found that heat doesn’t stay in the shelter as well when you do that UNLESS you hang a towel over that second hole, attaching it to the outside of the shelter. If it’s inside it’s not going to stay in place, so outside is the only way. It can be glued or have a weight on it, but it should be done in such a way as to keep the wind from blowing it off kilter. You don’t want wind to howl through from hole to hole, that reduces the ability of the cat to stay warm inside.
My Rubbermaid shelter lasted 3 years before the plastic cracked due to weathering and I had to replace it. My Styrofoam shelter has been in use for almost 7 years with no damage.
Links and my notes
Humane society Rubbermaid bins using a Styrofoam box inside instead of cardboard.
One using TWO Rubbermaid bins, nestled together.
Styrofoam shelter raised up on wood chocks to avoid rain splash back.
Styrofoam shelter (hole is TOO big on the left one, right one should not have the cover on the bottom, it can shift off its foundation.
From the UK which also discusses hedgehogs!
Bottom picture (hole is still too big)
Fresh snow is helpful as it shows fresh paw prints, so you know if a cat came in or out for shelter. It also tells you if they are not using it which would indicate something inside needs cleaning. Look for urine, feces and vomit. If you find feces that do not resemble a cat’s it could be from an Opossum. The hole is usually too small for a raccoon.