Are you worried about feral cats’ survival as we get closer to winter? Maybe you’ve seen one and are considering bringing it in, but worry it might bring in diseases?
Feral cats, like any other animal, can and will freeze to death if left exposed to the elements. When subjected to cold winds and moisture for long periods of time, most creatures will develop hypothermia or frostbite. Whether they’re domesticated, stray or feral makes no difference.
In the rest of this blog, I’ll cover what makes a feral cat different from a stray. I will also offer suggestions on what to do if you find, or worry about, feral cats in freezing temperatures.
Table of Contents
What temperatures can a feral cat survive in?
Depending on the country and time of year, a feral cat can survive all year round, though not without difficulty. This becomes significantly harder in naturally colder countries, or those with longer winters.
Generally speaking, cats are comfortable with temperatures over 7 degrees celsius (45 fahrenheit). Lower temperatures than that can prove difficult for cats to survive. When there are cold winds and rain for extended periods of time, this further increases the difficulty of survival for outdoor cats.
When it falls to 0 degrees celsius (32 Fahrenheit) or below, it becomes much harder for cats to tolerate. This is when hypothermia and frostbite can begin to set in. Past this point, there is a high chance the elements will prove too punishing to survive.
What do they do to help themselves?
Feral cats in winter weather are in a constant struggle for survival. They will seek out places of warmth and shelter, however temporary, to stay safe for as long as possible.
Cats will find places to curl up and retain body heat, however small. They’re known to crawl under cars and into wheel arches, sleep under houses, and even dig tunnels in the ground to remain warm. Feral colonies will often find places to huddle together and share body heat. The real struggle is what they do about food and water in the meantime.
What can they eat or drink?
Cats cannot go a very long time at all without food or water. They use lots of energy keeping warm, so water and especially food give them the extra energy need for insulation. Any extra fat, or growing a thicker coat, helps insulate them.
However, as access to food and water slowly disappears, feral cats will find it harder and harder to survive freezing conditions.
As water sources freeze over, feral cats begin to run out of options for clean water, quickly. The small birds they would hunt in warmer months are now surviving on their food caches. Similarly, the rodents they normally predate would have prepared burrows to keep warm. In situations like this, human intervention is one of the few things that can help save a cat.
How can people help?
Your first thought might be to bring them to an animal shelter, but unfortunately, this is no guarantee of safety or survival. Many shelters lack humane policies and programs when it comes to taking care of wild or feral animals. This means the cat is just as likely die from freezing conditions, and the shelters might not provide enough food or water – putting the cat in more danger than it was outside.
If you think you’ve identified a feral cat and wish to help it, there are a few important things you can do, even if the cat is afraid or hostile towards you. Providing food, water, warmth and shelter could make the difference between life and death.
According to PETA, cats should never be left outside in freezing conditions. If you are willing to accept the risks, opening your home to a feral cat will very probably save it’s life.
It can’t come in – what should I do?
If you can’t risk inviting a feral cat into your home – perhaps you have pets & are afraid of parasites and diseases – there’s still lots you can do.
Warmth & shelter
If for whatever reason you can’t invite the cat(s) inside, the next best thing you can do is create an insulated, sheltered area for the cat to rest. As they expend most of their energy keeping warm, this will be an excellent way to help them save stamina.
The most important thing to remember when creating a cat shelter is to keep it insulated from the cold. Don’t line it with materials that will absorb moisture, like towels or blankets. The best material to use would be straw – it’s cheap and available at most garden centres, or even from Amazon.
If you’re thinking of building one, here’s a handy list to get you started! You’ll be happy to know they’re simple enough to make, and you’ll probably already have everything you need.
Food & water
You can leave out food and water, which is the hardest thing for a cat to reliably source in winter. This will provide a massive boon for any feral cats that are low on energy, or are dehydrated. The best food to leave out is dry cat food, as wet food can freeze over. In the same vein, providing water in a rubber or plastic container will go a lot further than a metallic one.
It is important to check the food and water frequently, to make sure it isn’t frozen. If you’re worried a cat might be hungry but isn’t eating, try moving the food and water further away from houses and people. Be sure to provide healthy portions of food – you never know when that cat might’ve eaten last.
Lastly, if you see your food has been eaten, this a good sign! Keep up the hard work, and the cats you feed will have a much, much higher chance of making it through the winter.
So, to answer the question, can feral cats freeze to death – yes, but only if their circumstances are poor, and nothing gets done to help them. As long as they have access to food, water, warmth and shelter, there’s a good chance they survive. Not all will make it, but now you know you can help, the number of feral cats that make it through the winter can only go up!