Winter has always made me sad. Not because I dislike the cold or snow, but because if you care for stray and feral critters, you are keenly aware of just how difficult the colder months can be for them. But there are a few things you can do to make their lives a little easier this winter. Simple kindnesses like shelter and extra food and water can save lives, as can things like knocking on the hood of your car before you turn on your engine to make sure that no outdoors cats (or squirrels or even raccoons) have taken shelter there.
If you’d like to give your ‘community critters’ a helping hand this winter, here are a few things you can do to help:
Although you can find ready-made dog and cat houses at your local pet store, it’s easy enough to make them yourself and much cheaper. You might even want to make a day of it with friends or your children. Lots of website’s offer great tips on crafting ‘cat houses’ for feral kitties or strays who might need a little TLC this winter. For a few examples check out the Humane Society’s website, as well as Neighborhood Cat’s website and Alley Cat Allies.
The shelter should be small and cozy to trap in body heat and filled with a material that traps heat like straw, newspaper, or rags. You will want to change out the bedding at least monthly to keep the shelter clean and free of parasites. The most important thing is that the bedding be kept dry. So be sure to place your ‘cat house’ in an area sheltered from the wind and rain.
Fresh Water & Kibble
Be sure to place fresh water and kibble near (by not right beside) the shelters. Leaving food right beside the shelters will attract predators and make the shelters less attractive (and safe) for their occupants.
You can find heated water dishes at most pet supply stores. If they’re out of your budget, then you’ll need to change the water frequently to prevent freezing. Place the bowls in the sun and make sure you choose darker colors that absorb more heat. This will help (but not fully prevent) the water from freezing.
As for food, dry kibble is the easiest to provide (cost-wise and because it doesn’t freeze like ‘wet’ food). But if you can afford some canned cat food, it is always a welcome addition to a feral or stray cats’ diet. If you feed your feral community at a set time each day, the cats will quickly adjust to your schedule and show up while the food is still warm.
You can find many more tips on feeding and caring for feral and community cats on Alley Cat Allies website: http://www.alleycat.org/page.aspx?pid=295. They also have a great network for people who care for stray and feral animals in case you’re looking for help or just a sympathetic ear.
There are also some very simple things you can do to protect outside cats, dogs, and other critters during the winter like knocking on the hood of your car to warn animals who may’ve taken refuge there that you’re about to start the engine. You may also want to honk your horn once so they can take flight before you do.
If you chose to ‘salt’ your drive, be sure to use a pet-friendly agent and not a toxic one. Many de-icers are toxic to animals and harmful to people. You can find animal-friendly de-icers at most larger convenience stores or you can use good old-fashioned salt to clear your walkway.
If you have an indoor dog, always be sure to clean his or her paws after walks in winter. Even if you do choose a ‘safe’ de-icer, your neighbors may not and dogs may pick up residue on their paws. As a rule, it’s always best to clean your dog’s paws after a walk and before they enter the house – or you may want to invest in a good sturdy pair of dog ‘boots.’ You can find them at most pet stores and they’ll keep your dog’s paws dry and clean year-round.
Anti-freeze is another winter danger for pets and stray/feral animals alike. Be sure to keep anti-freeze and all other toxic and poison cleaning agents and car supplies out of the reach of your furry friends. Anti-freeze is yet another good reason to clean your dog’s paws after a walk. No matter how careful you are with your pets, you can’t guarantee that others will be as conscientious.
Consider a Donation
Winter is not only a hard time of year for outdoor animals, but also for those who care for them. You might want to consider donating your time or extra cash to a local organization that cares of stray and community animals. At this time of year, volunteers are always needed to help winter-ize shelters, clean and clear out bedding, and provide food and water to the feral communities that sometimes double in size during the cold months as new animals seek shelter. Even donations of old (but clean) bedding, cleaning supplies, and wet and dry food are welcome.
Winter can be a beautiful time of year. Let’s make sure that it’s a safe and happy one for feral communities too.
P.S. If you’re a little confused about the difference between a feral and a stray cat, here’s a quick primer. But, in general, a stray cat is an animal who has had a home at some point and who is socialized. A feral cat is a wild creature who may or may not seek human attention.
Feral cats often live in colonies with other cats. These colonies, if given a little help, can be safe and stable places for the cats to live out their lives. TNR (trap-neuter-release) helps control the colony population and cut down on disease. Some feral cats may choose to become socialized and may find homes. Others prefer to live their lives ‘wild’ accepting help only when they need it.
Best Friends Animal Society maintains a very happy and successful feral colony in addition to providing support for other animal care networks and adoptions. To learn more about how you can help stray and feral animals near you, you can visit their website.