For those of us who love animals and want them to be safe and happy, it can sometimes be hard to contemplate the challenge of outdoor cats. We know how much we hate being outside in the cold, so we feel bad for the animals that live outdoors, especially with winter approaching. However, those of us who live in Northeastern PA are also extremely familiar with the problem of cat overpopulation. There simply isn’t a safe, indoor space for every cat. Additionally, there are some cats that just can’t or won’t live inside; unsocialized community cats are terrified of living indoors, and do much better outside. Even some friendly cats live outside because they don’t use a litter box when inside, or are destructive in the house, or just refuse to live as indoor cats.

So, what do we do? How do we tackle this problem in a positive way? Well, there are a few things that we can think about. First of all, we need to know which cats absolutely shouldn’t be living outside, because something about them means their chances of surviving and thriving outdoors are slim to none. Cats who should not be living outdoors, especially in wintertime, include the very young (small kittens), the immune-compromised or already sick, and animals who do not have something that they would need in order to live safely outside—for example, a thick winter coat, eyesight, ability to run away, a good store of fat to keep them warm, etc. Now, sometimes we don’t have a choice in this matter—if the outdoor cat has a deformed leg or appears to be old and skinny, but is feral and can’t be caught, you may just have to do the best you can and let the animal do the rest. However, if you can safely remove an animal with one of these qualities from the outdoor environment, it would be best for that animal’s quality of life.

Now that we have established that the other cats we are seeing outside are probably okay to be out there, we can look at how we can make sure they’ll be okay throughout the winter. We can do this pretty easily by referencing the five freedoms, a popular idea in the animal welfare world:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst. This one is pretty basic, and surprisingly simple to provide to outdoor cats. We want to make sure we are providing adequate food (remember that keeping warm requires more calories, so cats will eat more in the winter than the summer). You’ll want to keep the food in a place that is close enough to a human environment that pests like opossums, raccoons and skunks won’t take advantage of the easy meal. We also need to make sure water is available, which sounds more challenging with the freezing weather—however, options are available! Changing the water frequently, at least twice per day, ensures that the cats will have access to drinking water for a few hours until it freezes again, providing time for them to rehydrate themselves. Doing this at feeding time gets cats in a routine and ensures that they’ll be close to the water while it’s fresh. Another option is to purchase a heated water bowl, which are relatively inexpensive and simply plug into an extension cord or outlet and keep the water at a temperature just above freezing.
  2. Freedom from discomfort. Our desire to make sure cats are warm enough in winter time is a direct expression of this freedom. Especially when the temperature is below freezing, animals need to have shelter from the elements and a relatively warm place to rest. Now, remember that “warm” to us and “warm” to a cat are not necessarily the same thing—they don’t really need it to be 70 degrees in their shelter to be comfortable. We can provide them with a warm shelter pretty easily and cheaply, if we don’t have a barn or other permanent structure readily available. Feral cat houses are small, insulated areas that can provide a great little den for outdoor cats, reflecting their body heat back at them and keeping them nice and cozy. Check out this link for directions on how to build your own!
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease. Part of this freedom we have already taken care of, with our list of cats that are not well-suited to outdoor life. Cats who are very young, sickly, or are not able to take care of themselves outdoors are more likely to suffer injury or become ill when living outdoors. However, even cats that are well-suited to living outside are at risk for experiencing these things; it’s part of life. What we can do is to try and prevent them if possible, and treat them if they happen. Prevention of disease is mostly in the form of vaccines—difficult but not impossible for feral cats, and definitely something that your friendly outdoor cats should have. However, one very important way to prevent disease is actually spaying and neutering the cats. Not only does this prevent sexually transmitted illnesses (yes, cats have them too!), but it also decreases the likelihood of their exposure to viruses like FIV, which is mostly passed through territory fights between intact males and is transmitted to females by the intact males during intercourse, through biting. Additionally, we can also prevent pain and injury by reducing the risk to our outdoor cats as much as possible. Be mindful of them when setting rat traps, as both poison and the trap itself pose a risk. If you have predators like coyotes, bobcats, hawks and eagles close by, provide a secure place for the cats to take refuge in a place these wild animals are unlikely to go near—a barn, shed, garage or other structure close to human occupation works well, but if you don’t have one of those, placing a feral cat house near a side of your house with little foot traffic also works! If your outdoor cat does appear to be ill or injured, please consult with a vet about the appropriate action to take. Our low-cost clinic can be a good resource for some issues, so please let us know if we can help.
  4. Freedom to express normal behavior. You don’t have to do anything with this one—living outdoors, cats are free to express all their normal behaviors, including hunting, scratching, playing, grooming, and climbing!
  5. Freedom from fear and distress. This last one is a little harder to pin down. We know that for some cats, we are providing them a relief from fear and distress just by allowing them to live outside—it is very frightening and distressing for feral cats to live indoors, so we are providing them this freedom just by letting them stay outside. We also need to accept that fear and distress are sometimes just a part of life—no animal, humans included, is entirely free from fear and distress throughout their entire life. We can minimize fear and distress for our outdoor friends, however, by keeping their shelters away from busy roads and traffic, discouraging predators from entering their territory, and providing all the necessary things they need to survive.

One last thing I feel I must stress—if you are going to take responsibility for feeding and sheltering outdoor cats, you are also responsible for spaying and neutering those animals. When you provide food and shelter, you make the cats more physically able to reproduce, and more likely to have not only more litters of kittens, but also more kittens per litter. This contributes to the overpopulation problem that made these cats homeless in the first place, and makes it more likely that as the population continues to grow, each animal will be less healthy and happy having to fight for the resources that are available. If you are caring for intact outdoor cats, please contact our clinic at or 570-596-2270 to schedule a low-cost appointment for spay or neuter. Your cats will be healthier and happier, and your wallet and resources won’t have to keep providing for an ever-expanding population of cats. It’s win-win!


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