While walking through my parking lot one winter, I came across a trail of small paw prints in the snow, but then to my astonishment the prints came to a dead end. Although I looked as far as I could see, there was no sight of a small cat. It was – 40 Celsius outside. I had difficulty sleeping that night. Two days later, I came across several found kitten reports. It was then I realised why the paw prints in the snow had abruptly ended; the kitten had been picked up by a kind stranger.
Nobody claimed this lovely tortoiseshell kitten with a pink collar, who was appropriately named “Dolly” by her finder. How could anyone be so cruel as to abandon a kitten, especially in -40 temperatures where she would not have survived the night? Fortunately, Dolly’s situation ended happily; however, I couldn’t help but think of the other cats out there in the cold. The long Canadian winters are not only hard on humans like myself, who dislike the bitter cold, but for many abandoned and feral cats our winters become their death sentence; they have no place to escape to indoors to keep warm. It was then I decided I would build a cat shelter just in case a wandering cat nearby needed a warm place to stay.
I understood building a shelter wouldn’t be that difficult or expensive, and because I knew several people from the MEOW Foundation in Calgary, who built cat shelters as part of their TNR program, I was not short of advice. Now, having made one shelter, I wanted to share the information on building a cat shelter with others in hopes that they, too, might make it a fun project for themselves, and perhaps save a cat’s life too.
In all the years I’ve put out my cat shelter during the winter months, I honestly cannot say if a cat has ever used it, although I once caught sight of a young jack rabbit hiding behind it while sheltering from the cold. Still, it makes me feel better that at least the shelter is there and may help a cat to survive the bitter cold.
Building a Cat Shelter
Decide on a flap or open entrance / exit for your cat shelter. An exit needs to be included when building a cat shelter to help protect the cat should he / she be threatened by an unexpected intruder. When cutting into the front and back of the container using a utility knife, make sure the entrance / exist is cut so that the hole / flap is big enough for a cat to crawl into / out of, but not big enough for larger animals to enter. If choosing a flap, then make sure the plastic has some flexibility in it by bending the cut out flap several times.
Place the ceramic tiles on the bottom of the tub. The tiles will help to add weight to the shelter to prevent it from blowing away.
With your utility knife cut the Styrofoam into blocks one at a time. The idea is to place the blocks on the bottom, sides, and eventually under the lid of your home-made shelter; however, before placing each block into position, cut enough of the Coghlan emergency blanket to wrap around each block. (The thermal blanket looks like a silver sheet and is often used by EMS services to keep a person warm in an emergency situation.) Secure the wrapping with scotch tape just as if you were wrapping a gift for someone.
Position the wrapped blocks first tightly on the bottom and then around the sides, while trying to avoid creating gaps as much as possible. The bottom of the lid should be last, and for this part of your shelter you will need to use duct tape to hold the strips / blocks into place.
Test to make sure the lid fits securely and snaps into place without any of the strips becoming dislodged.
Remove the lid and fill the shelter with enough straw on the bottom and around the sides to provide added warmth and bedding. Avoid using hay, newspaper or towels. Straw will absorb wetness and dry out. Replace the lid so it snaps securely into place. Voila! You have now built a cat shelter that will provide warmth from the cold. Place the shelter in a secluded area that is unlikely to be disturbed by people. You may want to add additional weight or camouflage. For my cat shelter, I covered it with burlap but in a manner that doesn’t completely hide the entrance / exit; the burlap ends are tucked under the base and a garden hose is placed on top to prevent the cover from blowing away.
If you are aware that a stray cat is using your cat shelter then please provide food (both wet and dry), in addition to fresh water, daily. Since water freezes during extreme cold temperatures, then to help overcome this problem use Styrofoam to build a lidless box so that the sides are of the same height as the dish (it is best to use a deep plastic water dish). Use the leftover Coghlan thermal blanket sheet to cover the Styrofoam. Position the dish snug into the box. Fill the bowl with warm water rather than cold. Remember to change the water daily. Also, if you notice a buildup of snow around the shelter entrance and exit, then clear these areas without causing too much of a disruption that will cause the cat to become stressed.
If the visiting cat has visible signs that he belongs to someone, i.e. a collar with a tag, then create a lost cat report describing the cat and if possible upload a photo of the cat into the report. There are several lost / found pet services offered online. Never return a cat to a person claiming the found cat is theirs without proof of ownership, i.e. adoption or vet paperwork. If you suspect the cat is feral (these type of cats, while seeking shelter and food, will avoid human contact), then check to see if there is an organization in your area that has a TNR (Trap Neuter and Release) program. TNR is the only humane solution to controlling the feral cat population. If you are unsure if the feline is an abandoned scared cat or a feral cat, then check with one of the no-kill animal rescue groups in your area. When describing the cat’s behaviour a TNR coordinator should be able to determine the type of cat observed utilizing your cat shelter.