Winter is a hard time for all animals living outdoors, and harder still on stray cats. Despite beliefs to the contrary, cats don't just "get along" outdoors all by themselves, living on mice or other small prey. Cats are domestic animals. Most that are abandoned in the wild die in the first few weeks. Those that survive suffer from parasites and disease. Winter may finish them off from cold or starvation.
What can be done to help stray cats? Providing the basics - food, water, and shelter - is a good place to start. Taking measures to control the stray cat population through spaying and neutering will help even more.
Winter's cold takes its toll on outdoor animals. They need all the good nutrition and calories they can get. When temperatures drop below freezing, fill the bowls for your strays with high-quality kitten food. Its higher fat and vitamin content will help give cats the extra energy they need. Provide several bowls in different locations to reduce territorial fights, but do place them where you can tend to them easily.
During freezing weather, animals have a hard time finding water to drink. Check water bowls daily and dump out any ice that forms. Keep a water bowl in a frost-free place if you can, such as a garage or shed. You could also set up a ground-level bird bath with an electric bird bath warmer to keep water at a temperature just above freezing.
Garden sheds, garages, and even dog houses with straw inside can provide a place for cats to get in out of the rain and frost. Prop the door open just enough for a cat to squeeze inside. Use heavy rocks, bricks, or a chunk of wood to keep raccoons from pulling a shed door open further.
For shy strays that won't come near the house, some caregivers build cat shelters from outdoor plywood. Provide front and back doors small enough to allow cats in but exclude raccoons. A large shelter can have baffles inside to prevent wind from blowing straight through, and straw inside for insulation. Even a wood pile or a piece of plywood leaning against a wall or a fence can provide a dry place for a stray cat to rest.
An inexpensive insulated shelter for one cat can be built from two of the largest plastic tubs you can find, one slightly smaller than the other. The smaller tub fits inside the larger one, and the space in between is insulated with styrofoam or bubble wrap. A door is cut in one end or in both ends, and the interior of the small tub is lined with loose straw for burrowing in. With the lid on top to keep out the rain, the shelter provides a warm, dry nest.
Spay and Neuter
If you feed stray cats, you'll get even more strays as those cats have kittens. Winter is a good time to trap and alter strays that you've been feeding. Any kittens they have will be independent and they won't be in breeding season yet. Many shelters offer spay/neuter assistance, and some veterinarians will offer low-cost spaying if no other assistance is available.
To trap a stray, get a large live trap, which can be rented at equipment rental supply companies. Cover the trap with a blanket and line the bottom with a light dishcloth or towel to hide the trigger mechanism. Wire the trap open and place food inside. When you see that the cats are taking the food, set the trip mechanism. Stay within hearing range by so that you can move the trap to a safe, warm place as soon as the cat is caught. Transport to the vet as soon as possible. It would be kind to have a large dog crate prepared for the cat's recovery when it comes home. Let the cat rest overnight at least before letting it out. Females should not be turned loose in freezing weather right after spaying, since their bellies will be shaved. Either keep them indoors longer, or spay them in late summer or fall. Kittens, if caught before six weeks of age, can be tamed and adopted.
Beyond The Basics
If there are friendly strays that you've gotten attached to, but that are not yet tame enough to come indoors, you may feel inclined to provide more deluxe accommodations. In a garage, shed, or other safe, dry place you might provide a soft cat bed. Line the inside with a fleece blanket that can be washed and dried easily. For frosty nights, the microwaveable Snuggle Safe, available from most online pet stores, provides eight to ten hours of gentle warmth. Try offering cat toys on long strings, such as the irresistible Da Bird. Interacting with the cat will help you determine if there's hope that this cat can someday come indoors. Taming and adopting a stray is, after all, the best way to help a stray cat through the winter.