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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

We have a kitten who came to us during the summer months. We live in the mountains of North Carolina, and we’re wondering about the cold weather. Our cat is strictly an outside cat, but we thought we would put him in the basement on nights that were very cold. Now our question — how cold does it have to be before we bring him in? In other words, how much cold can he stand?

~ Vicki

Long-haired ginger cat in the snow. Image courtesy of The Cat's Whiskers blog.

Image courtesy of The Cat's Whiskers blog

Siouxsie: Although in a perfect world this cat would be able to go indoors whenever he wants, we know there are plenty of legitimate reasons why you might not be able to allow this. We’re grateful to you for caring enough about this kitty to want to keep him safe and healthy this winter.

Thomas: Cats’ cold tolerance varies based on their coat length and coat type. Cats with longer fur may be able to deal with temperatures a few degrees colder than their short-haired kin. Some short-haired cats have soft undercoats that provide a little extra insulation, but others don’t.

Dahlia: But even thick fur doesn’t stop a cat from losing heat. If you’re outdoors on a winter day and you’re not wearing a hat, your head is still going to get cold, even though there’s hair growing on it.

Siouxsie: If it’s too cold for you to be comfortable outdoors in a jacket and jeans, it’s probably too cold for your cat. Any temperature below freezing is definitely too cold!

Thomas: Cats don’t have any insulation on their paw pads. When they walk around in snow, the fur on their feet and legs gets wet and extremely cold, and this can lead to frostbite.

A cat with frostbite on its ears. Image courtesy of Craig Street Cats

This cat has frostbite on his ears. Image courtesy of Craig Street Cats

Dahlia: Cats’ ears have very thin fur, and cats can and do get frostbite on their ears.

Siouxsie: So what can you do to keep your outdoor cat safe? If he’s socialized to humans, you certainly can bring him inside and put him in the basement once temperatures get below freezing.

Thomas: You’ll want to take this opportunity to get him neutered and vaccinated, too. The neutering will reduce urine spraying and other unpleasant behaviors, and the shots will keep him–and you–safe.

Dahlia: Litterbox training may be an issue. If this kitty was ever an indoor cat, he probably knows what a litterbox is and how to use it, and you won’t have any trouble. However, if he’s been an outdoor cat all his life, this may be a little bit more complicated. The ASPCA’s short guide on how to bring an outdoor cat indoors provides information on how to get an outdoor cat used to using a litterbox.

Siouxsie: Is your basement heated, or is it cold and dank? If it’s on the cold and dank side, make sure the cat has a nice, warm bed to snuggle into. This could be something as simple as a cardboard box (not sitting right no the ground, of course) with some old towels inside, or it could be a super-deluxe piece that would be right at home in your living room with your other furniture.

Thomas: We recommend you follow some of the other tips in the ASPCA guide about enriching the cat’s environment so he doesn’t go crazy or get depressed while he’s inside.

Dahlia: You didn’t mention if this cat will let you pet him or approach him. If he does, you’ll have an easier time bringing him inside during the winter. However, if he runs away at the sight of you or refuses to allow you to touch him, he may be a feral cat, which means he’s wild and will never be comfortable with people.

Neighborhood Cats' winter shelter for feral catsSiouxsie: You can protect this cat from the elements even if he is feral and you can’t get him inside. The Neighborhood Cats website provides instructions on how to build a variety of winter shelters for stray and feral cats.

Thomas: Some of these shelters are made of Styrofoam, others of rubber storage totes. Here’s another great winter shelter, this one courtesy of Spay and Stay.

Dahlia: If you’ve got more carpentry skills than money, check out Alley Cat Allies’ plan for building a wooden cat shelter. It’s designed to hold five to seven cats, so you’ll want to scale the size down quite a bit if you’re just housing one.

Siouxsie: Be sure to follow the instructions on proper bedding and how to keep the shelter warm during extreme winter weather, too.

Thomas: Good luck, Vicki. We hope this helps.