The Humane Society of the United States estimates that tens of millions of feral cats roam the streets. Due to their sheer numbers and limited socialization with humans, it is impossible to find homes for all of these animals. However, there are numerous ways you can help feral cats in your neighborhood brave the winter weather and bitter, cold temperatures.

Become Informed

One important thing you can do for the feral cats in your area is educate yourself on the feral cat problems in your community, then explore resources at your disposal to help the cause. While studies have shown that feral cats who inhabit developed areas pose no significant health risk to the humans, many people still regard ferals as a nuisance or as pests. It is important to share knowledge of the feral cat overpopulation problem and the ways in which people can humanely work to reduce the amount of feral cats living in their area, for the benefit of the cats and the people in your community. The Humane Society of the United States has an excellent overview of feral cats on their website, as does Alley Cat Allies. Organizations in central Ohio that offer information and assistance for feral cats include PetPromise, Colony Cats (& dogs) and Shelter Outreach Services.

Trap-Neuter-Return

The best way to help ferals is to explore and seek out any Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs in place in your community. TNR is generally considered the only effective and humane approach to feral cat overpopulation. Cats are trapped using humane traps and brought to clinics and TNR providers who spay or neuter the animals. Often the cats are also vaccinated for prevalent conditions like rabies. After recovery from surgery, the cats are released in the same location from which they were taken, and often also given regular access to food and water in their home environment. These cats are then free to continue living in their territories without adding to the feral cat population.

TNR not only reduces the number of feral cats in a given area over time, but also lowers the intake rates of cats at animal shelters. This also lowers the euthanasia rates in these shelters due to overcrowded and inadequate demand for adoptions. It also reduces the spread of disease amongst current feral populations, and helps keep feral cat colonies from growing, since neutered male ferals will still defend and guard their territory from other un-neutered males, preventing them from mating with any un-spayed females and producing more feral kittens that way.

Shelter

Another thing you can do to help ferals is construct a feral cat shelter. Although feral cats may be fearful of humans and not allow you to bring them into your home, you can still provide a warm space to hide out in inclement and cold weather. A variety of easy tutorials and instructions can be found online to guide you in the simple construction of a shelter from items like scrap wood and thick plastic bins. The OAC article Make a Feral Cat Shelter for Under $10 is a good place to start.

Putting the shelter in a quiet and low-traffic place is essential, as ferals are unlikely to take to the shelter if it is around noise and activity, especially from humans. The more inconspicuous the better.

Also, keep size in mind when constructing any type of feral cat shelter. The shelter should be large enough to house several cats, but not too large, or the structure will be too difficult to keep warm by trapping and retaining the body heat of the animals inside. To discourage curious wildlife from disturbing the cats and to help keep it warmer, securely elevate the shelter about four to six inches from the ground with bricks or pallets. Cats will still climb in but other animals may be less likely to enter the space.

The best lining for feral cat shelters is straw. Newspapers are too easily soiled and are impractical if you are not able to regularly check on and change the bedding. Be sure to use straw and not hay, as hay molds easily and does not stay as warm. If you believe certain spots within the shelter will withstand any kind of weather or moisture, you can place a wool or fleece blanket for added warmth, but straw alone is effective and will suffice.

You should also always make sure that food and water are available near the shelter. This will encourage frightened ferals to use the shelter and also make it less necessary for the animals to venture far from the warmth of the shelter to find these things for themselves. Do not place the food and water inside the shelter as it may pose more danger to the feral cats by encouraging other wildlife to enter the shelter while the cats are asleep.

The Humane Society recommends creating two small shelters that face in with the doors across from one another, then attaching a board atop the structures between the two doors, creating a canopy between the shelters. Under this canopy, food and water is accessible and safe from the elements. If you are worried about wet food and/or water freezing, use a thick plastic bowl that is deep and wide, or buy a solar-heated dish.

You Can Make a Difference

By educating yourself on feral cats–and providing the cats sustenance and shelter when it is cold outside–you can do your part to humanely address the cat overpopulation problem. With the help of compassionate human allies who are eager to protect “wild” cats from Mother Nature in its harsher seasons these cats can live happy and healthy lives outside and not contribute to our already overcrowded shelters.—Kelsey Hardin

Kelsey Hardin is a crazy cat lady and graduate of the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. Living back in Columbus where she grew up, she spends her spare time writing, cuddling cats, crafting, spending time with friends, and catching local concerts and theatre shows.

Photo credit: Alex Grichenko