Outdoor cats in cold winters: How they survive in Minnesota

Cat in snow

We've all seen one: the occasional stray cat wandering the streets. You may wonder how they stay warm during these extra cold months, and even be tempted to take one inside where they'd be protected from the harsh winter elements.

Because cats are more capable of seeking shelter on their own (and they can fit into small, protected spaces) they’re less likely to suffer the effects of freezing temperatures. Still, subzero temps can cause serious medical issues like frostbite and hypothermia — both of which can result in death.

So what should you do when you see a cat outside during the winter?

Determine if the cat is feral, a stray, or someone’s pet

The obvious first thing to look for is a collar and/or tag. But even happy, healthy family cats aren't always wearing a collar. If the kitty you encounter isn't wearing a collar, look at body language.

  • Pets or owned roaming cats are generally socialized and are comfortable with people.
  • Strays may have no desire to interact with humans, but will make an appearance when food is around. (And some strays can be just as friendly as owned kitties.)
  • Feral cats want nothing to do with people, and coaxing them with food or treats is completely ineffective. Feral cats are also more likely to injure humans who try to handle them.

Help feral cats in your community

Feral cats are resilient, adventurous, and accustomed to living outside. They don’t want to be around people and don’t want to live inside a home. Since they live in colonies in a territory they know well, they’re able to cope with below zero temperatures. While it's often difficult for some animal lovers to accept feral cats really are happier living outdoors, unlike their domesticated counterparts.

Feral cats seek out abandoned buildings, deserted cars, and even dig holes in the ground to keep warm in winter months (and cool during the summer heat). If you have feral or community cats in your neighborhood, here are a few ways you can lend a helping hand:

  • Set out extra food during winter. Increased food portions help them conserve energy. Wet food takes less energy to digest, but should be served in heated pet food bowls, which can be found at most pet stores. Providing dry food, which won’t freeze, works for frigid temperatures as well.
Outdoor cat shelter
  • Set out fresh water twice a day. Heated pet bowls are perfect for this as well.
  • Make an outdoor feral cat shelter. Bigger shelters aren’t always better because heat disperses quickly.
  • Stray and feral cats gravitate toward warm places in winter. Before starting your car, tap your hood to make sure a cat isn’t hidden underneath the car or inside the engine for warmth. Also, check between your tires and wheel wells.

Caring for community cats can provide a mutually beneficial relationship. Studies show that caring for animals improves people’s mental and physical health by increasing compassion and giving caretakers a sense of purpose.

Learn more about our work to help feral and free-roaming cats.

Bring stray/pet cats inside to prevent frostbite

If a cat approaches you and is willing to socialize, it’s probably an owned pet. Check for an ID tag. If you still don't know where the kitty resides and the temperatures have plummeted below freezing, you may want to bring the cat into your garage, a sheltered porch, or even indoors. At Animal Humane Society, we often see kitties with horrible frostbite during the coldest months of winter, which can mean the loss of external body parts, like limbs or ears.

cat outside

Whether or not you choose to provide shelter, alert your neighbors that a friendly cat might be lost and in need of help. Snap a photo of the kitty and share on your social networks (like Facebook or Nextdoor). You can also post to our Found Bulletin Board.

If no one comes forward to claim the kitty, consider bringing it to Animal Humane Society. Call our Pet Helpline at 952-435-7738 to schedule an appointment. When you arrive, we’ll scan the animal for a microchip and give the animal an initial evaluation for placement.

If you choose to use a live trap during winter months, make sure the trap is placed somewhere that would protect a trapped animal from cold, whipping wind.

Learn more about what to do if you find an animal in need of help.

For caring, compassionate advice and resources to address all your animal concerns.

Contact the Pet Helpline