Outdoor cats in cold winters: How they survive in Minnesota

Cat in snow

All of us have 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 it’s warm. So what should you do when you see a cat outside during the winter? 

First, determine if the animal is a feral cat, a stray, or someone’s pet. 

Pets or owned roaming cats are generally socialized and have had contact with people, while feral cats live solo or in colonies and are bonded to the other cats who live in their colony. 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.

Bring a stray/pet cat inside to prevent frostbite

If a cat approaches you and is willing to socialize with you, then it’s probably an owned pet. Check for an ID tag, and if you’re still unsure of where the kitty normally resides and the temperatures have plummeted below freezing, bring the cat 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, such as limbs or ears.  These animals aren’t used to being outside in such cold temperatures and can get in trouble in just a few minutes.

Leave feral cats be

Feral cats are different. These cats are resilient, adventurous, and accustomed to living outside — that’s what they know and love. They don’t want to be around people and don’t want to live inside a home. They live in colonies in a territory they know well, so they’re able to cope with below zero temperatures. Sometimes they seek shelter in a barn or outdoor building, while others might build warmth through vegetation.

If you ever come across a cat who’s ear has been tipped, they’re likely feral or have already been deemed poor candidates for adoption. The ear tip means they’ve been identified as a “community cat” and were returned to their home through a process called Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR). TNR is a popular method for controlling the community cat population. These cats are trapped, then spayed or neutered, and then returned to where they were trapped.

Help feral cats in your community

In many community cat colonies, humans help from afar by providing shelter, food, and water. With access to these basic necessities, community cats are better able to handle harsh winter weather.

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. 
  • 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 cats in winter gravitate to warm places. 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.

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

Contact the Pet Helpline