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Can cats live outside in the winter?

Some cats are simply not indoor cats. They are perfectly happy outside, and they aren’t comfortable being indoors. If you have this type of cat, you probably worry about leaving them outside in the winter. 

You may also notice community cats, and wonder how they make it through the cold temps. 

Should you bring cats inside in the winter? How do you know if its too cold for your cat to be outside? 

Can cats live outside in the winter?

The short answer is, yes, they can. Cats are considered domestic animals, but they are still essentially wild in many ways. They still have the same survival instincts as their wild counterparts. 

As a species, cats are highly adaptable. They live on every continent except Antarctica. Some big cats can live in both very hot and very cold temperatures. Tigers roam the jungles, and the Siberian tiger lives in the harsh cold mountains of northern Russia. 

However, there are risks for cats outside during the cold months. Just because they can live outside during the winter doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for your cat. 

Cat Metabolism

During the winter, outdoor cats need more calories. They burn calories to keep their body temperature up. This is one way they survive cold temperatures. 

Cats will instinctively be hungrier in the winter, with outdoor cats needing 20% more calories than they do in the summertime. Indoor cats do not have increased calorie needs, but they will also feel hungrier. 

Their appetite increases because their bodies are designed to handle the cold temperatures. To avoid cat obesity, you should keep an eye on your cat’s diet in the winter months, if they stay indoors. 

Cold Weather Activity Level 

Outdoor cats will also have an increased activity level during the winter. Movement helps keep their body warm. Their increased calorie needs also mean that they spend more time hunting through the cold months. 

Cat’s Coats

Cats coats have two layers. The top layer is the layer that’s visible. It will have a distinctive pattern. Your cat will spend time licking it to keep it clean and matt free. However, there’s another layer beneath this layer. 

They also have an undercoat that is designed to provide insulation. In the winter, your cat will shed their summer coat for a winter coat. The winter coat has a much thicker insulation layer, to help keep your cat warm in the winter. 

All cats shed. However, an indoor cat will not develop the same thick coat an outdoor cat will.

Is it OK to leave cats outside in winter?

Cats can survive outside in the winter, but should they? This is a far different question, and the answer isn’t as straight forward. To put it simply, it depends on several factors, including the cats’ age, health, and previous outdoor experience. 

Outdoor vs Indoor Cats

Outdoor cats are accustomed to being outside. They are able to brave cold temperatures. They will grow a winter coat as the weather starts to cool. This will help keep them warm. 

Indoor cats, on the other hand, should not be left outside for long periods in the cold. Their bodies are not used to the cold. When a cat is kept indoors, its coat doesn’t thicken as an outdoor cats does.   

Cats That Shouldn’t Be Left Outside 

Some cats shouldn’t be left outside in the winter. Very young kittens can’t regulate their body temperature. After 4 weeks of age, they don’t need a heat source in a room-temperature environment.

However, they still can’t tolerate very cold temperatures. If your cat is under 6 months old, avoid exposing them to very cold weather. 

Elderly cats are also more susceptible to the cold. Cats 14 or older shouldn’t be left outside in the winter. If your cat has any health issues or is suffering the effects of old age, bring them in when it’s cold.  

Risks of Leaving Your Cat Outside in the Wintertime

There are two risks to leaving your cat outside in the winter. Once the temperatures reach 32 degrees or lower, cats are at risk of frostbite and hypothermia.

Frostbite is the most common, and less serious risk. Just like humans, cats can suffer tissue damage to extremities due to the cold. Unfortunately, it can take days for an owner to notice frostbite, allowing the damage to continue. 

Frostbite can cause serious injury to a cat, but hypothermia can be fatal. Your cat’s temperature is normally about `102 degrees. If their temperature falls below 100, they have hypothermia. If it’s not treated, hypothermia can be fatal. 

Both these conditions also impair your cat’s ability to seek safety. You may have heard stories about people with hypothermia. They often say they just wanted to go to sleep, and even describe feeling warm. 

This is because the central nervous system begins to shut down. Your cat will not be able to think clearly once hypothermia sets in. Their bodily function is also reduced. They can’t move as fast or as efficiently as they typically do. 

Frostbite carries similar risks, particularly frostbite of the paws. If your cat’s paws are frostbitten, walking becomes painful. This can encourage them to stay where they are. If they aren’t moving in very cold temperatures, hypothermia sets in much faster. 

Identifying Frostbite and Hypothermia 

The symptoms of hypothermia include shaking, pale skin, and lethargy. If your cat isn’t acting like themselves, particularly if they are sluggish or shivering, they may have hypothermia. 

Frostbite usually occurs in extremities. For your cat, this includes their paws, ears, tail, and nose. The telltale sign of frostbite is pale blue or gray skin. However, this can be hard to notice due to your cat’s fur. 

They may also meow or show other signs of pain, particularly if you touch the area. 

Treating Frostbite and Hypothermia

If your cat has hypothermia or frostbite, the first thing to do is take them inside. If they have both hypothermia and frostbite, treat the hypothermia first. You’ll need to warm your cat up slowly. 

Wrap them up with blankets or towels. Place hot water bottles on the outside to slowly bring their temperature up. You can also warm towels in the dryer, and then place them around your cat. 

Frostbite can be treated by placing the frostbitten area in warm water. Never use hot water, it can cause further damage. Don’t rub the area, because this can cause tissue damage. As the area warms, it will turn red. It may also swell and blister.  

Once your cat is stabilized, you’ll need to take them to the vet. Be sure to wrap them in warm towels or blankets before putting them in the car. 

More Than Just Temperature

When considering how cold is too cold for your cat, keep in mind that temperature isn’t the only thing to consider. During the day, the sun provides a bit of warmth. At night, it will feel colder without the suns warming rays. 

Wind chill is another factor to consider. A lower windchill can increase the risk fo hypothermia and frostbite, just as a lower temperature can. 

Lastly, precipitation matters. A 34 degree rain will be much colder than a 30 degree day without precipitation, practically speaking. If there’s snow on the ground, your cat’s paws are at a higher risk of frostbite. 

How do stray cats survive in the winter?

Stray cats are excellent survivalists. They have several ways to keep themselves warm throughout the colder months of the year. 

Keeping It Moving

When the temperatures drop, outdoor cats become more active. This activity helps keep their body temperature up when the weather is cold. 

Finding Food

Stray cats are always on the lookout for their next meal, particularly when it’s cold. As mentioned earlier, cats need extra calories to keep their temperature up in the winter. Outdoor cats will spend more time hunting during this time. 

Not only does this provide them with more food. It also helps keep them moving without expending energy on non-productive tasks. 

Roaming and Shelter

Feral cats typically roam in a 2 square mile area. Indoor cats, and outdoor pet cats, stay closer to home. An outdoor cat also lives outside, but relies on a human for at least some of its basic needs, like food. Outdoor cats have a territory of about 4 acres. 

Both outdoor and feral cats know the best places to find shelter. These areas are well mapped out in their minds. When the temps dip too low, they find a warm place, or at least a place that gets them out of the elements. 

If there’s no shelter available, cats can even dig a hole in the ground. They will get into the hole to keep warm. The area doesn’t have to be heated. It simply has to provide some shelter from wind and precipitation, although heat is nice as well. 

Even a cardboard box can provide some needed insulation, helping a cat to stay warmer. Cats can also fit into some surprisingly small spaces. In fact, smaller spaces allow more of their escaped body heat to go farther, keeping them warmer. 

Providing Food and Water for Outdoor Cats

If you have an outdoor cat, or simply strays in your neighborhood, you can help them get through the cold. You don’t have to bring them inside to help them. Simply providing food and water can go a long way towards ensuring their survival. 

Leaving food out for the cats will help keep their metabolism up, which helps keep them warm. Water is something we often take for granted, but cats struggle when their outside water sources freeze. Providing fresh unfrozen water is also beneficial to them. 

Giving Shelter

Shelter will also make outdoor cat’s life much easier. There are several ways you can go about providing shelter. 

If you have a cat condo that’s not being used, place it outside. Adding some carpet can keep your cat warmer while inside, but you’ll need to elevate the condo and place it in an area away from precipitation. If carpet gets wet, it will make your cat colder. 

You can also use carpet or fabric to create a door flap. This helps keep the wind out of the shelter. 

You can also build a wooden box shelter. It shouldn’t be any bigger than two to three feet. Bigger shelters lose more heat than smaller ones. Keep the door just big enough for cats. This will discourage potential predators, and keep unnecessary heat from escaping. 

Straw is the best insulation for this type of shelter. It will help keep the cat warm, and it doesn’t soak up moisture like other materials. 

Can indoor cats go outside in the winter?

Your indoor cat loves going out and exploring. Should you allow them to go outside in the winter? Some indoor cats don’t do well without some access to the outdoors. It’s part of their natural instinct and personality. In the winter months, you’ll need to balance this need with their safety. 

Yes, you can let your cat outside during the winter. If the weather is below 45 degrees, your indoor cat shouldn’t be left outside, however. 

It’s best to let them go out in a confined area, so you can easily bring them inside. If you choose to let them roam, be sure they have access to the house. You can install a kitty door, or simply keep a close eye out for their return. 

Keeping Your Cat Warm Outside

If your cat wants to go out in cold temperatures, you can help prepare them to do so safely. Booties are an excellent way to prevent frostbite on your cat’s feet, particularly if there’s snow on the ground. 

It provides a layer of protection and insulation between your cat and the cold ground. They are particularly useful in very cold temperatures, or when there’s snow on the ground. 

You can also get your cat a shirt or coat. Sure, your cat has their own coat to keep them warm, but they may need some extra help in the cold. A coat can help keep them warm. Keep in mind, however, that it’s not a substitute for proper supervision. 

Think of your cat as you would a child. It’s ultimately up to you to make sure they are safe outdoors, and come in before they get dangerously cold.