Does your cat spend time outdoors during the winter? Here are ten tips for keeping him safe when the weather is frightful.
Our family once had a cat named Nicky who loved the winter. After a storm, he’d meow at the front door until someone let him out. Then he’d race down the steps and start swirling the snow around with his paws. Only the deepest drifts deterred him, and he seemed to find the cold air invigorating rather than nasty.
Trouble is, Nicky enjoyed winter a bit too much. His ears got frostbitten once (probably while staking out the bird feeder for too long) and he went through the remainder of his life missing their tips.
Depending on where you live, winter can be severe. Bitter cold, deep snow, ice and biting winds are the norm in many more northerly regions, sometimes for months on end. And while most cats prefer to stay indoors where it’s warm rather than venture out in the cold and wet, some, like Nicky, seem to enjoy this time of year.
If you have a cat who likes to go outside during the winter, you need to be aware of the seasonal hazards that can threaten his safety, and take steps to protect him.
1. Extremely cold temperatures can be dangerous to exposed skin, especially delicate ear tips. Try keeping your cat inside as much as possible on the coldest days, especially when it’s windy. Even a light wind can make the air feel much colder than it really is.
2. Road salt and de-icing materials can hurt your cat’s paw pads, and may even make him sick if he licks his feet after coming back inside. Use non-toxic products on your sidewalks and driveway, and wipe your cat’s feet off with a damp cloth as soon as he comes back inside.
3. Anti-freeze is highly poisonous to animals. Clean up any spills, immediately and thoroughly.
4. Some cats like to climb up inside cars and snooze on warm engines. Bang on the hood of your car several times before starting it up. Do this even if your cat stays inside most of the time — it could save the life of a neighborhood stray who might have sheltered there during the night.
5. Unlike dogs, most cats don’t like the idea of wearing a sweater or coat. If yours does, great – but only let him wear it when you can stay outside to supervise him. Otherwise, he might get it snagged on a fence or hedge and injure himself or even freeze to death trying to get free.
6. If your cat is trained to a harness and leash, take him out for short walks on mild or sunny winter days, preferably in an area that’s sheltered from the wind. This will allow you to keep an eye on him and prevent him from treading in road salt or sampling anti-freeze that someone else in the neighborhood might have spilled. Stay with your cat at all times when he’s on a leash — never tether him outdoors alone, especially in winter.
7. When the weather is severe, wild predators may find it difficult to find food. Depending on where you live, hungry coyotes, fishers and other wild carnivores may pose a threat to outdoor cats. Try and keep your kitty close to home, and have him stay indoors at night, when many predators hunt.
8. If you feed wild birds during the winter, locate your feeders where your cat can’t get at them. Every year, many thousands of wild birds are killed by outdoor cats – don’t let your kitty add to the numbers! Hang feeders in the open, well away from hedges and other places where cats can hide. Use specially designed feeder stands and hooks rather than hanging your feeders from a tree that cats can climb. Situate one feeder right next to a window so your cat can vicariously satisfy some of his hunting needs by watching birds from the safety and comfort of the house.
9. Never force your cat to stay outdoors if he doesn’t want to. Allow him to decide when it’s time to come back inside.
10. If your cat likes to spend a lot of time outdoors during the winter, he might need a bit more protein in his diet. Give him an extra spoonful of food at mealtimes, or have some healthy treats on hand for when he comes in. And be sure to provide him with some cozy places around the house to warm up in when he’s done with exploring and ready to take a nap!