How to Make an Outdoor Shelter

A Simple Way You Can Help Save Cats this Season

It’s winter in the northeast, and that means frigid nights along with snow, rain, and wind.  We’re lucky to have our homes and warm beds, but there are many cats who have no shelter from the cold weather.  Whether feral, abandoned, or lost, these cats are all in danger of developing hypothermia, especially in rain and snow.  How can you help?  The answer may already be in your home!  Plastic storage tubs can be modified, and with just a few additional supplies you can easily provide cats in your neighborhood with winter shelters that will protect them from cold weather and predators. 

To make one outdoor shelter, start with two plastic storage tubs—one 18 gallon-sized bin and one small enough to fit inside with room to spare.  The Rubbermaid brand is actually most recommended, as it is both waterproof and the plastic will not crack in freezing temperatures.  Cut a hole in one side of both bins (so that they create a doorway when nestled together), approximately six inches by six inches, using a box cutter or other sharp tool. Protective gloves and caution are highly advised!  The bottom of the doorway should be several inches above the floor of the tubs to prevent flooding from rainwater or melted snow.  The smaller tub will sit inside the larger one and will ultimately be the cat’s shelter area, so make sure the openings line up!  Don’t make the doorway too large as cats can easily fit into small openings but dogs, raccoons, and other animals cannot.  Once the doorway is complete, check the edges of the plastic for sharp places a cat may cut themselves on when trying to slip inside.  If there are any, you can either file them down, use weather-safe tape (such as duct tape) to line the opening, or cut the hole to be used with some plastic tubing (see our video).

With the doorways finished, place the smaller tub inside the large one and insulate the space between the two storage bins.  You can use any insulating material, such as straw or foam insulation—but do not use blankets or hay, as they won’t keep the shelter warm and will hold onto any water they come in contact with.  Add the same insulating material to the floor space between the bins.  Optionally, the smaller container can be filled with straw.  Straw is a very good insulator because it traps body heat rather than absorbing it (thus stealing it from the cat), and doesn’t retain wetness like blankets, newspapers, or hay would (which means it will not mold so easily).  Add enough straw so one large cat or two small cats can comfortably burrow inside, then close the lid of the small bin.  Too much empty space inside means wind and cold can circulate, so ensure you’ve added enough.  You will also want to add insulation between the roof of the small bin and the lid of the large one, then attach the lid to the large storage tub and the shelter is complete!

Well, nearly complete.  Now it’s time to decide where to put your newly finished cat shelter.  Don’t leave the shelter directly on the cold ground, as this will make it more difficult for the cat to keep warm.  Prop the shelter up off the ground by putting it atop 2×4 wooden studs or another sturdy material.  To further prevent water from collecting inside the shelter, you can slightly raise the back or create a small hole in the bottom for drainage purposes.  Never leave bowls of water or wet food inside a shelter, as they could easily be turned over and spilled.

Place the shelter somewhere discreet and out of sight, away from dogs and any other predators or disturbances.  In an urban area, this might be behind a building, while in more suburban or rural neighborhoods, near a thicket of trees or wooded area.  Particularly with shy or feral cats, the placement of the shelter must be somewhere they feel safe and comfortable or it will sit unused.

As these shelters are so lightweight, it’s best to weigh the bins down to keep them safe from wind or predators.  Flat barbell weights can be placed on the floor of the outer bin, or bricks can be stacked atop the outer lid.  If you have multiple shelters in the same area, consider laying a heavy plank of wood over the top of both to provide an awning and weigh down two shelters at once. 

A few more tips to keep in mind:

  • A plastic flap can be added to the opening (unless using the tubing option) to better protect against wind and rain, and give the cat extra security.
  • A slanted roof (as simple as a plank of wood) will keep snow and rain from gathering atop the shelter, and may also detract potential predators from stalking the cat from above.
  • If you have seen multiple cats in your area, there may be more than you know.  If you are able to provide more shelters than you think you need, do so.
  • Neutral colors that blend in with the environment work best for the outer bin.  They will be less noticed by predators and thus make the cat feel more secure.  However, use what you have access to!
  • Lastly, if a cat is in desperate need of shelter (say due to an impending storm), and you don’t have time to fashion a proper shelter, something to protect them from the bitter cold is better than doing nothing and could be the difference between life and death.  A reinforced box, an empty litter box, tub or bin, and even a garbage can turned on its side could act as a temporary solution.

Do you have any other tips for outdoor cat shelters?  Leave a comment below!

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