Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Out of the Cold

Keep community cats comfortable and safe during winter’s chill

By Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

We tend to think of feral, or community, cats as well able to take care of themselves. For the most part, that’s true -- but helping them to stay warm and sheltered during the depths of winter is not only a kindness, it can also help control outdoor cat populations. Ensuring that cats are in predictable locations makes it easier for managers of feral cat colonies to trap, vaccinate, spay or neuter cats and find and rehome kittens in the spring.

“Shelters provide a cozy spot for cats who live outdoors to sleep, relax, and warm up and stay safe,” says Becky Robinson, president and founder of advocacy group Alley Cat Allies. “They also make them less likely to have to find shelter on their own, which sometimes means exploring neighbors’ yards or areas where they may not be welcome.”

The best kind of shelter is one the cat will use, says Karen van Haaften, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist and senior manager of behavior and welfare at the British Columbia SPCA in Vancouver, Canada. Variables include local climate and the level of fear of cats in the area. Some cats are socialized enough to humans that they can live in proximity to them, in barns, sheds or underneath a porch or deck, but many cats prefer to keep their distance.

“Truly feral cats who have no experience with people won’t get that close, so they may need shelter in a wild area that is away from human interference,” Dr. van Haaften says.

Creating a shelter is as easy as cutting a 6-to-8-inch-wide entryway in a lidded plastic storage bin or foam cooler that is approximately 2 feet by 3 feet and at least 18 inches high. That’s large enough to accommodate three to five cats, Robinson says. Any larger, and it won’t retain heat effectively.

Line the shelters with straw for insulation. Avoid using blankets or towels, which retain moisture and make the shelter wet and cold. To keep heat from escaping, attach a piece of clear plastic in front of the doorway that the cat can easily push through to enter or exit. To keep out rain and snow, make sure the entryway is several inches above ground level.

Be sure to camouflage your shelter.

“Paint the shelter a dark color, or cover it with leaves or brush so it blends in with the environment,” Robinson says.

Positioning is also important for safety and comfort. Place shelters on a level area that’s elevated off the ground to prevent dampness and cold from seeping in.

“Wood pallets are great for this,” Robinson says. “Face the entry away from the wind and preferably facing a wall so that only cats can get in and out. Placing the shelter in a wooded area away from buildings and traffic will also help protect cats, and the neighbors will appreciate it.”

Check shelters periodically to see if straw needs to be changed or snow cleared from entrances. Encourage cats to use them by placing catnip, silver vine or treats inside.

Cats are cautious. They may take their time investigating shelters before deciding they are safe to use. They may also have preferences you can meet with simple modifications.

“You may need to add or remove a door flap, bedding, or both entrance and exit doors to find out what the kitties like best,” Robinson says. “If the cats aren’t using the shelter after a few days, try moving it closer to an area where the cats already prefer to hang out but still gives them privacy. The important thing is that the little house you’ve made for them will be there when the cats are ready to use it.”


How to help pets

love their carriers

Q: My dog hates riding in her carrier, and it’s a struggle to get her inside it. Is there any way to make it a better experience for both of us?

A: Yes! That’s such a common problem for dogs and cats -- not to mention their humans. But learning to enter and ride in a carrier comfortably is the first step toward Fear Free veterinary visits and other excursions in the car. It can take some preparation and practice beforehand, but it pays off when your pet stops being afraid.

To start, make the carrier a special place. Place it in an area where your dog likes to hang out, such as the bedroom, living room or kitchen. Spray or wipe it with calming canine pheromones. Put treats in it for your dog to find, or feed meals inside it with the door open. Give praise and treats when you see your dog resting in the carrier. (These techniques work with cats, too; just use a calming feline pheromone product instead.)

When she starts to enjoy being in the carrier, transfer training to the car. Spray the interior with the pheromone product. Have your dog hang out inside the car without starting the engine. Gradually take some test drives, from backing out of and pulling back into the driveway to longer excursions, like to the drive-up bank teller or the drive-through window at your favorite fast-food place. Have treats on hand to reward your pet during the stop.

Tips: Lay a treat trail to guide your dog into the carrier. Choose a carrier with both top and side entry; many pets prefer being placed into the carrier from above. Hold the carrier in both arms instead of letting it swing at your side. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker

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Dog foods recalled

for excess vitamin D

-- Natural Life Pet Products, Nutrisca and Lidl US recalled certain dry dog foods this month. The recalled products, which contained excess vitamin D, include 4-, 15- and 28-pound bags of Nutrisca Chicken and Chickpea Dry Dog Food, 17.5-pound bags of Natural Life Chicken & Potato Dry Dog Food and Orlando Chicken and Chickpea Dog Food. Vitamin D has a reputation for being beneficial, but dogs who take in too much can experience vomiting, loss of appetite, increased thirst, increased urination, excessive drooling and weight loss. Extremely high levels of the vitamin can cause kidney disease. Consumers can return affected bags for a full refund.

-- Paws of War, which trains service dogs for veterans, has launched a customized mobile veterinary unit on Long Island, New York, to help treat pets and service dogs of veterans and first responders who may have difficulty getting veterinary care for their animals. Staffed by veterinarians and veterinary technicians, the mobile clinic will travel throughout Long Island, providing physical exams, vaccinations, dental checkups, testing for feline leukemia virus and feline infectious peritonitis, flea and tick preventives, grooming, nail trims, heartworm testing and preventives, and microchipping. For more information, visit

-- If you have a dog who barks ferociously at the sound of the doorbell, then wags his tail happily to greet guests, you probably tell people “His bark is worse than his bite.” The saying dates to Roman times and is attributed to historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, who is said to have written, “A cowardly dog barks more savagely than he bites.” According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, the phrase -- which came to mean that a person was less unfriendly than he or she appeared -- was in common usage by the mid-17th century. Just remember: Never rely on proverbs when deciding how a dog may respond. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.