Keeping kitties cozy in winter

Photos by Karen Zautyk Len Twist assembles cat shelter.
Photos by Karen Zautyk
Len Twist assembles cat shelter.


Did you know that exotic fish can help keep a stray cat warm in the winter? You wrap the fishies up in wool and pack them around the chilly cat inside a crate and . . . .

Just kidding. (But we couldn’t resist.)

The fact is, though, keeping outdoor cats cozy can entail a fish/feline link, albeit tenuous. We shall explain in due course.

This article was prompted by our recently meeting several Observer readers, from various towns, who have taken it upon themselves to care for one or more strays cats. Usually, the cats are ferals who frequent their backyards. But we do know one couple who has adopted a five-cat colony residing behind a gas station in Newark. Every evening, they drive to the city to feed and water their foster kitties. They have even built shelters and are now looking to replace these with sturdier winter proof “homes.”

It occurred to us that, as winter fast approaches, other freelance cat-caregivers — of which there appear to be many — might like some shelter construction advice from a certified caregiver, and so we arranged an interview with Len Twist, administrator of Kearny’s super-successful TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) program. It turned out that Twist was actually in the process of creating a bunch of cold-weather shelters for the numerous cat colonies the TNR volunteers have adopted.

We learned that making a cat shelter is surprisingly cheap and quick and easy. (Although it helps if you already have certain hardware. If you don’t, maybe you can borrow those tools. Or perhaps you can improvise.)

Herewith, some basics: Start with an 18-gallon Rubbermaid bin with lid. Twist says you can find these for $2-$3 apiece.

Using a Skilsaw, cut two 6-inch-diameter circles in the bin, one on each of the longer sides — but not directly across from each other. You want them separated, so as not to create a wind-tunnel effect. (To make the cutting easier, draw the circle and drill a small hole in the center beforehand.)

Line the bin and the lid with sheets of reflective Mylar. You can probably pick this up for free (or on the cheap) from a pet store that sells exotic fish. Call around. Twist told us that these fish are usually shipped from Asia in plastic tanks wrapped in the foil. Once the fish are unpacked, there’s no more need for the mylar, but the stores usually still have some on hand.

The mylar should be placed with the white side in, facing against the plastic bottom, sides and lid, and with the silver side out. This will reflect the cat’s body heat, helping to keep its temperature consistent, even in the cold.

Secure the mylar to the bin with Gorilla tape (about $5 a roll), which Twist describes as “duct tape on steroids.” “It’s super strong,” he said, “and holds up better [than duct tape] in heat and cold.”

Cut the mylar away from the two circular holes you created before and secure its edges with the tape.

In the bottom of the bin, put a nest of straw. (Not hay. Straw. If, like us, you can’t tell the difference, ask the nursery where you buy the stuff.) Twist said one $6 bale of straw can make bedding for 20 shelters, so you might offer to share it with others who have adopted ferals. Or just keep the extra handy to provide clean bedding once in awhile.

Put the lid on the bin and — presto! — you’re done. Twist said it takes only about 20 minutes, start to finish, to make a shelter.

The TNR shelters will be placed atop wooden platforms, as a buffer against the frozen ground, but you need not construct something complicated. Putting the bins on cinder blocks or bricks can also offer protection. Just make sure the shelter doesn’t wobble.

You might also put a brick or stone on top of the lid, as extra protection from high winds.

We were concerned that the 6-inch holes might be a bit small, but Twist insists they’re just right. Even large cats can get in, he said, but raccoons cannot. The reason for having two holes, though, is in case some other critter does venture in. The rightful tenant, the cat, can make a quick exit.

(Editor’s covering-our-posterior note: If your town, or condo/apartment community, etc., has laws/rules against feeding and/or providing shelter to feral cats, please be advised that, despite the instructions provided herein, The Observer is in no way promoting or condoning illegal activity of any manner, sort, or type. But you might consider trying to persuade the powers-that-be to change the rules.)

Lots more information on ferals — and rules changing — can be found on the website of a group called Alley Cat Allies,

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