How to

25 May 2016

How to Keep Pets/Animals Warm in Cold Winters

Cats – notorious bird-killers, mouse-gatherers, huntresses of all things small and twitchy – will oftentimes inhabit both indoor and outdoor spaces. Roaming a territory that may or may not include a warm house is a nice life for a feline. The lives of those residing permanently outside, such as rabbits or chickens, require a bit more finessing on the parts of their human caretakers; special enclosures, regular changing of bedding and protection against the elements all pertain to these outdoor animals. In the winter months where temperatures can drop to 0° Celsius (32° Fahrenheit), how do human wards look after their animal counterparts? A thick fur coat or spray of feathers does help, but only marginally so when expending energy in cold environments. Let’s look into what exactly needs to be addressed during the cold season.

Steps to Aid Furry Friends

Ensure that your animal is being regularly fed and watered. This eliminates food as a variable of survival since these basic needs are fulfilled each day:

  • When the discussion turns to outdoor cats, it must invariably turn towards hunting. A cat, domestic or otherwise, will kill 2.1animals per week, averaging 2-3successful hunts out of 10. This doesn’t bode well for those not being regularly fed and introduces unknown elements to your furry friend. Small critters can be petri dishes rife with parasites, diseases, worms and other germs. Imagine all those unknowns embedded in the claws of your cat as she meanders across your pillow. Love your cat by feeding her, encouraging her to stay away from pests as a food source, and giving her all the calories she needs to keep warm. A fed cat is a happy cat, one with more energy to burn running along rooftops and jumping out of the way of cars. Remember to change your cat’s water daily or to keep their fountain topped off. Heated bowls go a long way in winter and can be solar-powered rather than electrically heated. A thick-bottomed plastic bowl does the job just as well.
  • Like all mammals, rabbits need extra calories in winter since their bodies use more energy to keep warm. Rabbits must have fresh, ideally room temperature water available at all times. If presented in a bowl, change the water twice a day, or once daily for a water bottle.  It’s important to make sure that the water dispenser/water doesn’t freeze in the cold temperatures. This can be prevented by putting the bottle in a thick sock or purchasing a bottlecover designed to regulate temperature.
  • Chickens do not need a heater in the cold months because of their numbers and, hopefully, sufficient housing. However, a warm meal or snack will keep their body temperature up. A mash made of porridge oats and regular feed mixed with warm water for breakfast can do wonders for maintaining warmth. Once it gets a little later in the day, a handful of corn ensures much activity, meaning warmth and stimulation will carry on into later hours. A head of cabbage hung at pecking height can achieve the same outcome. Snacking later in the day ensures that the chickens’ bodies will be working to digest overnight. In the cold months, drinkers can be wrapped in an insulating material (bubble wrap) to prevent freezing. Additionally, using warmer water to fill in the morning helps.

A properly insulated, draft-free shelter means safety from the elements, predators, and the biting elements:

  • There are countless tutorials on how to buildcheap shelters for outdoor or feral cats. The most important takeaway from those varied tutorials is to make sure your shelter is appropriately sized. It must be big enough for one or two cats only. If you’re caring for a feral colony, shelters big enough to house three to five cats are preferred. Bigger shelters are discouraged as the body heat given off won’t be enough to heat the space. Instead consider creating a cluster of smaller shelters. There’s also the possibility of other animals squatting if it’s big enough for a dog or skunk to butt in. Having a flap or smaller opening cuts down on wind exposure and makes the shelter less susceptible to cold pockets. Elevation is very important to cats, so sticking the shelter on top of a wood pallet is ideal. This will keep the enclosure protected from any moisture or cold leeching up from the ground. The bedding provided can also make all the difference; sleeping bags, straw, pillowcases stuffed with packing peanuts, or lining the interior with Mylar all fit the bill perfectly. These materials should be kept clean and dry through regular check-ups. Do not put water bowls in these enclosures as a spilled bowl will undermine your hard work, making warmth a distinct impossibility.
  • The location of a rabbit hutch will play a big part in whether it’s warm or cold during the winter months. Is it getting direct sunlight in the day? Protected from the wind? Moving the hutch to a semi-sheltered area will protect your furry friends when temperatures drop. Make sure that there are no gaps that will allow wind or wet elements to enter. Lining the inner walls with newspaper and painting all surfaces of the hutch with a water-proof, rabbit-safe protective coating will help with this. A plastic tarp and old carpet across the top of the hutch will add another layer of protection from the elements by covering the roof and all sides. Giving an abundance of bedding will allow your rabbits to snuggle in. Hay and straw are perfect, with a bottom layer of newspaper or blankets for added loft. If desired, a SnugglesafeHeatpad will give a few hours of toasty warmth and can be reheated continually. Similarly to cat enclosures, rabbit hutches do much better when elevated. During the day, the hutch should be kept open for ventilation, but mostly covered at night. A bed can be made out of a cardboard box with a hole cut for the entrance. This should be sufficient for those winter nights as long as it is brimming with hay. As cold as it gets, your rabbits will need continual care in the form of cleaning. Hutches will likely get dirtied quickly with damp litter. Litter trays should have drainage holes to keep them from becoming puddles.
  • Chickens generate a fair amount of heat on their own, something around 10 watts of heat per chicken. This renders heaters somewhat unnecessary depending on the size of your enclosure and the number of chickens being cared for. A thick layer of deep litter will serve your chickens best. Comprised of droppings and shavings, the compost will be added to by the chickens’ droppings over time and aerated by their scratching. Forgoing that, the standard form of bedding should be cleaned of droppings daily. Hay or straw laid at the entrance will prevent outside elements from entering the heat haven. In order to create a warmer space in a large coop, a partition can be constructed; however, if the space is too small, it can lead to respiratory problems. As ever, it’s important to keep the coop clean and dry through regular maintenance. Roosting next to one another, fluffing out feathers is how chickens keep warm. Investing in wider roosting perches will allow the chickens’ breast feathers to cover their feet. Keep roosts at least two feet off the ground. Minimizing ventilation will keep heat more contained, but most important is securing the coop against drafts and damp. Putting a tarp or old carpet on top of the coop, without blocking ventilation, will keep out the elements. A sun room can be constructed and covered in clear plastic to give your chickens more space and “fresh” air. A staple by now, elevation is key to maintaining good heat. Do not put water bowls in these enclosures as a spilled bowl will once again undermine your hard work, making warmth impossible.

Here are some final tips to keep your furry or feathered friends warm, safe, and happy despite the wind-chill: 

CHICKEN TIP: Putting Vaseline on ear tips, wattles, and combs will protect against frostbite.

CAT TIP: Wet food is easier to digest and better for the obligate carnivores who meet their water requirements through their diet.

RABBIT TIP: Rabbits should always be kept in pairs. Not only does this help socially as they have a friend to share their time with, they will keep each other warm.

CHICKEN TIP: The same goes for chickens that are very social in nature. The minimum number of recommended chickens is three.

CAT TIP: Spraying insulation foam onto the bottom of plastic food bowls will prevent freezing of wet food or water.

RABBIT TIP: Rabbits still require exercise and interaction in the winter months. If it’s dry outside, let them out for a romp. Consider indoor exercise if it’s wet out.

CHICKEN TIP: Chickens are durable enough to withstand bad weather. Keeping the coop accessible during the day will allow them to wander about in the rain or cold, coming inside when they desire a respite from the elements.

CAT TIP: Always keep outdoor cats up-to-date on vaccinations, parasite protection and flea/worm treatments to minimize outdoor risks.


So whether you look after your own cat or rabbit, or help a feral animal survive the long winter, this article should have given you the necessary information to bolster your animal friends in the cold. 

Jacqui Litvan

Jacqui Litvan, wielding a bachelor's degree in English, strives to create a world of fantasy amidst the ever-changing landscape of military life. Attempting to become a writer, she fuels herself with coffee (working as a barista) and music (spending free time as a raver).