Building Winter Shelters for Outdoor Cats | Lola The Rescued Cat
Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Building Winter Shelters for Outdoor Cats

I always worry about the community cats in my area when the weather turns frigid. Luckily, there are many kindhearted people in my neighborhood who take care of them. Today, in the second post in our Community Cats Awareness series, we will be discussing building winter shelters for outdoor cats.

shelters for outdoor cats

Building Winter Shelters for Outdoor Cats

I attended a webinar on building winter shelters given by the wonderful staff at the New York City Feral Cat Initiative that was full of useful information for anyone who wants to help their community cats.

Before I get into specific types of shelters, I want to cover a few of the basics. 

The Basics

Why Community Cats Need a Winter Shelter

Cats grow a thicker coat during the winter months but this keeps them warm to a certain extent. Community cats depend on us to help them stay safe and protected from the elements. Unless you know a cat has a winter shelter, chances are they will struggle significantly during the winter months. 

In addition to providing protection from the elements, a shelter serves to keep community cats close to their colony and will deter them from seeking safety in areas where they may not be welcome, such as under a neighbor’s porch. It will also discourage them from seeking warmth under a car hood, which can be extremely dangerous.

shelters for outdoor cats
Photo: iStock.com_ sdominick

Qualities of a Good Winter Shelter

  • Make sure the shelter is made of sturdy construction. You not only want it to last through a rough winter and you also want it to last more than one season.
  • Insulation is important! As much as possible you want to insulate the floors, walls, and roof.
  • The shelter should be waterproof and windproof to protect it from the elements. If possible, elevate it off of the ground.
  • Cats only need an opening that is about five to six inches in diameter, or the width of their whiskers. A smaller door helps the interior stay warmer and keeps other animals and predators out.
  • The door should be a few inches off of the ground to prevent water from splashing inside. The cats will also be less likely to get trapped inside by snow if the opening is above the ground.
  • Make sure the proper bedding is used.
  • Location, location, location! Strategic placement is important.
  • The minimum size for a shelter should be 12″ x 18″ x 12″, which will fit a single cat. A shelter that is 24″ x 24″ x 18″ will fit three or four cats and is preferable because cats will benefit from each other’s body heat.
  • Bigger is not necessarily better. When they are not filled with cats the heat diffuses quickly which leaves the inside as cold as the outside.
  • Cardboard boxes should never be used as shelters.


  • Straw is the best bedding to be used for a winter shelter. It repels moisture, is dry, and provides excellent insulation and a nice dry place for the cats.
  • Hay (which is typically used to feed animals) is not straw and should not be used. It soaks up moisture, can get moldy, and can make the bedding very cold and uncomfortable for a cat. It’s very important that the bedding stays dry. (Learn the difference between straw and hay here.)
  • Blankets made from polar fleece, heat-reflective thermal cat mats, or outdoor electric heating pads could also be used.
  • Mylar blankets can also be used with the straw. They can be cut with scissors and can easily be taped to walls and floors for installation. 
  • Do not use towels and blankets made from wool, acrylic, or cotton. The goal is to provide a warm, dry space, and these materials will stay wet and become moldy. Sleeping in a wet, moldy bed can cause the cats to get sick. Additionally, if the cat gets wet from snow or rain and sleeps in a wet bed, they will not be able to dry off.
shelters for outdoor cats
Photo: deposit_photos_nazilekeskin


  • Place the shelter against a sturdy structure, such as a house, fence, tree, porch, etc.
  • If possible, place the shelter in a spot that gets a lot of sun and away from the wind.
  • The shelter should stable and should not wobble.
  • For the cats’ safety, it should be placed away from high traffic areas.
  • The shelter can be camouflaged by painting it a dark color or covering it with shrubs, burlap, tree branches, etc., so it blends into the environment.
  • Make sure there are escape routes. (I.e., do not place the shelter in a spot where a cat can be “cornered” by a predator.)

shelters for outdoor cats
Photo by Neighborhood Cats

Types of Shelters

Shelters can range from super simple DIY to advanced constructions. There are also many pre-made shelters that can be purchased. Here are a couple of easy DIY shelters you can make.

Storage Bin Shelter

This is a super simple shelter to make.

shelters for outdoor cats
Photo by Alley Cat Advocates

Hannah Shaw gives a step by step tutorial using two bins. 

Our pals at Cole and Marmalade demonstrate how to make one using three bins.

Another variation of this shelter is to use a styrofoam cooler as the inside bin. I made these a few years ago with a couple of friends and it was very simple. 

Fish Box Shelter

shelters for outdoor cats
Photo by New York City Feral Cat Initiative

This type of box is made from insulation, is waterproof, and quite easy to cut. You can reach out to your local restaurants or butcher shops to get one for free.

Here are some instructions on how to make one (courtesy of New York City Feral Cat Initiative):

  • Measure, mark, and cut a 5½” diameter hole in the box a few inches from the top and off to one side.
  • Line with floor tiles or contact paper to prevent scratching.
  • Add straw.
  • Glue the lid on and add weights. This box is very lightweight, so added weight is necessary.
  • To prevent water and snow from accumulating on the flat roof, set the shelter on a slight angle.

This shelter can easily be camouflaged with some paint.

Here is a wonderful video about two people who make shelters out of coolers. 

Note: Lola The Rescued Cat is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

Premade Shelters

These are just two samples of premade shelters that you can purchase.

The Kat Kabin Outdoor Cat House

shelters for outdoor cats
Available on Amazon

The Kitty Tube

shelters for outdoor cats

Local rescue groups often sell premade shelters which are less expensive or will have links to places where the shelters are available. If you live in New York City or the surrounding areas, here is some information on premade shelters that are available for purchase. 

Where You Can Buy Straw

You can buy straw at a local stable or feed store. Also, check your local Home Depot or do an internet search. If you live in New York City, here are some local places you can pick some up. 

Don’t lose heart if you can’t find any locally, because you can find some online from Thunder Acres or from Kitty Tube. I also found some on Amazon

You won't need an entire bale of straw to make a shelter comfortable and warm. A small amount is sufficient.

shelters for outdoor cats
Photo by Kathy Sidjakov

I hope this information is helpful and will inspire you to create a shelter for a community cat in your area once you see how simple it is. A fun idea is to have a shelter building party. I know that may be difficult now because of social distancing, but you could throw one with just the members of your household. It's a fun way to spend quality time together and it teaches young children the importance of respecting animals and showing them kindness. 

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series where we will be discussing the term "Community Cat." If you've missed any of our Community Cat Awareness posts, you can catch up on them here

shelters for outdoor cats
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Have you ever made a winter shelter for a cat? Tell us about it in the comments.



Additional Posts in This Series: 

About the Author:
Dawn White is an award-winning writer/blogger and the author of Lola: Diary of a Rescued Cat.  Dawn has been writing in the pet industry for over seven years and has been a contributing writer for the Jackson Galaxy Project’s Cat Pawsitive Pro Program, BlogPaws, and

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Would you like to comment?

  1. This is such important info! It's crucial for those who care to look after community cats, especially in the winter months.

  2. You ALWAYS have the best information! This is a great example of much needed information, Thank you.

  3. Those little sweeties need all of the help they can get. Great info!

  4. Those were quite imaginative ways to build shelters out of common things. Hopefully the cats will move in.

  5. Great info, much needed and appreciated!

  6. THis is terrific information! Thank you so much for sharing! Have a wonderfully happy day!

  7. Very useful information. Thank you for sharing it.

    Tama and Genji

  8. Most of the volunteer time that I do with All About Animals Rescue in Warren, Michigan, is helping folks build feral cat shelters. Always fun to talk to folks who love the community cats like me.

  9. These are all great shelters to help keep the cats warm. I leave the boys plant pots that they loved so much in the barn with straw in "just in case".

  10. Excellent post. There are no outside cats near me- probably because I took in any that ever showed up in our yard. I will share this with others I knw that do tend to ferals. XO

  11. It's so important to give our community cat friends a helping hand/paw, especially in these colder months. Thank you for this really important and informative post, Dawn!

  12. We really like this post. We had a shelter for our ferals but they liked under our shed better. Then I found something large had dug a hole in the floor of the shed so they have the inside too.

  13. Great info!

    Very important and those premade shelters look really cool x

  14. How do you prevent other residents of the neighbourhood, who don't like cats, from destroying the shelters or the Municipal Sanitation Dept. from removing them (the Municipality is NOT friendly to feral cats)?

    1. Colony caretakers need to work with the community on keeping the shelters in place. If the municipality is against it, they have to be creative and place them maybe in wooded areas and camouflage them.

  15. My husband and I were just discussing this subject in the last couple of days. There is a stray cat who's been hanging around. She interacts with our 3 cats but is extremely elusive. We made our heated building where our cats main living quarters are so that the stray can come in after the doors have been locked for the night. She has spent time in the building in the past but seems to know that if she comes in thru the one way cat door she won't get back out until we open the doors in the morning. We worry about her so we were discussing making a shelter for her. Thanks for the great info!


  16. Great info for helping outdoor cats stay warm during the winter!

  17. Good tip about the height and splashing.


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