Every winter we see articles reminding us to bring our pets in from the cold and to make sure that outdoor animals are given the care needed to survive the elements. If you have feral cats in your neighborhood, you may even be tempted to take one home with you. While this instinct may come from a good place, doing so might not be the best thing for these wild cats.

Since many people who care for cats keep them pampered indoors, it is hard to see these furry friends living outdoors. But in fact, feral cats are often just as safe and healthy as our house cats. It’s been shown that feral cats have equally low rates of disease as indoor cats. The lean physique of some feral cats sometimes leads people to believe that they are starving or ill, but studies find that feral cats have healthy body weights and fat distribution. After all, keep in mind that outdoor cats tend to live much more active lives than house cats who sleep at the side of our beds.

You might be asking, but wouldn’t all cats prefer to live in an apartment and sleep next to you at night? In the case of feral cats, the answer is no. The fact is cats that have spent their lives in the wild rarely enjoy the confines of your walls. The ASPCA currently estimates that there are about 20 million free-roaming cats in this country. That figure includes a mix of truly feral cats, semi-socialized cats, and lost or abandoned cats. These cats can adapt and thrive outdoors, but when temperatures drop below freezing, there are some things that you can do to help them stay warm – without bringing them inside.

How Can You Help Feral Cats?

Volunteer

One of the best ways to help cats is to volunteer with a rescue organization that helps manage feral cat colonies. Colonies are groups of cats that live in the same area and form a sort of family bond. Some volunteer groups work to provide shelter and food for colonies to help them get by. Although feral cats are usually very wary of people, they can come to trust volunteers – or at least, trust them enough to happily accept much-needed supplies.

Make a Shelter

You can even build a feral cat shelter yourself by constructing insulated shelter boxes to help to keep them warm and dry even on the coldest and snowiest days. The video tutorial below will walk you through the necessary steps. Smaller shelters work best, as they help to recirculate cats’ body heat. Also, be sure that cats don’t become snowed into their shelters by keeping doorways free of blowing snow and drifts.

Source: Cole and Marmalade/YouTube

Trap-Neuter-Release

Another way to help your community cats is to participate in Trap-Neuter-Release, or TNR, programs during the warmer months. This will help keep their populations under control in the winter. Experts debate whether TNR should be done in the winter since it requires a portion of a cat’s winter coat to be shaved and the trapping process may expose the cats to the winter elements. If TNR is attempted in the winter months, be sure that adequate shelter is provided through each step of the trapping and recovery processes.

What to Know if You Do Bring an Outdoor Cat Home

Since there are millions of homeless cats on the street, it can be difficult to be sure which ones are truly feral, and which ones are abandoned. If you do decide to bring an outdoor cat into your home, know that introducing him or her to home life can be a lot of work, and stressful for both of you. Cats are generally timid about being put into a new home, even if they have already lived indoors their whole lives. So imagine what it’s like to go from a life of freedom to one with walls.

If you bring a cat home, you must make visiting a vet the first stop. Have your vet check for worms and parasites (fleas and ticks), test for ringworm and lice, Feline Immunodeficiency VirusFeline Infectious Peritonitis, rabies, and common parasites, and of course, be sure to spay or neuter as soon as possible. Most importantly, make sure that you do plenty of research beforehand. Making your cat feel comfortable can happen over a week or a month. If your gut is telling you to bring an animal in then be prepared to put in the work.

Otherwise, keep in mind that you can help even more cats by organizing a group of volunteers to aid feral cats while allowing them to keep their freedom.

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