Outdoor, heated cat house with challenge difficulty rating
September 30, 2022 2:54 PM   Subscribe

My neighbors have a new outdoor cat. She is happy and healthy for the time being, but they're definitely the type that don't provide much care - and I doubt this is going to change when it starts getting colder. She's probably not even safe inside their house, as they have several poorly trained, aggressive dogs. I'd like to provide her somewhere warm to stay over cold winter nights. Difficulty explained inside.

I can't build anything and I also don't have a lot of money. $100 is probably the limit here. The easiest thing to do would probably be to buy a small dog house and then figure out how to insulate and/or heat it in some way.

Challenges I'd like advice on overcoming:

- Are there any premade, affordable pet houses with an escape door in the back? I haven't found any that are weatherproof, which is a necessity. I don't have a garage or covered porch to put this thing on; it's going to be exposed, resting either on grass or a concrete patio.

- I don't have exterior power. Is there anything I could heat up before bed on the coldest nights and have it stay warm for a meaningful amount of time? I tried looking into solar but it seems like getting enough power to run something like a heated pet bed is an expensive/complicated proposition.
posted by Kutsuwamushi to Pets & Animals (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Can you share your location or what weather you expect this winter? If it’s in the high 30s Fahrenheit or warmer at night, the cat shouldn’t need extra warmth for safety, though they’d probably enjoy a cozy spot. And, the temperature outside will affect how feasible it is to provide a warm spot - like if it’s below 0F, it’s going to be a lot harder to keep an insulated pet house warm enough than it would be at 25F.
posted by maleficent at 3:05 PM on September 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Lower midwestern US. Temperatures below 0F are possible here, but uncommon - the average overnight low in January is just around 25F.

Very cold temperatures are rare enough that if I'm actually concerned for her wellbeing, I can get up in the middle of the night to reheat/refresh any warming pads, if those work. Doable when things are extreme, but not sustainable over the long term, you know?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:13 PM on September 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

Is this new cat officially THEIR cat? Or a stray that showed up, and that they feed?

I ask because the easiest and least expensive solution would be for you keep a litter box and some litter and some dry cat food on hand and bring the cat into your house on cold nights - but that presupposes that you have the desire and ability to do so, and that they are not so attached to the cat that they would mind.
posted by invincible summer at 3:27 PM on September 30, 2022 [2 favorites]

They make shelters for feral cats out of used coolers. With a front and back door. Just cut two holes and put flaps over them. Maybe put it up in a tree or on a table?
posted by at at 3:28 PM on September 30, 2022 [13 favorites]

At $100, you could buy a used cooler chest (it's insulated) and have someone cut a small opening in the side. Put in some towels and a warm microwavable Bucky pillow.

However how will you prevent other animals, raccoons etc, from using it?
Treats and food to lure the kitten in will attract other wild animals.

(ha ha at!)
posted by artdrectr at 3:28 PM on September 30, 2022 [2 favorites]

Microwavable pet heat pads are often used in rescue orgs and whatnot.
posted by Crystalinne at 3:33 PM on September 30, 2022 [2 favorites]

Contact your local cat rescues and ask them for advice. They might have a lot of experience doing this in your area and be able to make good suggestions, or even have the ability to custom make a cat shelter for you, if they are making new ones themselves as the cold weather approaches.

My local cat rescue makes shelters out of two large plastic totes, the small one inside the big one, with insulation between the two and an opening for the cat simply cut out of the plastic with a box cutter. They are not at all expensive.
posted by Jane the Brown at 3:34 PM on September 30, 2022 [16 favorites]

These are all good ideas, but don't be surprised if you get a different cat. They're creatures who make their own choices, it's part of their charm.
posted by kingdead at 3:38 PM on September 30, 2022 [13 favorites]

Here is one of many sites that offer plans for feral cat shelters.

Ground level is several degrees colder than a foot higher, so if you can find something to put the shelter on to get it off the ground you won't need to worry as much about heating it effectively.
posted by Jane the Brown at 3:40 PM on September 30, 2022 [2 favorites]

You could do alterations to make a passive solar cat/dog house

stray cat shelter.

example with a clear wall

Paint the south face black for better solar absorption.

You might find some old Tupperware you can microwave hot water in, then slip in there on cold nights. Water has an amazing heat capacity.
posted by nickggully at 5:31 PM on September 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

Make a tour of local thrift stores and buy as many cheap old stainless steel thermoses as you can find, the bigger the better, nothing less than a quart in volume, I’d say.

Some of them will have lost much of their vacuum in all probability, and in my experience you can fill those with boiling water and put them in a cloth bag and they will stay safely warm for 6-8 hours. You could associate one or two with some bedding inside a pretty rudimentary shelter and keep a cat very happy, I’d think. Others which haven’t lost their vacuums will still give off quite a bit of heat in a confined space all by themselves, and could make the difference between a tolerable or extremely uncomfortable and dangerous freezing night.

One problem is the work of boiling a gallon or more water and filling the bottles, which is considerable. You would also need to convince yourself they wouldn’t leak even if they got knocked around a little or you’ll find yourself worrying that the cat could scald itself.
posted by jamjam at 5:46 PM on September 30, 2022

Most "self heating" pet beds are something soft with a piece of that silver insulating bubble stuff inside. Sometimes hardware stores have a roll where you can buy it by the foot, or smaller packages. I bought a small roll from Home Depot for 10 bucks a couple years ago and used it just by itself in a small doghouse that our cats would happily snooze in.

This pre-fab outdoor house might work for you- it's got two openings and is slightly raised. It would be great if the roof was hinged but unfortunately is not.

In the comments someone from Canada lined the whole thing with silver insulation. I would then add a piece of wool sheepskin (wool is warm when wet). They also added a larger overhanging roof (no photo of this).
posted by oneirodynia at 6:27 PM on September 30, 2022 [2 favorites]

If you combine a hot water bottle with a pet bed that reflects their body heat like this, it will last a lot longer. I used a rechargeable plug in hot water bottle that's no longer available. It was wrapped in fake fur and I put the side the material was thinner on face down. I charged it every night and it lasted at least 8 hours in a barn, even in sub-freezing temperatures. Combined with a decent shelter, it will really make a difference.
posted by Eyelash at 6:27 PM on September 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

Maybe a rechargeable heated glove that has an external power pack or can be plugged into one (turned inside out if neccessary), or a chemical glove warmer?

This is some who-knows-what ebay stuff, but maybe these USB heating pads plugged into a suitably generous battery?

There are also electric throw blankets that run on USB power, but I don't know how long even a large battery could keep those going, probably meant to run off a wall adapter.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:40 PM on September 30, 2022

You might also look into getting a heated water dish; they are often found at farm supply stores. They plug in and keep the water from freezing over. They can be expensive, so you might try asking in your local Buy Nothing group or similar.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:06 PM on September 30, 2022

I don’t have any links at the moment, but last winter I was researching cheap DIY cat shelters, and one site recommended a plain Tupperware or plastic storage bin, with a styrofoam cooler inside, with straw as the bed. Cut a door on one side, possibly even a cloth “door.” But yeah if you can possibly lure the kitty inside when it gets cold, do that. But cats are smart and will seek shelter where they feel safe.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:31 PM on September 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are all excellent suggestions, thank you! Something here will surely work.

Here is the gorgeous little goblin hanging out with me on my patio. If I could bring her inside, I would. She already tries to follow me indoors, and I'm going to feel bad when it's too cold to hang out.

Here is the reason I can't bring her inside, apart from her not being my cat.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:15 PM on September 30, 2022 [8 favorites]

Overthinking things. Small cardboard box inside of bigger cardboard box with space between stuffed with junk mail/crumpled up newspaper topped with a tarp raised off the ground with entrances like an igloo. Trouble is getting the cat to know that that's a home. 30's or so temperatures.... cardboard and paper and plastic barrier is *way* warmer than you think. Cold at the start, but warms up quick like under heavy blankets.

Take it from an old once homeless bum, there's a reason for cardboard and a tarp and newspaper from the trash. Down to freezing, built like an igloo, body warmth will keep that space warm and nice. Maybe even too warm once it heats up. Keep out the wind and the rain and enclose a small space with relatively weather proof materials and it's like crawling into a cold bed that actually can get to warm. At least right around barely freezing temperatures. Actually getting too hot and sweaty is more of a problem than keeping the rain/wind/etc off Igloo wise design with a bit of a vent to keep air flowing and the body heat will keep the rest out. Go to far and it gets too hot.

So, small-ish, comfortable, cardboard, maybe two layers, wind and wet protection. The reast it teaching the cat that it's there. It will be warm enough. Igloo, because the warm inside is what keeps the cold from coming inside. Just a bit of a vent, want some air flowing through that box.

Leave food and water.
posted by zengargoyle at 9:34 PM on September 30, 2022 [5 favorites]

If you decide something needs to be built or modified but you can't do it, try contacting the local boy scout or girl scout troops. They are always looking for projects.
posted by rakaidan at 10:29 PM on September 30, 2022

All the suggestions above work, but as a person who does this every winter for the feral/strays in my neighborhood, many of which aren't necessarily accustomed to outdoor life (which are constant because we are one of the dumping areas for the cats that are brought in to the local city shelter), I'd like to make a few suggestions:

If you get snow or rain at all make sure that the shelter is raised off the ground at least a few inches.

Cardboard boxes work great but not for long if it rains. If you have any outdoor furniture that you cover up for the season putting the shelters under them with a small opening for the cat to discover will work great. I just lifted up the cover from the ground in an area to create a little tunnel for the cats to get under the table, they seem attracted to the tunnel. I have two winter shelters under my patio table that are cardboard and they're going on their second season. I did put an additional plastic tarp under the table cover when I covered it because the one I bought isn't great at keeping things dry during soaking rains.

I run an extension cord out my window and close the window as much as I can and then fill the gap (which is about 1/4") with a rolled up towel. I plug in a heating pad to this for the cat shelter. Two things if you go the the heating pad route: you don't need to put it on high, even on the coldest night. I put mine on medium and they go underneath the old towel or sweater or whatever I put in the box. Secondly, make sure when you buy the heating pad it doesn't have the automatic off that most of them do.I use this one. I make sure the controls are out of the weather, either underneath the table cover, or I put a plastic bag loosely around the temp control thing.

If you use the plastic bin or other impermeable structure for the shelter, make sure that you have a roof or rain guard that goes far enough out front that rain/snow can't get into the shelter. Rain doesn't always fall straight down, and any wind will blow the rain to the inside. Cats will abandon a shelter completely if the bedding gets wet.

I've never had a problem with raccoons or other creatures taking over the shelters, and there are a lot of raccoons around my backyard. You can't, however, control which cat takes over your shelter.

Putting some food near the shelter should attract the cat enough for them to discover it. Making it the appropriate size (big enough for the cat to stand and turn around, but not much bigger) will attract the cat to the box even more.

Good luck and thank you for caring about the little guys comfort.
posted by newpotato at 1:42 AM on October 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

There are heated pet beds that activate when the animal lies on them. We've used them for our cats when they get old and thin, and also in our breezeway for when a dog isn't quite ready to come inside.

If you decide to go newpotato's route with an extension cord, this might be a good choice for heating.

If you're going to transport water, hot water bottles are the classic solution.

I was looking at Facebook Marketplace for used rabbit hutches the other day. You might check there, or on craigslist, for people selling used dog houses or the like.
posted by Well I never at 6:27 AM on October 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

If you have a heated basement with a window, that is a good place to put a shelter. Against the wall of your house will also hold some heat.
posted by Oyéah at 4:43 PM on October 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

Good suggestions so far.

There are electric heated pet beds for outdoor shelters exactly like you're talking about. We have two for the shelters I built for my cats.

As I recall, budget for materials was a hair over $100, but I was building two of them. The heated pads are about $60-70 I think.
posted by Thistledown at 5:23 PM on October 1, 2022

I came across this affordable insulated cat tent on Amazon. There are other options in the suggested links (which might be a bit better).
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:48 AM on October 3, 2022

If you want to help this specific cat, I would suggest that you just pet her when she wants petting and perhaps keep some food/water on hand to give her directly when she visits your patio.

Other than that, putting out a shelter of any sort, especially heated, is going to attract a wide range of animals from the small and crawly variety all the way up to the garbage-can-disrupting variety. And attracting other outdoor/stray/feral cats can get loud and messy for you and for this pretty little neighbor cat.

Sorry to be a killjoy. I don't like it when people allow their cats to be outdoor cats either.
posted by desuetude at 11:20 AM on October 3, 2022 [1 favorite]

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