Save a Feral Cat’s Life With a $15 DIY Winter Shelter

Feature image via Shutterstock 

When I moved to New York a few years ago, I didn’t know feral cats were a thing. I knew stray cats were a thing, and I knew just how to handle those little guys. You lure them to you with a piece of hot dog at the little league ballpark or some peanut butter in the church parking lot, and then you scoop them up and take them home and de-flea them and love them forever. Easy peasy. Feral cats, though, are a whole other thing. They live their entire lives outside and can almost never be socialized to behave like house cats. But they’re still cats! I’d only been in New York for about ten minutes when I spotted my first feral cat, and that led me down the path of getting Trap, Neuter, Return certified by the ASPCA; socializing and adopting a litter of feral kittens; and setting up my own community cat colony (Hogwarts School of Witchkittens and Wizardcats is our official registered name with the NYC Feral Cat Initiative).

Being a Dumbledore to a colony of feral cats isn’t for everyone, I get it — but winter is coming, and you can save a feral cat’s life by providing shelter for it. It’s cheap and it’s easy! Below are instructions for making a DIY winter shelter for one cat. They don’t look like much, but they are really effective. Last winter, the shelters I made saw my colony through one of the biggest blizzards in NYC’s history. The snow was hip-deep, but my cats stayed snug and warm and dry in their little Rubbermaid houses.


Step One: Gather Your Supplies


You can get everything you need for a feral cat shelter at Home Depot. In fact, you need so few supplies you can carry them home all by yourself on the subway.

+ A plastic or rubber storage container. I use the HDX 20-gallon tote because it’s the perfect size for one cat after you add the insulation and bedding. Make sure your container has a solid lid on top; flip-top containers that open in the middle will let in snow and rain and cold air.

+ Insulation. You can use just regular styrofoam. That’s what I started with last year, but it got so cold that I ended up taking the houses apart and wrapping the styrofoam in those emergency reflective blankets marathoners use on TV and then putting the houses back together. So this year, I went ahead and paid a little extra for thicker styrofoam with built-in reflection. (This is R-Tech 1″ thick insulating sheathing.)

+ Gorilla tape.

+ Pine straw. The ASPCA recommends that you use pine straw instead of hay as the bedding/extra insulation for feral cat beds because it dries faster and is less allergy-inducing. I couldn’t find pine straw in NYC last year, so I used the kind of hay people put in rabbit beds and it worked just fine. However, my feral cat shelters sit up off the ground and have a roof-type situation over them, so they’re not as likely to get wet inside like one that’s sitting on the ground.

Step Two: Make The Cat Entrance and Water Exit


Cut a cat-sized door into your container. Make it big enough for a cat to fit inside, but not so big that it lets in excess cold air/snow. I like to cover the edges of the door with Gorilla tape because the plastic edges seem poky after I cut them.

Cut two holes in the bottom of one side of your container. You’ll sit the container at a little bit of an incline so any excess water can drain out if it makes its way inside the house.

The plastic of the HDX container is thin enough that just my pocket knife works for all the cutting.

Step Three: Insulate The House


Measure the inside of your container and cut out insulation to make four walls, a floor, and a ceiling. Use Gorilla tape on the outside corners of your walls to make sure they don’t fall in. If you’re using reflective styrofoam, make sure the reflective side is facing into the house on the floor and ceiling, too! You want all sides to be insulated, not just the walls.

Once your floor and walls are in place, cut the door out of the styrofoam.

Add your pine straw.

Step Four: Hi, Bobbi Jean!


If your feral cat is watching you build her house, talk sweetly to her the whole time so she associates the house with you and knows it’s a safe place just for her.

Step Five: Seal It Up


You don’t have to seal the top of the house with tape, but it’ll make it extra dry and also ensures that the lid doesn’t come flying off in a windstorm. Gorilla tape holds through all kinds of bonkers weather conditions, so don’t worry about rain or sleet or snow wearing it down.

You’ll want to find a way to anchor your house. These things are really light. You can use stones inside the house (between the outside insulation and the plastic), or a brick on top of the house. Bobbi Jean’s house wedges under the window just perfectly in my back”yard.”

These cheap and easy shelters really can be the difference between life and death for a cat this winter.

For more information about TNR (the very very very best thing you can do to help feral cats, especially in big cities) (and they help you back by controlling the pest population!), check out the ASPCA. All the training is free and happens on the weekends!

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Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Heather has written 1718 articles for us.


    • I have a feral cat that was born last year. He took up at my house because I have a girl cat (patches) that never goes outside . I named my feral cat Charlie . I feed him twice a day , he lets me pet him and love on him. Patches and Charlie play through the glass door and window . When ever I treat Patches for fleas I treat Charlie too . I have been worried about winter coming and trying to think of how I was going to build him a warm house. I was going to build Charlie something so now you have giving me the answer . Thank you so much ,to me you are a Charlie life saver . I know some of y’all reading this thinks why don’t you bring Charlie in , and I would but patches has been declawed . And she’s not very healthy. Thanks again !

  1. i’m so excited because i can put a tablecloth on this and it becomes “patio approved furniture” so I can save kitties and not be fined!!! you are a true superhero heather hogan!!

    • Excellent idea,i have been in knots about how i would comply with complex yard rules and a suitable winter shelter for my colony.eight cats in mine i wondered about stacking the.

  2. Heather, you are a wonderful, amazing human being X

    I am an offical crazy cat person, and care ridiculously for our furry overlords. Spreading awareness of this sort of thing is fantastic, and I want to hug the crap out of you for it.

  3. I’m so going to make these! They’re so ingenious. We don’t have feral kitties where I live but we do have a lot of outdoor kitties that I worry about getting stuck outside when it gets cold here. Gonna make them a little survival hut, just in case!!

  4. Thank you for this post! My girlfriends backyard has this one little feral cat we named “Fella” he’s been kind of a nuisance but I don’t want him to die in the cold!

    • “kind of a nuisance but I don’t want him to die” is how I feel about most cats, TBH.

      but these are a wonderful idea and if we had feral cats ’round here I’d definitely still make one.

      • Hahaha for sure! I’m also allergic to cats and every time I walk out the back porch he immediately runs up and licks me.

  5. Lol The cats!!.. They live off the streets, they mark their territory. They’ll be just fine.

  6. Heather, you are a national treasure. I would shed a little tear for the cats if I wasn’t dehydrated from drinking so much coffee. I don’t have a convenient spot for maintaining a cat shelter this winter but I’ll share this article for my friends who do.

    And I think Bobbi Jeans’ face in that photo says, “Good work, hoo-man. Thnx.”

  7. We have 2 feral cats on campus near the chemistry building. Everyone feeds them and pets them. I notice it makes a lot of students calm down and they seem less depressed after petting them. One girl has been giving them some stuff to treat fleas and regularly pets them every day. I made the mistake of joking around and saying, “for a dollar a day, little Toby here, can live a normal cat life with plenty of Fancy Feast and no fleas. Donate some love today.” The girl did not laugh. Other students gave me money to buy Fancy Feast….I bought some stuff for the cats. She is still mad at me but I will refer this article to her since she loves the cats on campus.

  8. Great Idea Heather. I always hate to think of the poor strays and ferals, out in all weathers. Thanks for thinking of all the small furries.

  9. Definitely. In fact, the night I put this shelter out for Bobbi Jean I saw a possum go inside it. By the morning, Bobbi had taken it over and has been in there every time I’ve gone out to feed her or popped my head out to check on her.

    • Ok…so yeah…it’s been 5+year: a recession,an upswing , a partial depression….a “me too” movement….dramatic LGBTQ Gains (& sum devastating losses)..National violence & international strife…a Trump in the Whitehouse, gains in prison reform, marijuana legalized ….opiate crisis publicized….And big pharma FINALLY takes a hit …the “,melting pot boils over as domestic opins toward immigrantion hit fever pitch( & I could go on and on) oh,yeah…a Global pandemic( ongoing!)and nation in pajamas(24/7!!!) …
      But One thing stays constant—-
      Animals are still in need of of help.
      Whet how er abandoned,neglected,abused,they’re victim of human whim…kittie(& pups) are in crisis
      Sure ,SOME TRUE ferals MAY “Make it on their own”as one comment says—..tho— they’d need to kill & eat @ 60(!!!) Mice/DAY for proper nourishment!!!
      AND SURE- they MAY be “wild” & live off the street,as is pointed out..BUT– the climate (BOTH PUBLIC and the weather,lol!!) isn’t conducive to their survival–
      WHENEVER they “do what they HAVTA”…to survive (Without a helping human ‘hand)— they survive by killing pests,sure….but they also birds— escape cold by seeking shelter in HUMAN HOMES( THEY DONT KNOW THAT BASEMENT IS YOURS!!)..OR perusing UR GARBAGE- BUFFET STYLE,— ,ALL TOO OFTEN,those survival skills will get THEM KILLED( OR SHALL I CALL IT- CORRECTLY-)– –MURDERED!.
      (.. LETS not even discuss what some barbarians do to cats caught spraying their prize winning azalea bushes when “marking “,as you noted ..

      Who Doesn’t occasionaly need a hand?!!
      .. sooo— thank you to all of you,who offer it!!

  10. Yay feral cats! Yay TNR!
    Fun fact-I volunteer at a feral cat sanctuary and we have rehabilitated a lot of them over the years and they LOVE people! One cat named George will smack you if you stop petting him and he loves being picked up and held. Of course some of the ferals still hiss at me when I feed them but many have changed over the years.

  11. my roommate and i are making one of these right now! when you posted the article, i was like hm this is a great idea too bad i haven’t seen any kitties around my house, but then, lo, our very own outside kitty showed up a few weeks ago.

    also, ya know, *bump* for this article now that it’s december and cold in more places.

  12. Two comments to make your houses just a bit better for their feline tenants.
    First, pour a ten pound bag of stones evenly on the bottom of your plastic box for stability.
    Second, put the entrance hole up about six inches. This will help in several ways. It will not let in water that might build up in a storm. It will also keep the cold winds from blowing directly on the cats. Plus, cats like to be a little adventurous and might be more likely to investigate your kitty castle if it is a little challenging to explore.

  13. Pine straw is NOT recommended. It comes from pine trees, not crops. If you want to itch for a week stick your hands in it and get chiggers. Pine straw is for landscaping. Straw for bedding comes from wheat, oats, or rye. Please learn the difference.

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