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At any given time, there are approximately 70 million stray dogs and cats in the United States.  Stray dog or cat populations can be found in our cities, suburbs, and rural areas. And for many, the food and shelter they obtain throughout the winter will determine whether they live or die. You can be the difference in the result simply by taking a few steps.

Continue reading to learn how you can assist homeless dogs and cats in surviving the winter.

Try Your Local Rescue Organization 

When you see a homeless animal on the street, the first thing you should do is contact your local stray center, shelters, and rescue organizations. 

It’s possible they’re already aware of a feral cat population in your area, but they may attempt to trap them and return them to the population if they don’t have room at their organization. The majority of animal shelters will make an effort to pick up stray dogs, although it may take days or weeks for them to have the resources to do so.

If they don’t come quickly, you may want to consider other options including the ones outlined below.

Can You Take the Cat or Dog in Yourself?

Just because the animal shelter is aware of a stray dog or cat does not imply they will be picked up quickly. And just because a cat is feral doesn’t imply they will be better prepared to withstand a sudden winter spell. You might consider bringing a stray animal into your home if you are able to make the long-term commitment of caring for them and if you feel safe doing so (and if the animal feels safe coming to you). 

Simply make an appointment with a veterinarian using the Petdesk app to check for diseases and ensure that the animal is immunized and safe to be around your children or other pets.

Obtain Veterinary Care and TNR

If you are able to catch the stray, obtaining veterinary care is highly recommended to ensure they are at least healthy. Your veterinarian will also be able to scan the animal for a microchip, just in case they have a home and have just lost their way. 

Rescue organizations encourage a process known as TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) which is most often associated with the cat population. 

TNR strikes a compromise between the demands and concerns of the human communities where many wild cats reside. Cats should not be found and euthanized, but rather cared for and ensured their health is stable prior to being released back into their feral population. Experts, and the general public, want to see cat populations stable, and they value spaying and neutering as a way to keep cats’ mating tendencies under check. Adult cats are returned to the feral colony after being spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and ear tipped (to indicate TNR has been performed). 

Don’t attempt TNR activities in the winter unless you can return the cats to a warm shelter. They will need a warm, safe environment while they are recovering.

Create a Shelter

If you are unable to bring the animal into your home, you may be able to assist them in surviving the winter by giving shelter, like a solid cardboard box lined with straw. Towels and blankets added into the box is a good idea, but can do more harm than good because they will likely get wet and freeze in the rain, hail, or snow. 

To keep its interior warm, a shelter must trap the animals’ body heat. If the shelter is too large, the animals’ body heat will struggle to keep the space warm. Place the shelter on a brick platform, a pallet, or something else to hold it off the ground. The shelter will be able to better trap and retain the cat or dog’s body heat as a result. Prop one end up higher than the other to allow moisture to run off the roof while also preventing moisture from accumulating on the interior floor.

If you’re extremely dedicated to helping dogs and cats in the winter, there are specialized, heated shelters available on Amazon to assist in their survival and well-being. 

If you are able and it’s a safe place for them to be, open the garage or building entrance doors to provide cover from the winter cold. If you don’t plan on keeping the animal permanently, don’t keep them for more than 1-3 weeks (during the harsh winter months only), as releasing them back into the stray community after such a long time may be perceived as abandonment by the animal.

Provide Food and Water

Providing stray animals with fresh, clean food and water can help them withstand the cold by reducing the amount of energy they must use to find food. A well-fed animal is also better equipped to battle infection and disease. 

Avoid canned foods since they are more likely to freeze as the temperature drops. Check on water sources on a regular basis to ensure they have continuous access to fresh water as well. Water dishes should not be kept within the shelter. A damp shelter will seem more like a refrigerator than a warm sanctuary since water is easily spilled.

Watch for Strays Obtaining Shelter

As the weather becomes cooler, we often retreat to the warmth of our homes. Many of us are fortunate enough to have access to winter luxuries such as heat, blankets, and somewhere comfortable to sleep. 

Animals that live outside, like cats, have a harder time finding a comfortable, cozy spot to sleep. This is why cats are frequently found in car engines, looking for a safe haven to shelter from the cold. Of course, this is dangerous, but cats aren’t aware of that. They just feel the warmth from the engine and shelter from the wind. 

Especially in the winter months, before leaving where you’re parked, check the engine compartment and beneath the car prior to leaving to ensure there aren’t any strays taking comfort inside.

Taking the Steps to Do Your Part

Unfortunately, no single person can save all of the world’s stray dogs and cats. However, with a little work and compassion, one individual can help at least one stray animal get through the dark, harsh days of winter and onto brighter, warmer days ahead.