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How cold is too cold to let my cat go outside in winter?

Ginger cat walking outside in the snow

Does your cat love being outside? Here's everything you should know about letting your cat go outside in winter

© DavidTB - Shutterstock

When temperatures drop, one wonders if it's a good idea to let their cat go outside and face the freezing weather! If this is a question you are asking yourself, read on!

By Emilie Heyl

Updated on the

Animals are naturally equipped to resist the cold: their coat constitutes a barrier which retains body heat and repels water. Thus, even without clothing, the animal is able to face winter. But, cats do feel the cold and need us, cat parents to protect them against cold temperatures.

The density of the coat changes during the year: a cat’s coat will be denser in winter and when the sunny days come back, it will lose its winter coat by shedding. This adaptation mainly depends on the cat’s lifestyle. For example, a cat that lives indoors, does not undergo this annual cycle, and loses its hair all year round. The cat’s body is able to get used to its life rhythm, and one that is subjected to harsh temperatures will have a denser coat and will tolerate the cold better.

Cats know how to protect themselves from the cold by finding shelters: it often chooses areas that are isolated. A cat will even have no hesitation in staying with you if he judges the weather not to his liking: we often see cats spending more time indoors in winter.

How cold is too cold for a cat?

18°C to 21°C is the ideal temperature for cats, anything below and they will start to feel the cold. Cats are very good at regulating their body temperature and can handle temperatures as low as 2° C. Lower temperatures are too cold for cats to expose for more than a few minutes.

How do I know if my cat is too cold? Signs to look out for

As a cat owner, recognising when your feline is cold is very important. There are a few signs you will need to look out for and fortunately for us, these signs are quite explicit and recognisable.

Let's start with the most obvious: a cat who is very cold will start to shiver or even tremble. If you see your cat in this situation, cover your feline quickly and make sure it doesn't get wet as he could get sick

A cat who is cold will often get into a "ball" position, that is to say, it will lie down and put its paws under its belly, bring its tail to its body and bend its head towards the belly and stick it inside. This position allows the cat to concentrate all of its heat in one area and the rest of its body will benefit from this heat.

Finally, your cat will look for sources of heat. Indeed, if a feline is cold, it will not hesitate to burrow under the covers of the sofa or your bed, to put himself near the fireplace or to lie down on a radiator for example.

Can cats survive cold winters?

Animals are naturally adapted to the cold, and cats tend to select an environment which seems the most comfortable. It will therefore know how to regulate itself in relation to its sensitivity to bad conditions.

In addition, as an independent animal, its ethological needs often correspond to a certain freedom of movement. So a cat who is used to going out will suffer more from the lack of activity than from the cold if he had to stay inside.

So, the question you should ask yourself isn’t so much: "should I let my cat go outside in winter", but rather, "how can I make my cat's winter outings more comfortable?"

The easiest way is to offer your cat different resting areas inside and outside. Indeed, your cat will choose an area that suits him according to his needs, and this may change over the season. For example, a small shelter or a kennel not very far from your front door will allow your cat to wait for the door to open. But, cat flaps are the most convenient, as it will ensure total independence for your cat.

At the end of the day, cats are creatures of habits who thrive on routine and therefore they do not appreciate sudden changes. So, if your cat is used to going outside he would suffer from inactivity if he had to stay indoors and vice versa if an indoor cat isn’t used to going outside, he would be frightened if he had to be left outside. Make sure you protect your cat from the cold, no matter if you have an indoor or outdoor cat.

Should I let my cat go outside in winter, or is it dangerous for its health?

Like us humans, cats have a more fragile immune system with the cold and it is a riskier period for infectious diseases, but there are no particular diseases specific to this season for cats.

In terms of the measures to be taken when letting your cat go out in winter, unlike dogs, it is not possible to directly protect your cat against the cold with clothing. He may not tolerate the presence of a coat, in addition to the risk of get stuck somewhere. Therefore, if you want to let your cat go outside, make sure that he goes out in the daytime (not early in the morning and not late at night).

Don’t let your cat stay outdoors all night as temperatures can be extremely low.

If frostbites appear on your cat when he goes out, it is possible to cover them with petroleum jelly, which forms an insulating barrier against frost (to be used in particular on their paw pads in case it gets very cold, and there is a risk of frost). Don't hesitate to go see your vet if you notice frostbites on your cat.

How to keep my cat warm in cold temperatures

If a cat is used to being outside, cold temperatures won’t stop him from hunting, marking his territory and going on his daily walks in search of company. Even the rain or snow won’t stop him. So, it is your duty, as a cat parent, to make sure that when your feline comes home, all soaked and cold, he is warm and dry.

Here are our best and warmest tips to help your feline spend the winter in great shape, without the risk of catching a cold or getting sick.

Tip 1: Take care of your cat’s paws

The cold and the snow can have harmful effects on your cat's particularly sensitive pads. Use a towel to wipe his paws when he comes home. If necessary, run them under lukewarm water. Check, if he has walked for a long time in the snow, that the pads do not show injuries or blisters caused by the cold.
In these sometimes extreme winter conditions, dry skin cracked or chapped painfully weakens your cat's paws. They must be preserved from drying out because of the cold, the ice, the snow, the morning frost. Apply a repairing balm suitable for the care of your cat's pads and do not use products for dogs, their sensitivity is not the same.

Tip 2: Prepare a nice and warm bed 

Although your cat doesn't like change, he certainly won't be averse to sleeping closer to a heat source, especially in extreme cold temperatures. You can also add blankets to his bed, this will guarantee a cozy sleep.

Tip 3: Adapt your cat’s diet 

If you have an indoor cat, you don't need to change their diet. On the other hand, if you have an outdoor cat, they will need a richer diet. Indeed, fighting the cold requires energy, and an additional caloric intake is necessary. The cat draws its energy from proteins and lipids which constitute 90% of its needs, it is therefore necessary to increase the complete ration while taking care not to unbalance it. Ask your veterinarian for advice on how to adapt its ration.

However, be careful not to give too much food to your indoor cat or cat who will spend more time indoors, it is actually the opposite that will happen: Your cat will have less activity and he can gain weight during the winter.

Tip 4: Dry your cat when it comes home

Your cat comes home wet from the snow or the rain, you must quickly dry him to prevent him from catching cold. Even if he hates it... Then, let him settle down near a heat source. If you notice your cat has frostbites or cracks on their pads, consult your veterinarian immediately.

Tip 5: Maintain your cat’s naturally insulating coat

Don't panic, feline coats are renowned for their thickness and resistance to cold. However, when a cat gets wet, it loses its natural insulation and therefore, it’s important to dry your cat when he is wet. Additionally, be sure to untangle hairballs and brush your cat's coat on a regular basis as well.

Tip 6: Maintain a good temperature inside your house

The ambient temperature of your house should be around 22°C in winter. In bedrooms, the temperature should be slightly lowered by a few degrees. Does your cat love heat and regularly rubs herself against heaters? Do not turn off your heating during the day if this is the case.

Tip 7: Install a cat house outside

A cold cat will automatically seek heat. He may take refuge under a car or against a tire to warm up. Before starting your vehicle, check to see if your cat isn’t there. To avoid these particular situations, offer your feline an outdoor shelter to protect himself from bad weather (wind, rain, snow, thunderstorms, etc.) as well as nice big blankets.

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