Delilah peeking out of her feral villa on a cold winter morning
Here, in the greater New York area, mid-October is the perfect time to winterize the cat shelters. Time to check for cracks and leaks; sweep out the cob webs and any creepy crawlies that have moved in over the warm, summer months; fill with fresh straw (not hay); and, for an added treat, toss a handful of catnip both in and around the outside near the shelter entrances. Cats are curious by nature, and the catnip further insures they will try out their new or newly refreshed digs.
If you are new to colony management, this is probably a good time to set up your feral shelters and fill them with fresh straw and a handful of catnip. If the colony is in low-lying terrain, you might consider placing the shelter securely on top of a wooden pallet. Pallets can usually be gotten for free at a variety of places such as: garden centers, plumbing supply houses, and grocery stores. A piece of outdoor carpeting on top of the pallet may also be a good idea to prevent under drafts. Alley Cat Allies http://www.alleycat.org/ has great ideas for constructing your own inexpensive feral shelter. There are also companies that make shelters specifically for cats. I have been pleased with Feral Villa's insulated shelters which require a hand drill and about twenty minutes to assemble http://www.feralvilla.com/. Each shelter accomodates one cat; two if they like to cuddle together as Samson and Delilah do. If you plan to order one of these do-it-yourself kits, be sure to order soon as they are currently back-ordered by three to four weeks. I was late in ordering villas my first winter at Stone Ledge, and had to wait until mid-January for the shelters to arrive. Fortunately, several friends had extras and were able to lend them to me in the interim.
If you live in an urban area where straw is difficult to obtain, (try local grocery and garden stores that sometimes use straw bales for display purposes in the fall), Feral Villa sells and ships manageable boxes of straw. One lightweight box is good for three shelters. The reason for using straw (uncut) and not hay is that straw, the outside shaft of grain plants, is better at wicking moisture and keeping the cats dry and warm. Hay is generally made up of grasses and is used as livestock feed. It is silkier and retains some moisture. Blankets and comforters are not recommended because all fabric retains a degree of moisture. I have known folks to use dry blankets and quilts as a temporary fix on a cold night until straw could be obtained. If you must use a blanket, towel, comforter, etc. just be certain it remains dry.
Catnip is usually available in pet stores. Since I have sixteen shelters to winterize, I like to buy several large, six-ounce containers of “Cosmic Catnip” http://www.cosmiccatnip.org/ and place generous amounts both in and around the openings of the shelters.
My first winter at Stone Ledge I had my doubts about how well these straw-filled shelters might work. I was amazed to find that all cats remained dry and survived without consequence. I would like to add, however, that if you live in an extremely cold climate, please check with your local shelter and cat rescue groups to learn what methods they use to combat freezing temperatures and blizzard conditions.
Feral Villa Shelters at Stone Ledge: