Helping cats in cold weather

This is an update on the post I did several years ago here (it still has a lot of great info!)

Here in Utah we’ve been very lucky to have a warm and dry (maybe too dry? We’re actually in an extreme drought) autumn. But, of course, all nice things have to end eventually and we’re expecting a drop in temperatures tonight. I always worry about animals in cold temperatures as I’ve seen so many animals with frostbite damage in my veterinary work. Hopefully this post will help keep some kitties more comfortable!

Stay snug!

A quick word before we get to the cold weather info: TNR (trap-neuter-release; this term works for spaying females too) is another of the kindest things you can do for an outdoor cat. Period. Many clinics, rescues, and vet clinics offer low cost or free feral/barn cat sterilization surgeries and vaccines. If you see a cat outdoors with a tipped left ear (literally missing the tip of the ear) it means the cat has been sterilized. TNR reduces the chance of injuries to the cat (less fighting over territory), reduces the number of unwanted kittens that overrun shelters, and extends the life of the cat. For more info on TNR check out the Alley Cat Allies site here.

Feral cats, barn cats, and even lost indoor cats are at risk for frostbite (which can permanently damage ears, toes, and even cause nerve damage) and cold weather can exacerbate underlying conditions (like asthma, heart conditions, or other ailments). The best thing you can do for outdoor cats is to provide 3 things: sturdy shelter, food, and non-frozen water.

Shelter: this can be as simple as a box and as complex as a fully-built complex. (Many community feral cat rescues offer plans or even boxes you can use, check out one plan here). Chewy or Amazon also offer pre-built heated outdoor shelters. One of the best semi-permanent shelters uses a couple plastic tote bins, some Styrofoam, straw, and something to keep it slightly elevated off the ground and something to keep the lid on. The refletix (metal-looking bubble wrap) that comes with some cold grocery deliveries (or can be purchased from a home supply store) can also add an additional layer of moisture-proof insulation.

The image below shows how to make a good shelter, my only edit would be if you live in an area with dogs, foxes, or coyotes, there should also be a second hole cut for an exit. Make sure the shelter is both secure (it won’t blow over in heavy winds) and in a safe place. Elevating the shelter on some lumber or even bricks will help keep the box warmer. Straw is the best insulator as it repels rather than absorbing water or moisture. Be sure to check whatever box you use for interior moisture and switch out straw if it gets wet. (You can find straw at places like Tractor Supply or gardening stores. If you’re keeping extra make sure to keep it covered with a tarp or in a shed to keep moisture out).

Smaller is better for shelters: the more air space, the more cold that can get in. Make sure snow or ice isn’t accumulating in the shelter and that, during or after snowstorms, that the entrance and exit are both accessible and not blocked. Never put food or water inside the shelter, these can attract predators or pests.

Image from Alley Cat allies:

Food and water: keep all food and water away from the shelter. If possible, place these under a roof or even in a plastic tub on its side for a makeshift cover to keep rain or snow out. Dry food is best as it will not freeze. Water is essential in the winter, and cats will not get moisture from snow. A heated water bowl works well, or even putting a water bowl inside an insulated bin cut to the size of the bowl will keep water from freezing quickly. Bird bath or pond warmers work as well for larger bowls. If you have a pond or water feature and use a warmer to keep it from icing over, cats can drink from it as well. Animals need extra calories in the winter, so check food and water supplies frequently. If you will be out of town or expect to be limited in feeding due to a storm, put out extra food or ask a friend or neighbor to help you with feeding. Food supplies in winter can be the difference in the survival of an animal.

Andy, one of my former fosters!

Antifreeze and deicing salt: remember to never leave antifreeze accessible to animals as it is very toxic and will cause death if ingested. If it is spilled, use materials (like absorbent cat litter) to absorb it and then discard it. Deicing salts can also have heavy metals or other materials that are toxic to cats (and dogs) when they step on it and then groom themselves. Be sure any deicing materials used are pet safe.

A final word, cats and other small animals sometimes crawl into engine blocks to stay warm. Be sure to tap on your hood before starting your car! I have seen kitties injured by fan belts from crawling into engines, and it’s not pretty. Better to check before starting!

The X-Factor in Horses

The x-factor is a strange-sounding name that makes sense with a little explanation. The “x” is for the x-chromosome and factor is, well, a factor.

The quickest explanation of what the x-factor is in equines is a genetic abnormality or mutation that causes an enlarged heart. (Quick note: the x-factor is still a hypothesis, not a proven genetic mutation…yet). Normally, an enlarged heart would be cause for alarm in a beloved pet. For example, domestic cats can have a kind of enlarged heart, called cardiomegaly (if you break down the word, cardio means pertaining to the heart and megaly means abnormal enlargement– so the term literally means a big heart) which can cause breathing problems and shorten their life-span (though if diagnosed early it can be treatable and kitties can live with it and be comfortable, something I saw first-hand as a vet tech). Horses too can have cardiomegaly from heart disease that can lead to problems, but that kind of enlargement is usually seen later in life. The x-factor’s large heart can actually benefit performance horses in their work.

To learn about the emergence of the x-factor, we need to go back many years and generations through the bloodlines of thoroughbred horses. Pedigree information for thoroughbreds goes back hundreds of years, and the lineage of a single horse can be traced back to the 15th century or earlier (the names get less and less ornate the further back you go, and names like “yellow mare” become the norm). Bloodlines mean everything in the horse world, especially for horse breeders. If a certain characteristic or quirk can give a horse an advantage on the track or in the ring, a horse commanding that trait can become a hot commodity for breeding. Though males can produce more offspring, the horses predominantly in control of the x-factor are female, as they have the XX genotype and so can only pass an X chromosome on to their colts of fillies.

Though thought of as a female genetic trait, the first horse noted to have a larger than normal heart was Eclipse, a stallion thoroughbred born in 1764. (He is noted as “temperamental and difficult to train,” which is a lovely description). Eclipse is also attributed to being the foundation horse of the modern thoroughbred breed, and contributing to modern quarter horses as well.

Without delving too far into horse bloodlines, the results (or probably results, remember the X-factor is still technically a hypothesis) of the x-factor gene can be seen in race horse history easily with some big names. Secretariat, Sham, (the horse who was Secretariat’s closest rival), and war Admiral were all descendants of Eclipse and were all found to have larger than normal hearts to go along with their impressive race records. When Sham was necropsied after his death, his heart was found to be 18 lbs, or more than double the size of heart that was expected. Sadly, Sham died of a heart attack (a side effect of the x-factor?). Secretariat has been thought to have had a heart weighing 23 lbs, while Eclipse had a 14lb heart (which is still almost double the average thoroughbred heart weight).

(Kaprys Photography is my former business, if you’re wondering about the additional watermark).

So what good does a large heart do? Why isn’t it a hindrance? Well, it allows more blood to be pumped because of larger heart muscle. This means the muscles of the horse get more oxygen more quickly than a horse with a smaller heart who is the same size otherwise. The x-factor horse will tire less readily and could potentially be better at distance races or even sprints.

Because many stellar race horses have larger hearts, the x-factor has been the presumed indicator of performance. However, like most things genetic, it’s probably not just one gene or one anatomic abnormality that is responsible for success.

I will say I have a horse who may have the x-factor himself. He’s a big boy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a big heart (he already does in spirit). He’s a good performance horse, though now enjoying semi-retirement at 21 years old. He’s fast and doesn’t tire easily. Does he have the x-factor? I’m not sure. He is a direct descendant of Sham (a bit strange as he is a Polish warmblood, but when you consider Sham’s daughter Long Meadows was sent to England and Austria for breeding it makes more sense) and he was a champion jumper in his youth. If he inherited anything from Sham that I’m most impressed with, it’s his personality and willingness to work, which are both stellar qualities in any horse.



Helping Outside Cats and Dogs in Cold Weather

Baby, it is COLD outside. Bitterly, bitterly cold. With -40F wind chills predicted here (north-east Iowa) my thoughts always turn to animals stuck outside. Miss Moose is extremely happy to spend her second winter with us as an inside dog (I found her on a highway in a blizzard, she smelled like a cow and we found out her owners moved and left her).

Hello? Yes, this is Moose.

Hello? Yes, this is Moose.

My horse even gets to stay inside on very cold days at his barn. But with cats still coming in to our local (no-kill!) Animal Control I feel for those left to fend for themselves.

Cats especially have it rough. I see so many with ears scarred by frostbite. One way to help feral or lost cats in your neighborhood is by putting together a simple box. I made one similar to this one:

Shelter for feral cats

Sorry I don’t know who to credit for this picture! I found it here:


I took a rubbermaid  tub, lined it with foam board insulation, and put some straw inside. I cut a small (cat-sized) hole on one side. If you have animals that may trap a cat in the box (Coyotes, etc) an escape hole on the other side is a good idea. I usually put a bit of cat food out on top of the box on very cold days too. I imagine some raccoons or opossums may benefit from that, and I am OK with that. They need help as well.

Water sources can also be helpful. I have a small pond that I keep a bird bath heater in so there is some unfrozen water critters can get to. I didn’t think it mattered, but last winter (record lows here for weeks!) I kept seeing a little Maine Coon drinking from it. I thought she was another neighborhood feral that I would trap and neuter and release, but one day I saw her sitting on our patio shivering. I went out to feed her and she jumped into my arms. After some Facebook networking through my vet it turned out she was a beloved family pet who got out in October (we found her just before Christmas). I was so happy to see her reunited!

Fleury (named for the hockey goalie and because it was snowing when we found her). Her actual name turned out to be Trixie. I like Fleury...

Fleury (named for the hockey goalie and because it was snowing when we found her). Her actual name turned out to be Trixie. I prefer Fleury…

Dogs can also be in trouble in cold weather. I found Moose just before a blizzard hit, she is one lucky girl! This post from Lost Dogs Illinois on Facebook shows one way to help pups in need:

Obviously, if you see a dog tethered outside in extreme weather with no shelter please call your local police department or animal control. No animal needs to live like that.

Also be sure to tap on your car hood before starting it, kitties like to crawl up near engine blocks for warmth. And if you use salt, use pet-friendly kinds.

Your indoor pups may like a coat when going outside in frigid weather. Our husky-mix Kailie is built for cold weather (though we don’t let her stay out in it long).

Kailie in Utah

Kailie in Utah, the Kaprys Photography watermark is from my other blog

However, short-haired dogs like greyhounds and the like need coats in cold weather. The greyhound rescues usually tell new owners “If you need a coat on, your dog does too.” Here Cedric, my Galgo Espanol (or Spanish Greyhound) and Marigold, my ex-racer (RIP sweet girl) model their coats my mom made for them.

Cedric and Marigold in 2012

Cedric and Marigold in 2012

If you don’t have a specially fashioned coat or need a quick one for a lost dog, use a sweatshirt. Put the legs in the arms and clip the sides up on the back with a safety-pin.

I hope this post helps some animals in need. Stay warm, friends!