With the colder months lurking just around the corner, Chloë Holland explores 10 ways to keep your kitty happy, safe and healthy this winter.
Plunging temperatures, icy conditions and heavy snowfall obviously present risks to cats that have outdoor access, but even for those kept indoors, winter brings its own set of challenges, with the flashes and bangs of fireworks season and over-friendly visitors around the festive period perhaps testing their nerves.
However, making just a few simple changes to your home and routine this winter can help to make your cat a great deal happier. Take a look at our top 10 tips to ensure your cat remains healthy and content throughout the winter months ...
1. Indoor fun!
For cats that are used to the outdoor life in the summer months, entertaining them throughout the winter can seem like an endless challenge. Shorter days and chilly evenings might mean that an adventurous cat’s movements are restricted and he’s forced to spend more time indoors, so it’s essential that you cater for his natural need to hunt, jump and explore.
Take a look at the exercise and playtime facilities currently available in your home – are there plenty of places to climb up high and hide down low, and are there suitable toys to bring out your cat’s inner predator? If not, you need to look at ‘catifying’ your home before the colder months set in. Clearing shelves of books, packing away ornaments from your window sills and mantelpiece, and giving your cat access underneath beds and furniture quickly turns your home into a fun-filled kitty playground! Add a few newspaper tunnels, empty cardboard boxes and a selection of feathered, furry and fast-moving toys, and your cat should soon be too busy to think about the world on the other side of the cat flap.
2. A cosy hideaway
When there’s a biting chill in the air, it’s imperative that you provide your cat with a cosy, warm and draught-free spot to relax and unwind – although, ideally, your cat will have access to at least one quiet hideaway all year round. Set up your cat’s hiding spot in a room he favours, ensuring it is away from busy family areas, windows and doors, or noisy household appliances. You could even treat your cat to an extra cosy fleece-blanket during the colder months, which will make a welcome addition to his winter hideaway.
Owners of outdoor cats beware – when out and about, cats will often look for a warm spot to shelter from inclement weather, and this may well be beneath the bonnet of a parked vehicle. Before starting your car, always tap the hood a few times and check between your tyres to ensure a cat hasn’t taken refuge from wintery weather. If your own cat has been known to do this, ask your neighbours to check their cars before starting the engine.
3. Everything he needs
If your cat prefers to toilet outdoors, it’s still important that you provide him with indoor litter trays in the colder months. Cats dig to cover their waste and frost-bitten ground can make this tough on small paws, whilst bad weather in itself may put some cats off doing their business outdoors. Place litter trays (the rule is one per cat, plus one extra) in quiet, private areas of the home, filed with your cat’s preferred litter substrate – or even a little garden soil or sand to get him used to the idea. Experiment with covered and open litter trays, and ensure soiled litter is removed as quickly as possible.
Owners often remark that they never see their cats drinking water, which suggests that many will drink from outdoor sources such as puddles and ponds (delicious!) When these freeze over in the winter months, it’s imperative that we offer a selection of alternative, indoor drinking containers for our cats to encourage them to stay hydrated. Some will prefer to lap from the constant flow of a water fountain, whereas others will refuse to drink from anything but a glass or tumbler (cats eh?!) Take time to work out your cat’s drinking preference and provide a couple of his chosen vessels, topped up with fresh water daily, around the home.
Feline housemates that get along quite happily in the summer months may run into a bit of trouble when the cats are cooped up together for longer periods of time. To ensure conflict doesn’t occur in your multi-cat home, provide each cat with his own set of facilities (including litter trays, hideaways, scratching posts, food and water bowls) to prevent any ‘guarding’ of resources by dominant feline residents. Multi-cat homes may also benefit from plenty of high-up and low-down boltholes so nervous cats can simply hop up out of harm’s way or hide away to de-stress, should any inter-cat tension arise.
4. Outdoor adventures
For some cats, the call of the great outdoors is too much to resist, no matter the weather! However, these hardy kitties will still appreciate an outdoor hideaway to shelter from a bitter wind. These outdoor shelters can be purchased online in an array of wooden or plastic designs, but they can be just as easily created with a little bit of DIY. Why not provide your cat with an upturned wooden planter as a cosy hideaway? Simply cut a cat-sized entrance into the planter and pop a cosy cushion or blanket inside.
If your cat is an avid explorer, let him outside when temperatures are highest and traffic levels are lowest – and try to keep him indoors during the hours of darkness. If this winter is the first time your cat has seen snow or frost, supervise his first outing and leave the door open for a few moments in case he decides the weather isn’t to his liking! If your cat uses a cat flap, check it throughout the day to ensure it hasn’t frozen shut.
Finally, it is good practice to microchip cats, whether they venture outdoors or not, so if your cat doesn’t already have a ‘chip, take him to the vets to get one as soon as possible. Unlike a collar, a microchip is a permanent form of identification for your cat, and could help to reunite you both should he wander too far.
5. Feline foodies
Many owners will up their cat’s food intake during the winter months, but it’s important that you continue to follow the feeding guidelines on your cat food packaging – and don’t give in to a persistent cat’s begging tactics. Some cats will choose to eat a little less in hot weather, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to offer more food in the colder months, particularly if they’re not as active in winter. If you’re unsure whether your cat is underweight (or even a little overweight), check his body condition score using the PFMA’s Cat Size-O-Meter online at www.pfma.org.uk/cat-size-o-meter. You should be able to feel your cat’s ribs, spine and hip bones quite easily (though they should not be easily seen), he should have a visible waist without it being too obvious, and a small amount of belly fat with no sagging. If you have any concerns about your cat’s weight or body condition, speak to your vet or vet nurse.
Just like humans, research has shown that animals can get the ‘winter blues’ too – according to the veterinary charity PDSA, affected pets will want to eat more, avoid exercise and may appear grumpier during the winter months. Elaine Pendlebury, senior vet at the PDSA says: “Some pets display similar symptoms to the human disorder, seasonal affected disorder (SAD), which include fatigue, depressed mood and lack of energy.”
If your cat seems a little lacklustre in the winter months, try not to indulge him with more treats and food, but instead get him moving with fun daily playtimes and lots of cuddles to elevate his mood.
One of the biggest temptations for food-obsessed cats during the festive season is their owners’ Christmas dinner! Although there is no harm in giving your cat a little taste of lean turkey, it’s important that we don’t offer our pets lots of extra food over the festive period, much of which could even be harmful to their sensitive digestive system. Chocolate, Christmas pudding and alcohol can all be incredibly toxic to pets, so keep coffee table treats and leftovers out of reach of cheeky paws.
6. Antifreeze warning
With the coldest weather still ahead, car owners are likely to be winter-proofing their vehicles with antifreeze. Antifreeze tastes sweet and is tempting to cats and dogs, who will invariably lick their paws after coming into contact with the substance on driveways and roads – but just a small amount can cause kidney failure and could even be fatal to cats if ingested. If you suspect your cat may have come into contact with antifreeze, seek veterinary attention immediately – the first nine to 12 hours are critical. Signs of antifreeze poisoning include: vomiting, seeming depressed or lethargic, appearing drunk and uncoordinated, seizures and difficulty breathing.
The RSPCA recommends that owners keep antifreeze – and any poisonous household substances – in clearly-labelled, sealed containers away from pets and their environment. Clean up any spills immediately, no matter how small and ensure pets can’t access the area until it’s clean and safe.
7. Firework fear
Fireworks don’t start and finish on November 5th – the winter skies are often lit up with the bright flashes and bangs of fireworks as celebrations continue well into the New Year, so it’s essential that you prepare your cat for their onset. Keep your cat inside when fireworks begin and provide everything he needs indoors – including litter trays and quiet hideaways. Reduce the noise by drawing curtains and playing music or turning on the TV as background noise. Particularly nervous cats may also benefit from the use of feline pheromone sprays and diffusers in the lead-up to fireworks season – formulations such as Feliway Classic can be a huge comfort to tense cats.
8. Special needs
Cats that are inactive, elderly or very thin may need a bit of help regulating their body temperature in freezing climates. Try to keep them inside during bad weather and provide them with lots of warm and cosy places to sleep and relax. If your cat is on any medication or may require veterinary attention during the festive period, make yourself aware of your practice’s opening hours and emergency or out-of-hours service, and be sure to pick up any prescription food or medication ahead of these closures.
Winter can be harsh on stiff joints, so provide arthritic cats with a helping hand throughout your home. Aching limbs may prevent a cat from jumping up to a favourite perch or hideaway so try to provide steps up to these. Arthritic cats may also search out heat in your home, so be wary of him sitting close to hot radiators as these could easily burn his sensitive skin. Why not treat your cat to a specially made radiator bed or heated pet bed for Christmas instead?
9. Nice to meet you!
The hustle and bustle of a family home is often what we enjoy most about the festive period – but do our pets feel the same? Friends and family can stress a cat when they ‘invade’ at Christmas and New Year, especially if young children haven’t been told how to interact with a nervous cat.
“Faced with trouble, a cat’s first reaction is to keep at a distance, observe and then run away or hide,” say veterinary behaviourist Jon Bowen. “They cannot resist this urge, and trying to stop cats from hiding could cause them immense stress.”
It is therefore essential that you provide suitable hiding places for your cat, but you should also lay down some ground rules for visitors, as Jon explains: “Leave cats alone while they are hiding, don’t rake them out to make them meet people. When visitors come, restrict them to one room of the house so that your cat knows he is free to move around the rest of the house. It is important to keep visitors away from your cat’s eating, drinking and toileting areas as these are places your cat must have access to at all times. Visitors should stay seated if the cat enters the room and avoid eye contact with him, and no matter how much a visitor says things like ’cats like me’ or ‘I just want to make friends’, do not allow them to try and befriend the cat – watch these people like a hawk!
“Try tempting your cat to come out of his hiding place to get some extra tasty food placed near his hiding spot. As you repeat the exercise and your cat becomes confident to venture further, you should add more treats placed further away from the hiding place. The objective is to get to the point that your cat has the confidence to walk around the house while a visitor is around. Only once your cat is comfortable to move around should you add some temptation for your cat to come to the threshold of the room your visitor is in, and then inside. It can take a long time to build confidence in a cat, but as long as you take things very slowly then you should make progress, and don’t expect too much!”
10. It’s Christmas!
So we’ve covered the dangers of festive food, training nervous cats and overbearing visitors, providing cosy hideaways and the hazards of wintry weather – we’re almost all set for the most wonderful time of the year, but there are certain things you should do to ensure it remains stress-free too!
Keep an eye on your cat around Christmas decorations – tinsel, pot pourri, glass baubles and other fragile decorations can be hazardous to inquisitive cats if ingested or broken during play, while Christmas tree lights should be turned off when there’s no one around.
Indoor plants may also become the victim of your cat’s curiosity, but nibbling holly, ivy, mistletoe, hibiscus, poinsettias or Christmas roses could cause a nasty stomach upset – while some could even prove to be lethal if ingested. When it comes to festive plants, it may be safer to opt for fake varieties. The same goes for Christmas trees as pine needles are also toxic to cats and can puncture internal organs if eaten. If you do choose a real tree, keep it well watered and opt for a variety that drops fewer needles. Whether your tree is fake or not, it will still look like a fantastic climbing frame to an energetic kitty! Ensure your tree has a solid base so it can’t easily be knocked over, and it might be an idea to shut your cat out of that room when no one is at home.
This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of Your Cat magazine and I’m very grateful to Mel Hudson, the editorial secretary of Your Cat and Your Dog magazines for giving me permission to publish this on the dailymews website.