Simple foam cooler bins can be repurposed into easy and inexpensive winter shelters for the community cats in your neighborhood.
Is it really as simple as it looks? It really is! The foam cooler, with about two inches of thickness, is both waterproof and insulated, and a doorway can easily be created with a knife or box cutter. Another good option, pictured further down on this page, is a Rubbermaid bin – these should be double-insulated, and you can place weights in the bottom to make them sturdier.
Most Commonly Asked Questions
Q: How much do they cost and where can I find them?
A: These bins are generally used to ship perishable food and medical supplies. Restaurants and medical offices often end up throwing them away, so ask them to save the boxes for you – or just trash-pick them. Some shelter, rescue and TNR groups stockpile foam boxes to give away to community cat caretakers, so you may want to start doing that at your organization. And check out free giveaway sites like the Freecycle Network.
Q: What about the need for keeping the cats out of harm's reach?
A: Placement of shelters is important in keeping cats safe from predators. If unleashed dogs are in the area, place your shelter behind a fence where the dogs can't get in, or have the entrance face a wall so only the cats can get in and out, and be sure the shelter is weighted down and hard to move. Having a small cat-sized doorway will also keep larger predators from getting in, or make two doorways to provide an escape route. Two doorways means less protection from cold, so be sure to put flaps over the doorways. If snow is deep, it's possible you might need to shovel out the doorway so the cats do not get trapped inside.
Q: Why should the bin be raised off the ground?
A: Raising the shelter off the cold ground makes it easier for the cats to warm the inside with their body heat. To keep it even warmer, you can place straw underneath. Raising the shelter and cutting the doorway several inches above the bottom also keeps the weather out – rain won't splash up and in from the ground, and snow is less likely to block the door.
Q: Would this attract other animals such as rats?
A: If the cats are using the shelters regularly, other animals such as rats or opossums will be discouraged from "squatting" in them. Also, cut the door as small as possible to discourage larger, bolder animals such as raccoons from taking over. Cats don't need a very large opening – only about 5-1/2 or 6 inches in diameter, or the width of their whiskers. A smaller opening also has the added advantage of keeping more heat in.
Q: Would cats try to chew on the foam where the opening is cut?
A: If chewing is a problem, you can frame the doorway with duct tape. Or, if you decide to camouflage-paint the shelter, daubing the doorway with paint will make it unattractive to a chewer.
Q: What's the best bedding material?
A: Blankets and towels don't work well because they're not insulating and can retain wetness. Straw repels moisture, making it ideal for keeping cats and other animals warm and comfy all winter long. See this fact page on Alley Cat Allies for more information.
Q: Why is the bin on a slant?
A: Putting the shelter on a slant helps to keep rain from pooling or snow from piling up on the roof. Also, the shelter in our photo has a little hole drilled in the side to allow water to drain out if rain blows in the front door. A slanted roof might also discourage predators from sitting on the roof to stalk.
Q: Wouldn't cats claw the foam to shreds?
A: To prevent the cats from shredding the floor as they settle into the bedding, put a vinyl floor tile, thick contact paper or piece of plywood under the bedding. Community cats are unlikely to use the outside of the shelter as a scratching post; they prefer scratching on wooden fences and trees.
Q: Winter winds here would blow those things around. What could you use to weigh it down?
A: These lightweight shelters definitely need to be secured against the wind. Here are some ideas:
Put a couple of 5- to 10-pound flat barbell weights on the floor of the shelter under the bedding
Put heavy, flat rocks or pavers/bricks on the lid (some people glue the rocks on with Liquid Nails)
Place two shelters with the doorways facing each other and put a large board on top of both shelters – this weighs the shelters down and provides a protected entryway
Q: How about using old dog crates?
A: We don't recommend using dog igloos, dog houses or pet carriers as winter cat shelters. The doors are too large, they're hard to insulate correctly, and especially with igloos and dog houses the ceiling is too high. Remember, heat rises. The secret to keeping a cat shelter warm is a small opening and a small, low enough sleeping space so the cats' body heat will stay around them.
Q: What about painting the outside in brown or camouflage colors?
A: Painting your cat shelters in camouflage or earth tones is a good idea that'll keep unwanted attention away. You can see photos of camo-painted foam shelters by scrolling to the bottom of this page.