First the cold hard facts: There are roughly 70 million stray dogs and cats in the U.S. at any given time. That works out to five homeless animals for every one homeless person living on the streets. These animals live in our cities, suburbs and rural neighborhoods. And for many, the food and shelter that they find during the winter will mean the difference between life and death.

Chances are, you have seen a few of these dogs and cats living outside in your own community. With cold weather approaching and a polar vortex in the forecast, it may be time to help. Read on to learn what you can do to help homeless dogs and cats survive the winter.

Call it in. The first thing you should do when you spot a homeless animal on the street is notify your local authorities. They may already know about a feral cat population in the area. (Feral cats are not always discouraged because they keep rodent populations in check in urban areas, but rescue centers will usually step in to spay or neuter the animals to prevent overbreeding.) Most animal shelters will usually make an effort to pick up stray dogs — but it may take several days or weeks for them to do so.

Should you bring her home? Just because the animal shelter knows about a stray dog or cat does not mean that they will be able to pick the animal up immediately. And just because a cat is feral doesn't mean that she is any better equipped to survive a sudden cold snap. If you are able to take on the long-term commitment of caring for an animal and if you feel safe doing so (and if the animal feels safe coming to you), then you might consider bringing the stray animal home. Just make sure your first stop is with a veterinarian who can assess the animal for diseases and make sure that it is immunized and safe to be around your children or other pets. 

Provide shelter. If bringing the animal home is not an option, you might be able to help him survive the cold by providing shelter such as a sturdy cardboard box lined with straw. Don't bother with towels and blankets as these will get wet in a storm and freeze.

Food and water. Providing stray animals with fresh, clean food and water can help them survive the cold because they will need to use less energy to scrounge up their dinner. A well-fed animal is also better prepared to fight off illness and infection. Steer clear of canned food as it is more likely to freeze when the temperatures drop. And check on water sources frequently for the same reason.

Unfortunately, no one person can help save all of the stray dogs and cats in the world. But with a little effort and compassion, one person can help at least one stray animal through the dark, cold days of winter and hopefully on to better days ahead.

Related on MNN: