The Humane Society of the United States estimates that there are tens of millions of feral cats in United States.

Ferals originate from domestic cats that were lost or abandoned and learned to survive outdoors. Most of them are difficult to tame and can’t be successfully adopted into a home.

Outdoor cats often live in colonies, and while they may be resourceful, they need help to survive the winter.

Here’s what you can do to help feral cats in your community.

Provide shelter

feral cat shelterCats have thick coats, but they still need warm, dry places to protect them from harsh weather.

Building your own shelter is relatively simple, and there are a variety of plans for inexpensive cat shelters available online:

When constructing a shelter, size is important. It should be large enough to house several felines, but small enough to trap cats’ body heat to warm the inside. If the shelter is too large, it will be difficult for cats to keep the space warm.

Straw is the best material to line the shelter because it allows cats to burrow. Pillowcases loosely stuffed with packing peanuts and shredded newspaper are also suitable; however, the pillowcases will need to be washed and re-stuffed periodically.

If you won’t be able to check on the shelter regularly, don't use these types of insulation. Instead, line the shelter’s floor and inner walls with Mylar to reflect their body heat.

Avoid insulating shelters with blankets, towels, hay or folded newspapers.

Provide food and water

Place food and water near the shelter in a place where it's easily accessible and protected from the elements.

The Humane Society suggests placing two shelters with their doorways facing each other and securing a board between them to create a canopy.

If your area is prone to freezing temperatures, place water or canned food in a thick plastic container that’s deep and wide, or purchase a solar-heated dish.

You can place food inside the cat shelter, but don’t put water bowls inside.

The Neighborhood Cats website has several other suggestions for keeping a cat's water bowl from freezing.

Trap-neuter-return

Both the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals endorse the trap-neuter-return approach as the only proven humane and effective method to manage feral cat colonies.

TNR involves trapping cats, spaying and neutering them, vaccinating them against rabies, eartipping them for identification and then returning them to their territory. Kittens and more sociable cats may be taken in for adoption.

Some people have concerns about trapping cats during winter because surgery requires females to have their stomachs shaved, but the Humane Society says that winter trapping has its advantages.

There are fewer pregnant cats during winter months, which makes surgery less complicated. By trapping cats in the winter, you’ll also prevent the birth of more kittens come spring.

However, before trapping cats during cold months, first provide a shelter for the colony so the animals will have a comfortable place to recover post-surgery.

To learn more about feral cats and trap-neuter-return, watch the video below.

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Inset photo: AshotK/flickr