Do Cats Get Cold Sleeping Outside?

Cats are known for their independence and ability to thrive outdoors. In fact, an estimated 60-70 million feral and stray cats live exclusively outside in the United States alone [1]. Yet when temperatures drop, many cat owners worry about outdoor cats getting too cold while sleeping outside at night. Cats do have several remarkable adaptations that allow them to withstand the elements. However, frigid and wet conditions can still pose health risks. Understanding cats’ needs and behaviors in the cold allows owners to make the best provisions for their outdoor feline friends.

Body Temperature Regulation in Cats

Cats have a core body temperature between 101°F and 102.5°F. To maintain this optimal temperature range, cats rely on physiological and behavioral adaptations 1.

Cats don’t have working sweat glands like humans do. Instead, they regulate their temperature through panting and vasodilation. Panting brings cool air into the mouth and over the moist surfaces of the tongue, which cools blood before it circulates back through the body. Vasodilation expands blood vessels close to the skin’s surface, facilitating heat loss.

Cats also regulate their temperature by finding warm or cool places to rest. On hot days, they may sleep on cool surfaces or seek shaded areas. When it’s cold, cats curl up or finds warm places like sunbeams to nap 2. Their flexible body posture helps conserve or release heat.

Grooming also assists temperature regulation. By licking their fur, cats spread saliva over their coat. As this evaporates, it has a cooling effect. Cats’ fur provides insulation to retain body heat when it’s cold outside.

Cat Breeds and Coat Types

There are distinct differences in how well certain cat breeds and coat types handle cold weather. Cats with very short hair and thin coats, like the Sphinx, are not well equipped for low temperatures. Their lack of coat provides little insulation from the cold. Breeds like the Maine Coon and Norwegian Forest Cat with exceptionally long, thick fur tend to thrive better in cold conditions. Their coats provide ample insulation and protection from the elements. Long-haired breeds like Persians and Himalayans also have coats that help conserve body heat in winter. Even among short-haired breeds, there can be variation in cold tolerance. British Shorthairs and American Shorthairs tend to have denser coats that retain more body heat than a Siamese or Cornish Rex for example. In general, cats with thick, dense, long fur coats fare better in cold weather than short-haired breeds with fine coats. But proper shelter, bedding materials, and limiting exposure can help any cat stay warm in winter.

Shelter from the Elements

Cats are resourceful when it comes to finding shelter from wind, rain, snow, and other harsh weather conditions outdoors. They will seek out enclosed spaces that provide protection from precipitation, wind chill, and moisture.

During rainy weather, cats often take cover under porches, decks, sheds, or other covered areas. They may hide in cardboard boxes, crawl spaces, garages, or even vehicles if available. Dense bushes and other vegetation can also shield cats from rainfall.

In windy conditions, cats find refuge behind structures that block gusts, like the leeward side of a building or fencing. Outdoor cats may crawl under piles of brush or burrow into piles of leaves to escape cold winds.

For warmth in snowy weather, cats dig out sheltered nests under porches or in wood piles. They may burrow into hay bales or compost heaps which provide insulation. Cats also seek out warm spots like car engines, vents, and even the warm underground air of sewers and basements.

In general, outdoor cats are quite adept at finding nooks and crannies that provide protection from cold, wet weather. They tend to pick sheltered, enclosed spaces that conserve body heat and keep them dry.

Cat Behavior in Cold Weather

Cats have several behavioral adaptations they use in cold weather to help keep warm


One common behavior is cat bunting, where a cat rubs its head and body against people or objects. This deposits scent from glands on the cat’s face and body, and also allows cats to mark their territory


Cats will also sleep curled up in a tight ball, tuck their paws under their body, and cover their nose and face. This conserves body heat by minimizing exposed surface area.

When it’s very cold out, cats are more likely to sleep in sheltered and enclosed spaces, like under furniture or in boxes, rather than exposed areas. Seeking warmth from other cats or people is also common.

Outdoor cats will stick to sunny spots and avoid the shade when it’s cold. Some may venture out less overall compared to warmer weather. Keeping active helps generate body heat as well.

Shivering is a key response to cold conditions. The muscle contractions produce more internal warmth. However, prolonged shivering can be taxing and may signal a cat is too cold.

Many behavioral adaptations reflect a cat’s natural hunting instincts and ability to survive in the wild. But domesticated house cats will still benefit from additional shelter and warmth provided by their human caretakers when temperatures drop.

Outdoor Cat Health Risks

Cats who spend time outdoors unprotected, especially during winter, are at risk of developing several potentially serious medical conditions related to exposure to the cold. Prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures can lead to frostbite on the ears, tail, or paws [1]. The extremities have less fur and fat insulation, making them more prone to freezing. Severe frostbite can cause tissue damage and may require amputation. Hypothermia is also a major danger, as cats’ small size and lean body composition make it difficult for them to retain body heat in freezing conditions [2]. As body temperature drops, cats become progressively weaker and lethargic. Without warm shelter and treatment, hypothermia can be fatal.

Outdoor cats are also more vulnerable to upper respiratory infections from prolonged cold exposure that lowers their immunity [2]. Viruses like feline calicivirus and herpesvirus can develop into pneumonia in cold weather. Additionally, ice, snow, and cold rarely deter outdoor cats from roaming. Risks like car accidents and fights with other animals persist in winter and may increase due to desperation for food and shelter.

Providing Warm Shelter

There are several ways to provide warm shelter for outdoor cats in the winter:

Construct an insulated outdoor cat house, using materials like straw, foam, or fiberfill for insulation. Make sure the house has a waterproof roof and is elevated off the ground. The entrance should be covered or facing away from the wind.

Buy a heated cat bed or heated cat mat, designed to provide warmth for outdoor cats. These can go inside shelters or even be placed in semi-protected areas outdoors.Heated beds with thermostats are safe options.

Use straw in any existing shelters to help cats burrow in and retain body heat. Make sure straw stays dry and replace it when damp.

Provide shelters in areas protected from the wind, rain, and snow. Porches, sheds, or barns make good locations if they have easy access.

Monitoring for Signs of Distress

It’s crucial to recognize the signs of cold stress or hypothermia in your cat when they are exposed to cold temperatures outdoors. Some common indicators to look out for include:

  • Shivering – This is one of the most obvious signs that a cat is too cold. The muscles will contract and relax rapidly as the body tries to generate warmth through movement.
  • Lethargy – A cat that is getting too cold will often become less active and slower moving as its body tries to conserve energy.
  • Seeking warmth – Cats may try to find warm places to hunker down like under cars, porches, decks, or bushes. This behavior indicates they are not able to maintain their body temperature.
  • Muscle stiffness – As the body gets colder, muscles will become more rigid and inflexible.
  • Whining or meowing – Vocalizations can signal a cat is in distress from the cold.
  • Dilated pupils – A cat’s pupils will widen as its body redirects blood flow away from the extremities to the vital organs.

Paying close attention to your cat’s behavior and watching for these signs of cold stress is important to prevent hypothermia and other cold weather illnesses. If you observe any of these symptoms, bring your cat indoors to get warm immediately.


When to Bring Cats Indoors

There are some general guidelines for when cats who spend time outdoors should be brought inside due to cold weather:

  • When temperatures drop below 45°F, cats are more susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite. Consider bringing cats indoors when it’s this cold, especially smaller cats, kittens, older cats, and shorthaired breeds.1
  • During extreme cold snaps or blizzards when temperatures drop dangerously low, bring cats inside immediately. Prolonged exposure to bitter cold can be life threatening for cats.2
  • When there are high winds, freezing rain, heavy snow, or ice storms, bring cats inside where it’s dry and sheltered. These conditions are hazardous for outdoor cats.3
  • Check cats’ ears and paw pads for signs of frostbite (cold, pale skin). Bring cats indoors immediately if you suspect frostbite.
  • Monitor cats when it’s cold. If they’re shivering, seem anxious, stop moving around, or are meowing excessively, bring them inside to warm up.

Having a warm, dry shelter like an insulated cat house can help outdoor cats withstand normal winter temperatures. But it’s still important to monitor their wellbeing and bring them indoors when the weather becomes dangerous.


Cats can get cold when sleeping outside during cold weather, but their ability to regulate their body temperature and take shelter helps protect them. Cats with very short or thin coats are more prone to feeling chilled than those with thicker, warmer coats. Providing warm, dry shelter for outdoor cats is crucial in winter. It’s also important to monitor cats for signs of hypothermia like shivering, weakness, and lethargy. Cats should be brought indoors when temperatures drop below freezing or during severe weather. In summary, cats can get cold outdoors, but their natural abilities allow them to cope in cooler weather. Owners can further protect outdoor cats by providing warm shelters and paying close attention to their health and comfort level.

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