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'It Takes Just Five Minutes To Save A Cat's Life': How To Protect Feral Cats During The Dangerous Cold Spell

CHICAGO (CBS)--The dangerously cold temperatures plaguing Chicago this week could be deadly for many outdoor creatures, including the estimated 200,000  feral cats that live in the Chicago area.

Feral cats' self-sufficient nature means they get by largely without humans, but the frigid temperatures sweeping the midwest this week will test their resilience. Temperatures could plummet to 23 below zero Wednesday night and never reach above zero until Thursday afternoon.  It hasn't been minus 20 or worse since the mid 1990s.

Unlike human-acclimated stray cats, feral felines are outdoor creatures that live on the streets in colonies with other cats--and they prefer it that way, according to Erica Roewade, a colony caretaker who runs the feral cat rescue network group 'Chicago Community Cats.'

The group has about 1,745 members, many of who turn to each other for advice on how to help the local feral cat community.

"We're all trying to help each other out--all over the suburbs and in Chicago," Roewade said.

While humans often leave food out for feral cats, in more temperate weather they're able to feed themselves on food they catch themselves, Roewade said. For shelter, they crawl under decks and cars and other enclosed areas, and hunker down in extreme cold.

"It's not safe for us to be outside, and it's not safe for cats either," Roewade said. "Aside from wind being the 'killer,' their food supply can get a little choked off because they don't have easy access to their regular food sources."

She warned the members of the Chicago Community Cats Facebook group about the severity of this week's cold spell.

"Although we can all I think attest to the fact that our colonies lived through the vortex years back, the temps coming in the next 3 days are really, really worrisome," Roewade wrote on Facebook.

People who care for feral cats are flocking to Facebook to share advice on how to help them stay warm this week.

Here's what humans can do to help feral cats survive the historic cold approaching Chicago: 

-Leave out dry food. Wet food freezes. 

-Bring the cat into a warm room in your home, like a bathroom or the basement. You can release it on Friday when the weather warms up. 

-Make a well-insulated, waterproof shelter with minimal air space to maximize warmth. A do-it-yourself shelter can be made with a plastic bin or a box. If you're using a cardboard box, cut a 5-6 inch wide hole in the box to create an entrance and line the bottom with materials like styrofoam, garbage bags, or plentiful amounts of straw. You can also buy microwaveable surfaces for pets called Snuggle Safe Discs at PetSmart. Cover the exterior of the box with plastic garbage bags to protect it from the elements. Don't use blankets or sheets because they retain moisture and freeze in the cold. "Cats don't need a lot of space," Roewade said. "They just need to squeeze their little body in there." 

-Buy a pre-fabricated insulated shelter from Tree House, a cat rescue in Chicago. Shelters are priced between $25 and $35 and proceeds support homeless cats. 

-Bring the cat to a shelter, but only if it's a stray, Roewade says. You can tell the difference because strays will usually rub against humans and display friendly behavior. 

Chicago's Anti-Cruelty Society still has room to take in dogs and cats at risk from the cold, said Colette Bradley, spokesperson for the shelter.

"We see an uptick in calls for abuse or neglect this time of year," Bradley said. "Some people are leaving their pets outside with just a little covering, and they need shelter to get away from the cold."

The Anti-Cruelty Society and other shelters accept pets from owners who refuse to bring animals indoors, Bradley said.

If you see a pet outside in the cold, call your local police department to get connected with your nearest animal shelter.





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