Beginner’s Guide to Winter Hiking with Cats

Many outdoor adventurers view the winter months as nothing more than the “off-season,” waiting for the temperatures to rise again. But you don’t have to let the ice and snow keep you from getting outdoors with your cat. One way to enjoy the beauty of this season is to try winter hiking with cats.

cat sitting outside in the snow | Beginner’s Guide to Winter Hiking with Cats
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Do Cats Get Cold in the Winter?

Like any animal, your cat may get cold when the temperatures drop. They are equipped with warm, furry coats like dogs, but that fur isn’t always enough, especially for cats with shorter coats and hairless breeds.

Most cats can survive temperatures down to 45 degrees Fahrenheit or 7 degrees Celsius. But they aren’t likely going to be happy with the situation.

The safe temperature is even higher for sick cats, kittens, and seniors. If your cat falls into one of these vulnerable categories, you should take extra precautions to keep your cat warm and safe. They will likely not be a good candidate for outdoor adventures in the cold weather.

Other factors that can influence your cat’s comfort in the cold of winter include:

  • Body mass
  • Level of activity
  • Caloric intake

You can take steps to help your cat stay comfortable in cooler weather with the help of sweaters, jackets, or boots. When the temperatures are particularly low, the best thing you can do is to stay at home where they can enjoy the heat.

Do Cats Shiver When Cold?

Just like people, your cat may start to shiver if they are cold. This is a way that that body tries to warm up naturally.  But that’s not the only reason that cats shiver.

Shivering can signify anxiety, stress, pain, or illness. To determine if your cat is cold, you will need to watch for other warning signs, including:

  • Hunching down close to the ground
  • Puffing of the fur
  • Cold extremities (tail, nose, ear)
  • Seeking out warmer places

If your cat is shivering, but none of these other signs are present, contact your veterinarian. They will run tests to determine if there is an underlying medical condition that needs to be addressed.

Can Cats Get Sick from Cold Weather?

If you are concerned that winter hiking with cats could open the door to illnesses, don’t let it hold you back from making some cold-weather plans. The idea that you (or your cat) can get the flu from spending time outside in the cold is a myth.

This doesn’t mean your cat can’t get sick from being cold for too long.

Cats that are outdoors in the bitter cold for an extended time are at risk of developing frostbite or hypothermia.

To prevent this and keep your cat safe, you need to take steps to keep your cat safe. This includes keeping their time outside brief, using winter gear when appropriate, and watching for signs that it may be time to cut your outdoor adventure short.

Introducing Your Cat to the Snow

If this is your cat’s first time going outdoors in the winter, it may take time to adjust to the sight and feel of snow. The process of introducing cats and cold weather should be a gradual one.

Keep in mind that the cold sensation on their paws may be startling and uncomfortable.

It’s common for cats to high step or shake their paws when walking through the snow for the first time. They may also panic the first time they encounter snow, instantly turning around and running indoors.

That’s okay!

Start with a very short introduction just outside the door with an open escape route ready and waiting. If your cat freezes up, don’t leave them there long before picking them up and bringing them inside to a cozy bed by the heating vent.

You should also limit any winter adventures to a safe, enclosed area with constant supervision to avoid unwanted encounters with predators.

If, after a couple of opportunities to investigate outside, your cat is still panicked when exposed to snow, it may be time to reassess whether this is going to work. Ask yourself, do my cats like cold weather? Are they interested in continuing the introduction?

The truth is that some cats are happier indoors. Of our two cats, we have experienced both ends of the spectrum.

Pippen loves spending time outdoors in any weather, including adventures in the snow, as you can see in the photos here. Jinx, on the other hand, is much happier curled up inside by the wood stove.

cat walking outside in the snow | Beginner’s Guide to Winter Hiking with Cats
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How to Keep Cats Warm in Winter

Do you have a cat that’s curious about being outdoors but gets cold quickly? There are different ways you can prioritize warmth while winter hiking with cats.

With a growing number of adventure cats joining their people outdoors, we have seen a rise in outdoor cat gear hitting the market. If your cat is willing to wear a coat or boots, this is a great way to keep them warm while allowing them to explore.

In cold temperatures, a cozy sweater or coat can help to keep your cat from feeling cold.

Look for a sweater or coat that fits comfortably: not too tight or loose. A sweater that is too small may hinder your cat’s ability to move. Meanwhile, a sweater or jacket that is too loose has air pockets that could trap cold air and even snow against your cat’s body, defeating its purpose.

Choose a coat or sweater that offers an opening at the back to access your cat’s harness and secure a leash or a coat that includes a built-in harness.

To keep your cat’s little paws warm, you may want to choose some footwear. You can choose different styles, including boots with a waterproof exterior and a more rigid sole or sock-style boots with a waterproof and anti-slip sole.

Selecting the right option will largely depend on your cat’s preference. This may take a little trial and error.

Pippen isn’t a fan of the full boots and refuses to walk far in them. But we found that she will wear sock-style boots and move freely without concern. We prefer to use socks with a Velcro strip around the top to help keep them on when she’s exploring.

Safety Tips for Winter Hiking with Cats

Inspect Your Cat’s Paws After Being Outdoors

If your cat is wandering outdoors without the protection of a pair of boots, you should clean their paws as soon as you come inside. This will allow you to wash away any dirt, debris, salt, or snow picked up by their fur.

Take this opportunity to do a quick inspection for signs of trouble. This includes any swelling, blisters, lacerations, or pain when handled.

Contact your veterinarian if you identify any problems. They will recommend the best course of treatment, including relieving pain and preventing infection.

Know the Signs of Frostbite and Hypothermia

Don’t underestimate the risks associated with frostbite and hypothermia, especially if you plan a more extended adventure outdoors. These conditions are serious and, if left untreated, could be fatal.

Hypothermia refers to when your cat’s body temperature drops dangerously low. At these temperatures, essential organs in the body, such as the brain, cannot function as needed for survival.

The most common warning signs of hypothermia in cats include the following:

  • Shivering
  • Cold to the touch, especially at the extremities
  • Weakness or lethargy
  • Dilated pupils
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Confusion  
  • Lack of responsiveness
  • Loss of consciousness

The other major concern when spending time outdoors in the winter months is frostbite.

When the body temperature drops, the body will go into survival mode. This includes adjusting blood flow to maintain the body’s core, where critical organs like the heart, liver, and kidneys are located.

To do this, the blood flow to the extremities, like the paws, tail, and ears, is reduced. That leaves these parts of the body susceptible to the cold, which can allow the tissues in those areas to freeze. In more severe cases, this can lead to permanent tissue damage.

Warning signs of frostbite in cats include:

  • Area of concern is cold to the touch
  • Localized swelling
  • Blisters or skin ulcers
  • Skin feels brittle to the touch
  • Reluctance to being handled in affected areas
  • Local skin discoloration (skin appears pale, grey, or blue in colour)
  • Skin may appear black in more severe cases

These signs may not appear immediately. In the days following any winter hiking with cats, make sure to monitor your kitty. You should be especially careful if you know they were showing signs of being extremely cold.

Contact your veterinarian ASAP if you suspect your cat may suffer from frostbite.

cat standing outside in the snow | Beginner’s Guide to Winter Hiking with Cats
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Always Have a “Safe Place” Available

Despite your best intentions, there may come a time when your cat can no longer be hiking or exploring in the snow. At this moment, you need to have a safe place where they can warm up.

Keep your cat’s first outdoor activities close to the house so that your cat can easily be taken indoors into the heat.

As you start to venture out to new locations with your cat, take the time to consider possible options in advance. If you notice that your cat is getting extremely cold, how are you going to get them warmed up as quickly as possible?

When hiking on shorter trails or visits to a local park, this may mean retreating to a heated vehicle.

On longer hiking trips, a cat backpack with a warm, cozy blanket can offer a short-term solution while you make your way to shelter. You can also use a self-warming pad at the bottom of the backpack to add a little extra warmth.

Keep Your Cat Safely On-Leash

Using a reliable leash and harness while adventuring is one of the winter hiking basics that shouldn’t be overlooked. In fact, this is essential any time of year!

Cats allowed to wander outdoors without being safely contained are at risk of getting lost.

Getting lost outdoors is a very serious problem in cold winter temperatures. Most house cats don’t have the survival skills necessary to survive on their own outdoors in the bitter cold.

Practice Wildlife Safety

Our cats aren’t the only ones facing unique challenges and struggles during the winter months. The local wildlife is also trying to survive. One of the biggest threats to their survival is the difficulty of finding food at this time of year.

To wildlife like coyotes, your cat may look like a potential meal.

When hitting the trails in the winter with your cat, carry noisemakers to scare off potential predators. Some popular solutions include air horns and whistles.

When using them outdoors, secure your cat first. This could mean holding them yourself or having someone else hold them. Before taking them on an adventure, you should also introduce your cat to any noise makers at home indoors.

The suddenly loud sound is meant to startle and scare off the predator. But it could also scare your cat, especially if this is the first time they hear it, causing them to bolt.

Avoid hiking at night in sheltered or secluded areas with your cat. You may not be able to see predators in the area, but they can still see you. Due to the shorter days, this will likely mean planning your cat-friendly hiking adventures in the morning or early afternoon.

Do you take your cat winter hiking or exploring? If so, what tips do you have for those considering their first cat-friendly winter adventure?

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