How to Build a Simple Outdoor Cat Shelter

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Hi, “Dad” here with a report on how I built an outdoor cat shelter for Mama Rose.

If you’ve followed The Furry Bambinos, you probably know the story of Mama Rose and her 6 babies.  If not, you can read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and the final post about releasing Mama Rose back into the neighborhood.

After we had Mama Rose spayed and released her back into the neighborhood, she kept coming around the house for food.  So, late in 2010, I decided to build an outdoor cat shelter for her.

We live in Northeast Ohio, and the winters can get rather brutal and cold.  Since we had taken Mama Rose’s babies, gotten her spayed to prevent future litters, and she was coming around for food, we felt obligated to give her a safe place to stay warm in the winter.

Here is how I built her a feral cat shelter.  You can find similar instructions to build a similar outdoor cat shelter on some other websites around the internet.  At the time, our goal was to build an outdoor cat shelter for occupancy by a single cat.

Materials for Our Outdoor Cat Shelter

There were only a few items I needed to build our outdoor cat shelter.  Here was my shopping list:

  1. Two plastic tubs.  One had to fit inside the other
  2. A piece of plastic “coupling” for the opening to provide a smooth entrance and exit
  3. Styrofoam insulation
  4. Straw
  5. Two (2) standard size bricks

For tools, I only needed an Utility knife and a keyhole saw.

Outdoor Cat Shelter Materials:  Plastic Tubs

The first items I needed were two plastic tubs with lids.  One tub needed to be smaller than the other because my goal was to put one inside the other, and stuff straw and insulation between them.

As you can see in the picture below, the grey container is larger than the green one.  The grey container is made of a soft plastic.  The green container is made of a very hard plastic.  As you will see in the instructions below, if I had to build another of these shelters I wouldn’t use another hard plastic container like the one pictured.  The plastic was hard to cut and cracked easily.  The plastic grey container was perfect and cut without cracking.

You might be asking “how big do the containers have to be?”

An outdoor cat shelter doesn’t need to be very big.  The goal is to give the animal a dry, safe place to sleep and that’s it.

My starting point was to choose the size of the green/inside container first since that was where the cat would actually be sleeping.  Containers like these are usually measured in “gallons”, but that’s not how I originally was thinking.

Since I was building an outdoor cat shelter for only Mama Rose, and I knew how big she was, I picked a relatively small container for the inside. I simply measured how much space one of The Bambinos took when curled up asleep on the floor. Then, I bought a container that had about that same space in length and width. It was small:  roughly 11 inches wide by 14 or 15 inches long and about 10 or 11 inches high.

I simply chose the size of the grey Outer Container so it could hold the inside container with room to spare for insulation.  I’ve long since thrown away the receipt and label for it, but it’s a “Latching Tote” made by Sterilite.  The outer dimensions are roughly 18 inches wide by 21 inches long by 17 inches tall, and according to the Sterilite online catalog, that size makes it a 20 or 22 gallon container.

Notice the vertical height of the containers.  I had read that the opening for the shelter should be “off the ground” to keep out moisture and other animals, so I made sure to pick a container that had some height to it.  The grey container is about 17″ inches tall.  It’s plenty tall enough for this shelter.

There is no “one size fits all” container that I can recommend because you probably have different places to shop than we do in Northeast Ohio.  Simply build your shelter for the number of cats you’re trying to serve and estimate sizes as necessary.  The colors are not important either. I chose what was available.  (Although if the outer container had been some bright neon color, I would have bought some brown or green spray paint for it.)

Outdoor Cat Shelter Materials: The Coupling

Since one container was going to sit inside the other, I needed a clean, safe way for the cat to get in and out of the final shelter.  At my local hardware store, I found something called a 6” Snap Coupling that fit the bill nicely.

The coupling is made of thin plastic and very inexpensive. I think it’s supposed to be used for flexible drain pipes.

Outdoor Cat Shelter Materials: Insulation

At my local hardware store, I found a package that contained sheets of polystyrene insulation.  The package of insulation was about 15” wide by 48” tall and contained several 1/2” thick sheets.  If your store doesn’t carry the same brand or size, that’s fine.  My plan was to cut it to the sizes I needed, so the overall width and height was not important.

Outdoor Cat Shelter Materials: Other Materials

The other materials I needed were straw which I found at a local garden center, and two (2) bricks.

Building the Outdoor Cat Shelter

Once I had all the materials assembled, I began building the actual outdoor cat shelter.  Here is my documentation of the process.

Step 1:  Cut the Opening for Entrance

I took the 6” Snap Coupling and simply held it against the inside container, at about the center of one of the shorter sides.  Then I traced the outline of the circular coupling on the container so I would know where to cut.

Step 2:  Cut the Opening in the Inside Container

I took the Utility knife and keyhole saw and cut around the circle I traced.  This was very difficult to do and the hard plastic was very hard to cut and it actually cracked a few times as I cut it.

As I stated earlier, if I were to build another one of these outdoor cat shelters, I would pick a sturdier type of container for the inside of the shelter.

Here is the final result.  You can see the cracks in the plastic under my hand and at the bottom of the opening.  I ended putting some duct tape over the cracks just to seal them up nicely.

Remember, the inner container isn’t very big.  The hole above is 6 inches across, so the container is only 10 or 11 inches high.

Step 3:  Cutting the Opening in the Outer Container

In order to cut the hole for the outer container, I had to make sure the inner container would be in the correct position first.

So, I began by placing the two bricks in the bottom of the grey, outer container.  The bricks serve two purposes.  First, they provide weight to the shelter so it won’t tip over easily.  Second, they lift the inner container so that there can be insulation underneath it.

Next, I used the utility knife to cut some of the insulation to fit in the space between the bricks.  Turns out a stack of three slices of insulation was the perfect height to be flush with the top of the bricks.

Here’s the styrofoam in position between the bricks.

Next, just to be sure I had enough insulation on the bottom, I cut a stack of two (2) pieces of insulation to fit on top of the bricks.

Here’s what these pieces looked like in the final assembly.  Again, these pieces are on top of the bricks at the bottom of the outer container.

Next I put the Inner Container into position so I could trace the hole location for the outer container.

Here I am tracing the outline of the hole on the inside surface of the Outer Container.

Here is the final result of the tracing.

Next I simply took the keyhole saw and cut along the line.  (I had to take the bricks and Styrofoam out in order to be able to handle the container and make the cut.)

Step 4: Installing the Coupling

Now that the holes for the Snap Coupling had been cut in the Inner and Outer Containers, I could begin the final assembly of the outdoor cat shelter.

I began by putting the bricks and spacing Styrofoam back into place.  This time I added some straw to fill in the corner spaces where there was no insulation.

Then I put the two pieces of insulation for the “floor” back into place.

Next I lined up the holes and put the Snap Coupling into place.  Here are a couple of photos of the final result.

At this point, the “hard part” of building the outdoor cat shelter was done!

Step 4: Insulating the Cat Shelter

At this point, the only thing left to do was to insulate the space between the two containers.  As you can see in the photos below, I needed two pieces of insulation on each of the other sides around the inner container.  I simply used my Utility knife to size the different pieces as needed so it would all fit snugly. 

Here is the final result before I began adding straw to fill the empty spaces.

Next, I started packing in straw into all the spaces where there was no insulation.  I started by shoving straw all around the Snap Coupling so the entrance/exit would be well insulated.

Next I added straw in-between the Styrofoam and the inner container.  Fortunately the translucent plastic of the inner container makes it easy to see where the straw is packed in.

Finally, I added straw to the inside of the Inner Container.  I wavered back and forth on how much to add, but ended up erring on the side of enough to cover the bottom when smashed flat, plus more on top into which a cat could “burrow” for warmth.

It’s better that the cat can create its own nest to sleep in, so having more straw is better than not enough.

Now it was time for lid of the inner container!  It snapped right into position with room to spare on top for more straw.

I covered the top of the Inner Container with more straw for a final bit of insulation.

Lastly, I put the lid on the Outer Container!

The Final Shelter!

From the outside, the outdoor cat shelter simply looks like an innocuous storage tub with a strange hole in it.

Final Inspection of the Outdoor Cat Shelter

At this point, all that was left was a final inspection!  Would a cat actually climb inside and use the shelter?  Hmmm … maybe the Bambinos could inspect it for me!  (To prevent a mess of straw in the house, I removed all the interior straw for this “inspection”).

All five (at the time) of our cats turned out for the inspection.  Our largest cat, “Cookie”, immediately climbed inside.  You can see her tail dangling out of the shelter here:

Cookie was able to turn around inside and seemed very content with the new facility.  She was reluctant to let the others inside, but eventually just about everyone had the chance to try it and climbed in of their own free will.

After the inspection was complete, I put straw back inside the shelter and we worked on deciding where to put it outside.

Final Comments on Building this Outdoor Cat Shelter

Overall, this was a fun project for a worthy cause.  It took about 2 hours to build the entire shelter once I had all the materials on hand.  If you have a reasonable amount of dexterity, you should be able to build your own shelter in about the same amount of time.

The final step was placing the shelter in a good location.  Most rescue organizations recommend placing outdoor cat shelters far away from human intervention.  In our case, that would mean placing the shelter in a corner of our fenced-in backyard.  We knew that Mama Rose rarely ventured into our backyard, and we couldn’t see her changing her routine in the winter.

However, in the front of our house, we have a large Rhododendron bush and some other shrubs.  We knew that Mama Rose had a tendency to walk back and forth in the area between the bushes and the house so she could get to our porch to be fed.  So, we simply placed the shelter along that path in the front of our house.

outdoor cat shelter

There was a double benefit to this placement, the bushes helped shield the shelter from rain, snow, and harsh winds.  The bushes also helped make the shelter practically invisible from view by anyone walking by the house.

Overall, the construction project was a great success.  We weren’t sure if Mama Rose actually used the shelter until it snowed.  That’s when we saw footprints in a pattern suggesting she (or some other cat) had gone in and out of the shelter entrance.

Last year (2011), I opened the shelter up and peeked inside.  It was obvious the shelter had been used as sleeping quarters for an animal because of the rearrangement of straw that was left.  I put in fresh straw, and sealed it back up for the 2011-2012 winter.

As of this writing, September 2012, Mama Rose still comes around to be fed just about every day, and we have actually seen her poking her head out of the entrance to her outdoor cat shelter, even during the Spring and Fall!

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Comments on How to Build a Simple Outdoor Cat Shelter Leave a Comment

Monday, September 17, 2012 1:42 pm

Katnip Lounge @ 1:42 pm #

13 x 4 paws up for this nifty shelter!!

Monday, September 17, 2012 3:20 pm

Very good for those northern Ohio cats who need a safe, warm place in winter. Kudos to your human dad!

Monday, September 17, 2012 3:44 pm

GREAT directions. Love the coupling idea…. You did a great job. Mom has made a couple and said the 2nd one went MUCH faster than the first. MOL

Monday, September 17, 2012 4:53 pm

That is a great shelter to keep Mama Rose nice and snug through the cold winter.

Monday, September 17, 2012 10:37 pm

Sparkle @ 10:37 pm #

Thanks so much for this! I shared it on my Facebook page.

Monday, September 17, 2012 10:50 pm

bikermo @ 10:50 pm #

you are wonderful for doing so much for a cat that is not technically part of your family! thank you SO MUCH for taking care of her, and what a great idea!

Monday, September 17, 2012 11:11 pm

Jan @ 11:11 pm #

How sweet! Mama Rosa is beautiful, and you are such an angel for providing a safe, warm bed for her!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012 5:55 am

Gattina @ 5:55 am #

What a great idea, very nicely done and certainly warm enough !

Friday, September 21, 2012 2:24 pm

Vanna @ 2:24 pm #

Thanks so much – I have a couple of fellas that have been hanging around … wanted to fix something for them for this winter.

Friday, September 21, 2012 2:30 pm

Cindy G. @ 2:30 pm #

Such a beautiful story! and loved learning how to protect our furry friends in the winter time who do not belong to anyone. I made my shelter with a hooded litter box and straw and a tarp under the bench on our porch a while ago. The cat loves it. Your idea is more insulated and warmer looking. I also live in NE Ohio Cleveland area, and believe I hate winters here too!yy

Friday, September 21, 2012 2:53 pm

beca @ 2:53 pm #

Great idea…can imaginedoing a couple of bins inside a really big one. We bought a hen house.. has 4 hen boxes. Plus extra hammocks we built out of blankets. Had some very happy kitties last winter in our “cat condo”

Friday, September 21, 2012 3:23 pm

Patty @ 3:23 pm #

I noticed that cutting the strofoam wasn’t shown – such a messy job, with little bit all over. You can also just use a thick cardboard box, with straw between it and the storage bin. It’s not quite as warm, and better for more southern areas. And I did mine without the coupler, and used waterproof tape to hold the cardboard cut-out together with the storage bin.

Friday, September 21, 2012 3:54 pm

Ellen @ 3:54 pm #

What a good idea and a great way to recycle all that packing styrofoam. I think cedar chips would be nice too in place of straw. That would discourage any insects from taking up residence inside.

Friday, September 21, 2012 3:56 pm

Joolz @ 3:56 pm #

This is brilliant, and I’m very touched by your attention to detail, and care of all furry bambinos.

Friday, September 21, 2012 4:02 pm

Luciana @ 4:02 pm #

AMAZING!!! I loved it!!! :) Congratulations!!

Friday, September 21, 2012 4:09 pm

Thanks for all the comments!
@Patty: yes, cutting the styrofoam was messy, and I honestly didn’t think to take pictures of that process. Cardboard would work as you suggest in warmer climates. As for the coupler, I’m an engineer by training, so I overanalyzed the whole project and added my own twist. Your way certainly works, too. :)
@Ellen: Yes, cedar chips would work, too. Just no blankets or carpets as they absorb moisture and freeze.

Friday, September 21, 2012 4:50 pm

Jojy Smith @ 4:50 pm #

David: God bless you for your tender loving care for “All creatures, Great and Small”..Especially Mama Rose!

Friday, September 21, 2012 11:05 pm

Ramona @ 11:05 pm #

How about sawdust? I have loads of that and wondered if that was insulating at all? Also, if there is nothing to cover the coupling entrance hole, wouldn’t snow and wind get in there and still make it cold? Would a cat push past a curtain? Someone dumped 4 cats off in my back yard and I already have too many in my house, but I need to take care of them. I can’t let them freeze. I am going to try this. One last question, you don’t really need a coupler do you? And should the shelter be off the ground at all? Will it keep out racoons and skunks do you know? Thank you!!!

Saturday, September 22, 2012 12:06 am

@Ramona: Thanks for your comments!
re: Sawdust: I’m not an expert on this topic, so my opinion is that sawdust wouldn’t be as insulating as straw.
re: a cover for the hole: we knew we were placing our shelter in a position that would minimize snow and wind, so we didn’t think a cover for the hole was necessary. Our goal was to give her a dry place that is warmer than sleeping completely exposed. Plus, all the other designs we had seen for shelters had open doors/holes.
re: need a coupler?: No, that was my own addition. You could bring the two containers right up next to each other and put waterproof/duct tape to “seal” them together.
re: off the ground?: For this shelter, no. The container is plastic, and the opening for the hole is already about 7″ off the ground.
re: raccoons and skunks: This was certainly a concern of ours, too, although we don’t have raccoon problems in our neighborhood. Skunks, we do. Our experience from watching Mama Rose eat on our porch is she gives the skunks plenty of leeway. She is also good at defending her territory, so if she was in the shelter, and another non-cat animal approached the opening … she’d be pretty vocal, and swipe at them with her claws and undoubtedly scare them off.

For more advice about shelters and caring for outdoor cats, I definitely recommend you check the Alley Cat Allies website (www.alleycat.org). We’ve learned a lot from there. Hope that helps!

Saturday, September 22, 2012 12:30 pm

Ramona @ 12:30 pm #

Yes it does, thank you so much!! I will be making these next weekend for our 4 drop offs. All of our shelters are so full, nobody can take them, and so is my own house or I would. I have several elderly and sick cats and it just wouldn’t be fair to them. It kills me to see those outside but I will do whatever I can to make them comfortable. I already feed them….and the skunks and racoons too. Those darn racoons wash their ‘cat’ food in the water dishes so they ruin that for the poor kitties too.

Saturday, September 22, 2012 2:30 pm

Rachel @ 2:30 pm #

You can also use a small sytrofoam cooler for the inside box. Very warm and great for colder climates.

Sunday, September 23, 2012 11:45 pm

Sissy @ 11:45 pm #

The spray foam insulation that expands can be used instead of straw and styrofoam. It fills in all the air spaces if done correctly. Just use waxed paper or parchment paper between the lid and the body to allow for cleanout later. Let the foam set and dry and then remove the paper for a snug fit.

Monday, September 24, 2012 1:12 am

Virginia @ 1:12 am #

A good way to cut messy styrofoam is with an electric carving knife!

Monday, October 1, 2012 6:10 am

I’m so glad Mama Rose has a safe, warm spot to weather the winter in!

Monday, October 22, 2012 7:49 am

We are so glad Mama Rose has a warm place to sleep. We wanted to say happy Gotcha Day to Panda Bear, Padre, Meerkat.

Saturday, January 5, 2013 8:17 am

Lisa @ 8:17 am #

My daughter made this for our feral last night, after a brutally cold night before. It was very easy, your directions are perfect!

Saturday, April 20, 2013 10:05 pm

Yes! Finally someone writes about Travel.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013 12:55 pm

Frances L Conklin @ 12:55 pm #

I have been praying I could figure out how to build an outdoor cat shelter for one cat. I have been feeding her. as I walk every morning and now she waits for me to come each day with food… anyway I do not know where she sleeps but I wanted to give her warm shelter in case she did needs it, THANK YOU for the simple inexspensive instructions for a tote insulated cat house. but I thought I would try and raise it off the grnd more. ? due to snow here. maybe sinder blocks? or a wood base with extended place to feed her? THANKS for the help!!! this is so awesome….The kitties will just love it!!!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 5:36 pm

Paul @ 5:36 pm #

Why not use Great Stuff Expanding Foam instead of straw?

Friday, November 22, 2013 6:29 pm

Lisa Caroline @ 6:29 pm #

Thanks very much for the great cat house instructions with pics! We are building one of these this weekend. We live in a pretty terrible neighborhood. We found 2 strays last year that we adopted out. This year, the neighbors across the street moved and left their beautiful maine coon outside to fend for himself. So he lives inside with us now. Then we discovered a nursing mother cat eating large grasshoppers in our backyard and befriended her with large amounts of food. She soon brought 6 kittens and put them under our house. We rescued all and gave away 4 kittens. We still have that we cannot adopt out yet because they are having dietary issues still not resolved, and need to get their bowels under control. LOL We went from being a one cat household to being a 5 cat household in just 2 months! We have now found yet another stray cat, sweet beautiful loving, but we absolutely can’t take in another! Plus, she has a cough that our Doc said could be herpes or could be FIV or could be something else. We’ve spent so much time getting all these strays healthy, we cannot bring her inside to possibly infect them. So we’re building her an outdoor shelter! And with all the stray cats I’ve encountered in the 3 1/2 years I’ve lived here, I know for certain that shelter will get thoroughly used. THANKS AGAIN!

Sunday, December 29, 2013 7:12 pm

Leanne Turner @ 7:12 pm #

Hi there,
I just made an outdoor kitty house with the silver insulation. I could not find any straw anywhere, so I took some hay instead from my friend who has horses. I noticed a lot of houses being built but no exit holes being made. Should I make a exit hole, is it really important?? Is the hay ok instead of putting blankets? Ok thanks.
Leanne

Friday, January 3, 2014 7:26 pm

Phillip Mozingo @ 7:26 pm #

My vet told me never to use straw for a cat or a dog because it can cause mange. I would go with blankets. Straw is ok for an insulator but not for them to bed in.

Friday, January 3, 2014 7:35 pm

Michael Kreutz @ 7:35 pm #

Would it not be an idea with a sheet of polystyrene insulation between the 2 lids at the top. It seems to be room for it, and must be better than only the straw, or is there any reason not to do that?

Greetings from Denmark
Michael

Monday, January 13, 2014 4:18 pm

Lyn @ 4:18 pm #

There is a tractor parts business near our home that seems to have about a dozen feral cats living in the scrap yard. I think the employees feed them. They sleep in a pile on tractor seats outside, and perhaps get inside open cabs when the weather is really bad, though I’ve seen them piled up just outside the shop door on very cold days. I think I might make one of these — a large one they can share — and give it to the shop for their kitties. What’s one more piece of junk when the place is already full of it!

Monday, January 13, 2014 4:20 pm

Lyn @ 4:20 pm #

There is a tractor parts business near our home that seems to have about a dozen feral cats living in the scrap yard. I think the employees feed them. They sleep in a pile on tractor seats outside, and perhaps get inside open cabs when the weather is really bad, though I’ve seen them piled up just outside the shop door on very cold days. I think I might make one of these — a large one they can share — and give it to the shop for their kitties. What’s one more piece of junk when the place is already full of it!?

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