Thursday, November 29, 2012

How to Build a Feral Cat House with Few Tools and Having Practically Failed Shop Class

In case you haven't noticed, Old Man Winter is staring down at us, getting ready to pounce.  We try very hard to take care of all the cats that run around the neighborhood, and sadly, since we live next to a forest, there are a lot of people who abandon their animals near our property, and those poor little creatures wind up hungry and cold on our deck (there is a special place in hell for people who abandon a domesticated animal in the forest).

I was looking for a simple and easy way of providing some shelter to the outdoor feral cats.  It warmed my heart, seeing all the many pages of articles and videos from creative people who built creative cat shelters. Rubbermaid even got in on the action by letting people buy their storage containers at wholesale prices. All of it reminds me that there are lots of good people in the world who care for the neighborhood animals.  

So I was looking at some of these shelters thinking, "but they look like they require tools, and I nearly killed myself in shop class..."  (I was particularly drooling over these from the Urban Cat League.)  J has tons of tools, and knows how to use them, but I am not so gifted in the ability to handle a screwdriver.

Here's my few-tools-required, very-little-measuring-required, doesn't-require-scary-materials, and can-do-in-an-afternoon shelter, modeled by Polly, before it went outside.

Materials needed:
18 gallon storage containers (I used two, since I was making a two-story condo).  About $8/each at Home Depot.
2 sheets of foam insulation, though if you do it right, you only need one.  I bought the heaviest stuff, and it was about $9/sheet.  
Boxcutter or knife for cutting plastic
Hair Dryer to heat up plastic before you cut it
Liquid Nails (about $5)
Duct tape (because if you're me, you will spill the Liquid Nails and need to reinforce it all with duct tape anyway.  About $5)
Tarp, if you live in a place that gets a lot of rain (About $10)
Bedding: most sites recommend using straw or hay, which won't hold dampness when it rains.  I just used old blankets and clothes.  

So, the gist is, you're going to use the insulation to build a little condo, and put the storage containers inside.  The insulation will hold the heat from the storage containers, and if you make them long enough, you can slide the storage containers way back so that rain won't splash in, and there will be protection from wind.

So, step one is to cut out the pieces.  I am notoriously awful at measuring, so I just sat the storage containers on top of the foam, and did it all through eyeballing it.  I don't recommend this way.  If you're smart, you'll take a measuring tape to Home Depot, measure the storage bins, and then, with that information in hand, give the measurements to the nice man next to the cutting machine, and he will make the cuts for you.  They generally charge a dollar or so per cut, but if you look like a sweet ditzy girl, they won't charge you.  At least, that was my experience.  One other note of caution; that foam insulation makes a Godawful mess, so keep a shopvac nearby.  

So you've cut out your pieces, and then you want to glue them together, into a little box.  Have the silver sides facing in; that's the side that will hold the most heat.

If you're me, you will totally mess up one side, have to take it off and do it again properly, leaving a stripe down the side.  But whatever, this is the no-brainer way to do it, so you can manufacture while watching Love Actually and it will still be ok.

Big Boy is checking out the new box.  I put the storage container inside to make sure it fit.  Lucky for me, it did.  Barely.

Next, you do this all over again, to make a second level.  And glue on pieces for the back, too.  While the Liquid Nails is setting, I went around and used duct tape all around all the seams, just to make it solid.  And I have to say, I'm quite proud of how solid it is now.  When I shake it, it barely moves.  Mama Cat, who is now about 18 pounds, jumps up and sits on the top of it, and it just barely shakes when he lands on it.  It is a solid unit.

When you have both pieces glued together, you should have a two-story condo that looks like this.

Now, the fun part: cutting entrance holes in the storage bins.  Heat will make the plastic softer and easier to cut.  You can use a hairdryer to soften it up a bit.  You want to make the holes small enough so that the cats can get in, but predators (ie raccoons or coyote) can't.  It's better to start with a smaller hole and make it bigger if you need to.  You can always cut more out.  You can't make a big hole smaller, though.  So cut it out, and check to see if the cats will fit inside.

Make sure you use duct tape around the edges, because they are sharp, and you don't want your little one to scratch their belly trying to get in and out.

The best part is filling up the storage bin with blankets and bedding for them to get comfy.  They will create their own little nest, so don't worry too much about making it perfect, but give them the raw materials and they can decorate how they'd like.

The storage bin will look like this:

Then you put the storage bins in the condos - one on the top and one on the bottom.  The insulation surrounding each one will keep the cats nice and toasty.  Slide the bins back pretty far.  The other thing I've done is place an old bath mat in front of the storage bin.  It acts a bit like a doormat.  The cats get all the water and dirt off them before they go into the storage bin, so their inside home stays warm and cleaner.

Now take it outside, and see how the cats like it.  You may want to create a little foundation for it to go on - I just used a couple of 2x4's that were lying on the deck and put them underneath, spaced out evenly, to keep the unit off the ground, and also to add some additional protection against splashing.  Depending on how comfortable and trusting your ferals are, you might have to feed them a few times inside the home so they get used to it, and associate it with goodness.

When it rains, I throw a tarp over the entire thing, again, just as some additional protection.  If you leave it hanging over a bit in the front, like in my picture below, it will deflect the water from the homes.  All day today Mama Cat sat on the upper floor cuddled into a blanket, looking out at the rain.  I think he really enjoyed feeling like he had a porch, and could watch things, while still being warm and dry.  I feed him in there when it's raining, too, so he never has to come out and risk getting wet, which is the worst thing for cats to be (can lead to pneumonia, for example).

And even when he's outside his storage bin, the insulation still keeps a lot more heat in than if he was sitting outside.  When I reach my hand in to pet him, it's a good 5-7 degrees warmer when he's just sitting on his porch.  His storage bins get downright toasty when he's in one.

Spending an afternoon and $50 in materials can make a huge difference in the life of a cat, or two,  stranded outside with no shelter this winter.  And anyway, how else can you build a two story home for $50?

EDIT 2/27/13: We've been having crazy winds here - up to 60mph - and the cat house, with the cats inside it, is intact.  The cats are snuggled and warm, and only slightly freaked out about the wind because they have such a cozy spot to rest.  I'm definitely building another one next year!

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