Three winters ago, Romeo decided he needed to come in out of the weather.
It was during a minus 25 degree cold snap in late January and Romeo, a feral cat, decided to occupy the McClure family’s neighbor’s doorstep out of desperation. He ended up in the care of the McClures after their neighbors said they couldn’t look after the cat.
“He just decided he had enough,” Andy McClure said with a laugh. “He was going to stay somewhere until someone did something.
“It turned out it was a perfectly nice, very young cat probably no more than 6 or 8 months old, and he has been a member of our family ever since.”
On the McClure property in the Kalifornsky Beach area, there is a large path carved into the woods; the result of a pipeline. That path serves as a wildlife corridor of sorts now and is likely how Romeo found his way to them, McClure said.
“You don’t often see them, but I know there are feral cats living in the area,” he said.
A few weeks ago, McClure stumbled upon an email containing directions to build a cat shelter to temporarily house area felines stranded in the harsh Alaska winter.
Made from two tubs — one 18 gallons and the other 35 gallons — one inch polystyrene insulation and few handfuls of straw, the shelter only cost about $30 to make. The McClures now have one resting under a tree on their property next to the wildlife path.
“Wild things can come and go as they please so we have got the cat shelter out there,” he said.
Although he hasn’t yet been out to check and see if the shelter has been used, McClure said he passed the idea along to others in hopes perhaps a few cats could be spared living through the harsh arctic temperatures.
Brett Reid, chief animal control officer for the city of Kenai, said that when the weather gets cold, it is easy to forget about man’s four-legged companions.
With temperatures dipping to minus 10 degrees and colder this week, residents should take a minute and make sure they and their pets are ready for the long winter, Reid said.
Most dogs and cats, with a bit of proper care and preventative measures can make it through to warmer weather without severe problems, he said.
Cats, he said, are becoming increasingly popular in the area, in keeping with nation-wide trends.
“Some months we see more cats than dogs,” he said, speaking of the traffic at the Kenai Animal Shelter.
However, cats are “simply not arctic animals” and there are many that lose their ears each winter to frost bite. He advised keeping cats inside as much as possible was the best solution to the problem.
“They pretty much bare the brunt of the worst cases we see in the subzero weather,” he said. “They kind of need a place warmer than a dog. Most dogs do just fine, maybe except for Chihuahua-type dogs. Most large breed dogs will do fine in the cold weather.”
Reid said most dogs do well in the winter conditions if they have proper food, water and a place to get out of the weather.
“If people are building a doghouse, the common thing they do wrong is make the doghouse too big,” he said. “It just needs to be big enough for them to get out of the weather, stand up, turn around and get back out because that is how they heat it, with their own bodies.”
Tim Colbath, founder of Alaska’s Extended Life Animal Sanctuary in Nikiski, suggested straw as the optimal insulation for a doghouse.
“Straw is hollow whereas hay is not, so straw has excellent insulation capabilities versus hay or grass, which basically just gets wet and stays wet,” he said.
Reid said one of the things many residents overlook when caring for pets through the winter are salt and artificial ice-melters.
Such substances can irritate a dog or cat’s feet if they are sensitive to the chemicals and also cause digestive problems if ingested. Artificial salt can melt water but leave it at a temperature much colder than regular standing water, which could also lead to cases of frostbite if pets are allowed to stand in it too long.
When the weather dips down to below 10 degrees, Colbath advocates for residents to let pets indoors, or at least to a place in the garage. He also cautioned residents from using heating lamps with pets to avoid potential fire hazards but to purchase a heated water bowl to make sure pets get the proper amount of water when they are outside.
“Obviously give your animals as much attention as you possibly can and when it gets cold, bring them inside,” Colbath said.
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.