Tree in my parent's yard after the Christmas ice storm
Tree in my parent’s yard after the Christmas ice storm

This has been a really tough winter and we’re only in early January! I am originally from Michigan, so freezing temperatures, snow, ice are normal for the winter months for me. But for the past two months, much of the northern part of the U.S. has experienced record-breaking cold, ice and snow.

Imagine that you are outside in this subzero weather  with no coat, gloves, scarf or ear muffs …. just the plain clothing on your back? How long would you survive? It would not be very long. Yet there are hundreds of thousands of abandoned, stray, feral, wild and farm animals living outside in this freezing weather who need our help.

I have heard many people comment recently that “stray animals know how to keep warm.” For some, they may have a pre-destined location that is covered, dry, insulated from wind and protected from subzero temperatures. But not all stray, feral or farm animals have this option; and family pets who have simply been abandoned outside often do not have the survival skills developed to find appropriate shelter. And then what about the dogs and other animals who are chained up outdoors with nothing more than a flimsy dog house? Frozen food, frozen water, and fear of knowing that death is imminent. And then what about farm animals who cannot safely get back to a covered barn?

It’s unimaginable to most people how many animals are currently in harms way because of the subzero temperatures being experienced in the north, midwest and even where I am in Virginia. For those of us who love animals, it is important that we educate others and take steps on our own to help these outdoor animals survive.

So here’s a few tips to get you started:

1. Educate others about the perils that outdoor animals experience in this weather. Doing so may make them more aware of their surroundings, their neighborhood, and their drive to work, to be on the lookout for animals outdoors who may be in trouble.

2. If you see an animal outdoors without proper shelter, food and water, the law is most likely being broken in every state. If you know the owner, please have a polite conversation with them about bringing the animal inside (if it’s a companion animal) or providing proper shelter, food and water (if it’s a farm or other animal). If that does not result in the immediate acknowledgement to correct the situation, please contact your local law enforcement (animal control or law enforcement) to report the situation. And then stay in contact with the agency to make sure that action is taken.

3. Be alert to animals in your neighborhood. If you have known stray and feral animals, ask neighbors to help you check on these animals frequently. Most animal control agencies will not pick up a stray or feral cat (due to lack of laws allowing this action), so it’s important for us to help them in this weather. If you find a stray or feral animal (that does not have an owner), locate shelters in your area that have warming centers to keep the animals warm and dry until they can be released back outdoors. Then obtain a humane trap to try to catch them and take them in to a warming center.

4. If trapping does not work or is not an option, create small animal enclosures that can be placed in your back yard or around your neighborhood. Alley Cat Allie’s has a webpage dedicated to some shelter options that are easy to make or can be purchased. Be sure to use straw (not hay) to insulate (a must) and make sure these shelters are free from accumulating snow.

5. If you have a barn, shed or other outdoor building that you would be willing to open up to stray and feral animals, all you need to do is crack the door a few inches to let them in. While this could end up being a messy endeavor, I have friends who do this with great success (all year round) and it gives a safe haven to these outdoor animals.

6. Make sure known strays, ferals or other animals that you have common legal access to have plenty of unfrozen clean water. Consider purchasing a bird fountain water heater.

7. If you feed the birds in your yard, do not stop during inclement weather. This is the time that they need bird food and fresh unfrozen water the most. Make sure bird feeders are cleaned of show, and try to position them under something that will protect the food and water from snow. My parents are avid bird feeders. When I was home during Christmas and the massive ice storm hit my hometown (with power outages for over a week), we went outside 1-2 times daily to refill the bird feeders and even leave unshelled peanuts for the squirrels.

8. Check underneath your car for stray animals before driving. They may seek shelter in your engine area or tire wells. Just bang on the hood of your car and kick your tires to let them know to leave.

9. Contact your local shelter and/or animal rescue organization and offer your assistance in providing food to feral cat colonies.

10. Take to social media and post this blog and other posts that you see on how to help outdoor animals during this weather. The more that we can educate others, the better animals will be.


Over the years, society has taken dogs in hot cars very seriously; animals in freezing environments must also be recognized as a deathly hazard. If you have other great ideas on how to help outdoor animals, please post a comment here or on my Facebook page! I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for caring and sharing!

Allie and her Scotty friend Grier
Allie and her Scotty friend Grier

About Allie:

Allie Phillips is a nationally-recognized author, attorney and animal advocate. As a prosecuting attorney volunteering in her local animal control shelter, she exposed the barbaric practice of pound seizure and has gone on to eliminate the practice in numerous shelters. That started her path as a strong, effective and respected animal advocate. Allie has been a federal and state animal protection lobbyist and as the director of the National Center for Prosecution of Animal Abuse at the National District Attorneys Association, she teaches criminal justice professionals on animal protection and prosecution issues. She has written the award-winning and only book on pound seizure: How Shelter Pets are Brokered for Experimentation: Understanding Pound Seizure and the award-winning go-to guide on getting involved to help animals: Defending the Defenseless: A Guide to Protecting and Advocating for Pets. Most recently she co-authored Investigating & Prosecuting Animal Abuse: A Guidebook on Safer Communities, Safer Families & Being an Effective Voice for Animal Victims.

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