For the past week, it’s been unusually cold where we live. We had no precipitation, though, so we had the icy temperatures without even a single snowflake. Understandably, our indoor/outdoor cats have been spending more time indoors this week than usual – that is, until last night. One of them wanted out but didn’t return right away. Call as we might, “Pepper” would not come back in until this morning. That made me wonder – how do animals stay warm when it’s so cold?

One way mammals stay warm is by developing thick coats for the season. Because our cats are free to go in and out, they’ve developed thick coats too. Fur traps air, creating a layer of insulation between the cold air and the animal’s skin. The thicker (and oiler) the fur, the better it insulates.

Do you use a down jacket or blanket during the winter? They work so well because feathers are a good insulator, too. Down are the very fine feathers right next to a bird’s skin. Like fur, these feathers trap air, preventing the cold air from reaching the bird’s skin. By fluffing out their feathers, birds can insulate themselves even more.

Another way animals stay warm is by increasing the amount of food they eat. When an animal eats more calories, the rate at which its body produces energy from the food (the metabolic rate) also increases. Some of this energy is used to generate body heat. No wonder our cats have been eating so much more lately!

How You Can Help 

If you are concerned about the wildlife in your area staying warm, there are ways to help. Providing food will help them get the extra energy they need to stay warm. For birds, a variety of mixed seeds and suet are good choices.   For small animals like chipmunks and squirrels, cracked corn is a favorite.

You can also make sure the animals in your area have a supply of fresh water. Even though it seems damp, icy, or snowy outside, animals still need to drink and bathe. Fill a bowl or bird bath with water and break any ice that forms. A small floating object will also help keep an opening in the ice.

To Learn More

Want to learn more about how animals stay warm in the winter? Check out these great sites:

 “How Do Birds Survive Storms and Other Harsh Weather.” Tufts University. 

“Effects of Winter on Wisconsin’s Wildlife.” Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 


Feature Image by impure_with_memory

Deer Photo by Shenzi 

Written by Samantha Bell