Does Your Cat Need a Sweater When It's Really Cold?

Breed and health conditions are both factors, according to veterinarians.   

When the temperatures start to drop, your first instinct is likely to have your loved ones bundle up in sweaters, jackets, and scarves to ensure they're able to properly face any inclement weather headed their way. As for your cats? Clothes might actually not be the answer. "A sweater is really only needed when they are going into a cold environment," Dr. Lorraine A. Corriveau, DVM, a small animal primary care clinician at Purdue University Veterinary Hospital, says of hairless cats—like Sphynx—in particular. "Cats that have fur could get overheated from wearing a sweater—as their fur is a 'natural coat' for them." While your pets are still experiencing the same weather conditions as you, the steps to make sure they are cozy and protected still requires a little more explaining.

Ahead, we asked for insight from veterinarians to break down what your felines truly need when chilly conditions hit your area.

devon rex kitten wearing a sweater and looking in the distance
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Signs Your Cat Needs a Sweater

Even though many cats have coats of fur, Dr. Corriveau says that your cat is likely feeling cold if you, yourself, feel cold. Signs to look for are seeing your cat under lamps, sunlight, and similar heat sources; your cat's limbs are tightly under the body; or your cat's body is trembling. However, Dr. Corriveau still advises to, first and foremost, provide an appropriate shelter. "The winter hazards of hypothermia, frostbite (usually of the ears and paws), sore and irritated feet from the salt and grit used to melt ice, burns and trauma from car engines (as cats climb in to help keep warm), and antifreeze are real hazards for the outdoor cat," she says. Cats that spend time outdoors in an enclosed catio or on a leashed walk can also adjust better to the cold weather than you might think since "their coat thickens as the weather gets colder," Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, a staff doctor at New York City's Animal Medical Center, says.

How to Get Your Cat Comfortable with Wearing a Sweater

If you do dress your cat in a sweater, it's essential to make sure they can walk freely—especially outside. "Outdoors, the sweater could catch on trees or fences and a wet sweater could cause the cat to become colder," Dr. Douglas Kratt, a practicing veterinarian, the president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and owner of Central Animal Hospital, says. "Regardless of the environment, sweaters interfere with normal grooming behavior and cats do not have the ability to remove the sweater if it becomes uncomfortable." In turn, he says that this could actually cause more stress on your cat and make their temperature fluctuate.

Dr. Hohenhaus says a sweater can work in specific circumstances, namely if your cat doesn't experience the cold often. "[If your feline] is going outdoors for some reason—like for a veterinary visit, a trip to Grandma's, or a move—that cat might like a sweater for the trip," she says. "If the cat hates the sweater, then be sure there is a warm blanket in the carrier and the carrier is protected from wind when it is between the warm house and the warm car." When opting for a sweater from time to time, Dr. Corriveau says to ease their stress by starting slow when putting the garment on and giving positive reinforcement (like treats or playtime) to get them used to it. Make sure the item isn't too loose or tight, and only let the cat wear it when you can see them to make sure they can tolerate it. She adds that you can start with short stints of sweater use at first and then you can increase the time whenever necessary.

Why Your Cat's Health Is a Factor

At the end of the day, make sure you are always aware of your cat's needs—some breeds or pets with health conditions will need more attention in the cold weather. "Short-haired or hairless cats may feel the cold faster because they have less protection," Dr. Kratt says. "Cats with diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or hormonal imbalances (such as hyperthyroidism) may have a harder time regulating their body temperature and may be more susceptible to problems from temperature extremes." He adds that kittens or older cats could be experiencing the same thing.

Dr. Corriveau adds that your pet may need a T-shirt or sweater to make sure that don't lick an incision after surgery or having a big amount of fur removed after grooming. When in doubt, Dr. Kratt recommends visiting with your veterinarian to get advice on how to understand your feline's temperature limits or needs during the cold weather.

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