During high kitten season in the spring and summer, it’s not unusual to discover a nest of unattended kittens or a single kitten seemingly abandoned by the mother. You want to help, right?
Before jumping to the rescue,
Mama Cat may be off searching for food. She has to keep herself well fed to produce milk for the babies! It is not unusual for a mama cat to be gone several hours. She may also be in the process of moving the babies from one location to another (especially if you’ve found one alone).
Assess the kittens’ apparent health:
- Does their fur look healthy, full and fluffy? OR Are they dirty? Sickly? Eyes crusty?
- Are they sleeping quietly? In a heap? OR Are they crying? Squalling?
- Are they dry? OR Are they wet/soaked?
Assess the environment. Are the kittens in IMMEDIATE danger from:
- Rain? Wet weather/flooding? Cold?
- Wild animals? Raccoons? Dogs?
- Traffic – pedestrian foot traffic? Bicycles or cars? Mean neighbors/kids?
Take a look at this guide to determine if kittens need your help or not. Remember that removing very young kittens from Mama Cat greatly reduces their chances of survival even if you provide round-the-clock care.
Unless the kittens are in immediate danger, it is best to watch to see if the Mama Cat will return. You should be at least 35 feet away (more is better).
Do NOT place food near the kittens to lure Mama Cat. Mama Cat almost always purposely hides her litter away from food sources as she knows that food will attract other cats and even bigger predators!
You may need to leave completely and come back later (4-6 hours) to check whether the kittens are still OK (dry, sleeping/quiet, appear fed, etc.). Especially if she’s feral, Mama Cat will most likely NOT return until she no longer senses human presence.
Know that healthy kittens can survive several hours without food as long as they are warm. Neonatal kittens are much more at risk of hypothermia than they are of starvation.
During typical kitten season in the spring and summer months, waiting a longer time to see if Mama Cat will come back is usually very safe.
TAKING KITTENS IN
Remove the kittens **only** if they are in immediate, grave danger OR if they appear very sickly and ill.
First of all, if the mother cat returns…
If Mama Cat returns and the area is relatively safe, leave the kittens with Mama Cat until they are weaned. You can monitor the environment and offer a shelter and regular food to Mama Cat … but keep the food and shelter at a distance from each other. Mom will find the food but will not accept your shelter if the food is nearby, because she will not want to attract other cats or predators to food located near her nest.
Mama Cat offers her kittens the absolute best chance for survival. Never remove healthy kittens from Mama Cat before they are 4 weeks old. 5-6 weeks is the optimal age to take the kittens from a feral Mama Cat for socialization and adoption placement, and any time after 8 weeks for Trap-Neuter-Return (spay/neuter, vaccination, eartip, and return to their colony). For kittens of friendly cats, they should remain with Mama Cat until at least 8-10 weeks old.
Female cats can become pregnant with a new litter even while they are still nursing, so don’t forget to get the mother cat spayed or you will have more kittens soon! For information or advice about trapping Mama Cats – and about local feral cat help and TNR programs, see here.
If the mother cat does not return…
The Mama Cat offers her kittens the absolute best chance for survival, so WAIT and WATCH as long as you can. The best food for kittens is their mother’s milk. She will provide them not only with properly balanced nutrition but also much-needed antibodies and immune system support!
Although there are resources to help you, it would be best if you are prepared to see the kittens through at least until getting additional help (which could be days or weeks) if you decide to intervene!
If you decide to raise abandoned kittens, check with Pet Food Express. They may be able to provide free starter kits that contain a small amount of specially formulated kitten milk, a bottle, and other emergency, essential supplies for raising a tiny kitten.
Check these pages for other tips and suggestions:
- Feral Change on finding kittens
- East Bay SPCA feral cats and kittens resources
- Bottle-feeding orphaned kittens
This video from Itty Bitty Orphan Kitty Rescue will provide some tips and suggestions on raising an orphaned kitten: