Every spring, stray and feral cats across America and around the world give birth to thousands of kittens in our neighborhoods and cities because they have not been spayed or neutered. This creates a flood of kittens and feral mama cats in local animal shelters and rescue groups.
“Kitten season,” as many people call it, lasts from about March to September in the United States, but that can vary depending on the region and climate.
You can help save these kittens and their mamas by making sure your own cat is spayed or neutered. Encourage your friends, family, and others to do the same.
Adopt cats and kittens from shelters and rescues. Donate time, money, or supplies to local animal rescue groups. Participate in a trap-neuter-return (TNR) program.
All of those are great steps to help in kitten season, but what if you come across a kitten or a litter of kittens somewhere? What should you do? Here are a few guidelines.
Do Not Rush Them To A Shelter Right Away
The first thing you should do is contact a rescue group or shelter if you see or find a stray cat, kitten, or kittens. Not all shelters are equipped to handle kittens, especially feral ones. But they can, at the very least, give you further instructions and advice.
If you come across a new litter of newborn kittens, please do not touch them if you can help it. Don’t just take them to a local shelter on you own.
Many feral cats and kittens are euthanized because shelters and rescues often don’t have the resources to care for them. Always call ahead if you intend to drop them off, and get instructions for handling them carefully.
That said, kittens under four weeks old have a better chance at survival with their mother where you just found them. Taking a kitten to the shelter at this stage might do more harm than good.
Observe From A Distance & Wait For Mom
Unless the kittens are in immediate danger, you should stay back and watch for the mama cat to return. It’s possible that she left to look for food or a safer place to live and intends to return soon.
Some recommend standing at least 35 feet back from the kittens. You may have to wait for several hours before mom senses that there are no humans nearby and comes home.
If the kittens are clean and not crying, chances are good that mom is close. If they are dirty and crying, then the mother may have abandoned them or be unable to return. Either way, a shelter or rescue group can provide you with advice.
As tempting as it may be to intervene, be patient. As long as the kittens are warm and away from imminent threats like predators, extreme weather, and traffic, they will be fine until their mother gets back to feed them.
Mom should return within three to four hours at the latest, so long as she doesn’t sense threats.
Keep reading below if mom doesn’t come back.
Caring For Mama & Kittens
Kittens need their mother’s milk until they’re about four weeks of age. Until then, you may want to leave some food out for the mama cat to eat.
Try to keep the kittens with their mama until they are eating solid food. This usually happens around the time they’re five to six weeks old.
The milk of their mother contains antibodies that will help the kittens to grow up strong and healthy, and her love and care will teach them what they need to know to be grown-up cats.
Once the kittens are eating solid food, that’s the time to take action. Capture or trap mama and her kittens, and bring them inside.
It’s best to keep them separated from other cats you may have until you can get everyone checked out by a vet.
You’ll want to make sure mama and her kittens all get vaccinated and spayed or neutered. The kittens could have fleas or worms, and you’ll need to get that treated or cared for.
Once the kittens are happy and healthy, then you’ll want to make sure they all find loving homes. One step at a time!
If mama is not friendly, you may have to trap her to get her spayed and vaccinated before you release her back to her outdoor home, or else you’re going to have more kittens in the future.
Feral cats are happiest living in the wild and as long as they aren’t reproducing, spreading disease, or excessively damaging the environment, that’s okay.
Warning: If you turn the mama cat over to a shelter, they may euthanize her. Feral cats are often unfit for life with human families, and shelters don’t have the resources to care for cats who cannot find forever homes.
A local TNR program can prove helpful, so look them up online and call for more assistance.
What If Mom Never Comes Back?
Sometimes the mother cat will not return to her kittens, or you may find out that she died and won’t be coming back. In those cases, you’ll need to take action right away.
First, call a veterinarian. They can make sure you’re taking all the necessary steps to give the kittens their best chance of survival.
Your first concern should be keeping the kittens warm. Kittens are more at risk from hypothermia at a young age than they are from starvation.
Once you’re sure the kittens have warmed up, you’ll need to start bottle feeding them every two to three hours if they’re under four weeks of age or not eating solid food.
Do not give them cow’s milk. You’ll need to purchase a kitten milk replacement. Follow the instructions on the label closely.
Kittens can’t go potty on their own when they’re very young. You’ll need to rub under their tails with a warm washcloth. This is the only way they can urinate and defecate at that age.
Again, call a veterinarian for further advice.
What If You Can’t Help?
Maybe you can’t take in a mama cat or kittens at this time. If you’re worried about the financial cost, you can always use crowd funding websites to help raise the money to take care of the medical costs of your new feline family.
But there are many circumstances that might prevent you from giving care. If you don’t have the time or ability, reach out to local rescue groups and shelters, and get as much information as you can about the realities of what needs to happen next.
Can a rescue help you? Does the local shelter have room? Can they put you in touch with someone who has foster care experience?
Find anyone you can who will help. Reach out on social media, to neighbors, friends and family, or anyone who can assist you. Look up groups that can provide resources, like Alley Cat Allies, in your area.
Have you ever cared for kittens before? Do you have any other advice for people who’ve found a stray kitten or kittens? Let us know in the comments below!