Spring marks the beginning of what is known as “kitten season”. If you come across a kitten or a litter of kittens, your first instinct may be to scoop them up and bring them indoors, but that might not be the best thing for them! Separating kittens from their mother too early can cause problems, especially if the kittens are still nursing. Taking them puts them at a greater chance of illness and puts the mother cat at risk for mastitis, a painful and life threatening condition. Here’s how to best help kittens found outdoors.
WAIT FOR THE MOTHER CAT TO RETURN: While it might seem as if the kittens are alone and orphaned, most kittens are not abandoned by their mother! It’s incredibly important to give the mother cat time to return. If the kittens are in an exposed or unsafe location, you can move them a short distance away, like under a nearby bush. This will help protect the kittens while keeping them where mama can easily find them again.
When they are in a safe location, wait for the mother cat to return; this could be several hours! She may be away getting food, or maybe she is nearby but hiding until you leave. Watch from a good distance so the mother cat feels comfortable enough to return.
IF THE MOTHER RETURNS: If the mother cat seems friendly, you may opt to bring them into your home. It’s best to keep them all together in a quiet enclosed space with food, water and a litter box, AWAY from other family pets as often outdoor and stray cats will have parasites, even if you can’t see them. Be sure to check the mother for a tattoo (usually found in the right ear) and check lost and found pages on social media. You can also post “found cat” notices online and in your neighborhood. Call your local vet if there is a tattoo, or take them there to determine if there is a microchip.
If the mother cat is feral, you should leave the kittens with her outdoors unless there is a threat to their safety. You can provide a makeshift shelter, like a Styrofoam cooler with a doorway cut out. You can also provide food and water, but be sure to pick up all traces of food at night so you don’t attract predators.
If after a few days there is no sign of the owners, call your local animal control officer so they can come and collect the family and take them to the local pound. Alternatively, you can continue to care for the family and start socializing the kittens so they can learn to enjoy being a family pet and become more adoptable! The most essential socialization should take place before they turn eight weeks old. Handle them gently and as much as possible to get them used to being picked up and held.
IF NO MOTHER CAT RETURNS: If it has been several hours and no mother cat returns, you may decide to take the litter in. Please note that this is a significant commitment, especially if the kittens haven’t yet been weaned. Many shelters, including the PVHS, are unable to take young kittens due to limited resources and foster home availability. If you choose to care for the litter, at least until they are old enough to be adopted, we encourage you to call your local veterinarian to learn the best practices and specific care needs. For example, young kittens need to be given deworming medicine starting as young as two weeks. When they reach the age of six to eight weeks, they may be able to be placed in foster or become available for adoption. You may also want to try to find a home for them on your own, but surrendering them to a shelter like the PVHS means they will get their vet checkups and needed vaccinations.