As we head into Spring, we also head into the beginning of kitten season. As the weather warms up, unspayed female cats bear their offspring and neighborhood cats are looking to find places to nest and give birth. Do you know what to do when you find stray kittens?
Your instinct will probably be to save and protect those kittens, but it may not be the best thing for them. Let’s take a look at how to handle an encounter with small fur babies who seemingly have no mother to look out for them.
Please keep in mind that a cat with kittens that seems feral or appears to be abandoned might still be someone’s pet and, as such, is their personal property. There are no leash laws for cats and cats are permitted to roam freely. Many people assume that a stray is lost or abandoned, when in fact the cat knows exactly where it is!
What to Do If You Find a Litter of Kittens
Don’t be too hasty or judgmental. Do not assume that the mother has abandoned her litter. It is just as likely that she is searching for something to eat or scouting out better accommodations.
Let’s look at what to do if you find a litter of kittens that you think may be abandoned.
Step #1 Visual Cues
Your first course of action is to wait and watch. While doing so, try to read the visible cues that reveal the health of the kitten(s). Look for signs to indicate that they may have been without care for a significant amount of time: crying or squalling due to lack of nutrition, fur that is matted or dirty, severely underweight, or significant lethargy.
Where did you find them? Are they in a safe, fairly clean and dry environment? If they are out in the elements, this is cause for concern as they may not be able to regulate their temperature and stay warm. Are they in any danger from predators, like dogs, raccoons, or opossums? Is the nest secluded or near a roadway where they might be hit if they wandered off?
Step #2 Time and Space
Once you’ve assessed the situation, walk away if there is no immediate danger. Most cats, particularly if they are feral, are not likely to return if they smell or see humans. While they don’t want to abandon their litter, innate self-preservation will cause this behavior. Leave for several hours to give them the time and space to return. You can go back and check on the situation in 4-6 hours.
Note: If you find the kittens are in dire need of medical attention, starving, or vulnerable to predators, then you can remove them.
Step #3 Return Visit
After several hours, return and check on the nest. If mom has not returned but all looks well, give it a bit more time. Try again the next day.
You want to give the mother as much time as possible to return to her litter, which will give the kittens the best chance for survival. Not only do nursing kittens need nutrition from their mama, they also receive antibodies and immune support from her milk. Therefore, it is inadvisable to remove them unless absolutely necessary.
There are several scenarios that you may encounter after finding a litter of kittens.
Mama Returns and You Can Leave It to Nature
If, upon rechecking the nest of kittens, you find that their mother has returned, you can rest easier and let nature take its course. She is the best bet that they will survive. Feel free to monitor the situation and make sure that the newborns are progressing, kept fed, and relatively safe from predators or other dangerous situations.
Mama Returns and You Can Provide Assistance
If the mother does return and you want to provide assistance, you may give them food. Ensure that you don’t get too close and scare her off. If you provide food, remember that it may be sought by other cats, raccoons, rats, or other predators that live in your area. Show her where the food will be, but do not leave it too close to the nest. If a predator finds the food, you don’t want them finding the nest as well.
It’s important that the kittens remain with their mother for at least four weeks, preferably six, so that they are weaned or close to weaning. At that point, the mother may be more amenable to allowing you to help her. This could come in the form of offering shelter or a home, or removing the kittens and finding them a home.
Mama Does Not Return to the Nest
If the mother doesn’t return to the nest, or you find the kittens in poor health or danger, you may choose to remove the kittens. Here are some great resources if you decide to care for the kittens yourself:
If you cannot care for them or find a home for them, please contact your local animal control agency for additional information and help. Please know that CCSPCA, by law, is unable to accept any or stray/abandoned animals from other cities or counties, including Fresno.