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? You want to “rescue” them by taking them to the local shelter right? Before jumping to the rescue, or scooping them up and heading to the local shelter consider these recommendations.
First: Wait & Watch
You might have come across the kittens while their mother is off searching for food, or is in the process of moving them to a different location. Try to determine if the mother is coming back for them, or if they are truly orphaned.
To do this, stand far away from the kittens — 35 feet or more. If you stand too close, the mom will not approach her kittens. You might need to go away completely before the mother cat will return to attend to the kittens. It might be several hours before the mother cat returns — until she no longer senses the presence of humans hovering near her litter.
If you need to leave before the mother cat comes back, carefully evaluate whether the kittens are in immediate danger: Is it raining or snowing? Are dogs or wild animals that might harm the kittens running loose in the neighborhood? Does the neighborhood have kids or adults who are likely to harm the kittens? Are the kittens located in an area with heavy foot or car traffic?
To help with your decision, it is important to know that it might take several hours for the mother cat to return, and healthy kittens can survive this period without food as long as they are warm. Neonatal kittens are much more at risk of hypothermia than they are of starvation. During spring and summer months, waiting a longer time to see if mom will come back is much safer than during frigid winter months.
The mother cat offers her newborn kittens their best chance for survival, so wait and watch as long as you safely can for her to return before removing them. The best food for the kittens is their mother’s milk. Remove the kittens only if they are in immediate, grave danger.
If the mother cat returns and is feral…
If mom returns and the area is relatively safe, leave the family outside and kittens alone with mom until they are old enough to be weaned. The mother will likely move the kittens, do not worry. If she knows this is a safe place with a stable food source, she will return with them. You can offer a shelter and regular food to mom, 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 to food located near her nest. Never attempt to confine or house a feral mother cat, as this can be dangerous
If you are able to commit, the kittens should be taken away from their mom when they’re able to eat on their own (about 4-5 weeks old) for socialization, alter and adoption placement or when they are 8 weeks or older, for domestic and Trap-Neuter-Return (spay/neuter, vaccination, ear-tip, and return to their colony).
When you bring them inside, handle them often to get them used to human socialization. The kittens should be fixed and adopted out around 8-10 weeks of age.
If you cannot foster and socialize the kittens, leave the kittens outside! Don’t socialize a kitten that you cannot place; they will learn survival skills from their mother that will give them their best chance at outdoor survival as a feral cat.
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. Contact Purr Angels (North Siskiyou County) for assistance in spaying and neutering feral cats and kittens at (530) 842-1875 or the STAR program (South Siskiyou County) at (530)926-6388. Both these agencies assist in TNR only and do accept cats or kittens for placement.
(Trap-neuter-return (TNR) is a program through which free-roaming cats (not belonging to particular humans) are humanely trapped, sterilized and medically treated, and returned to the outdoor locations where they were found.)
If the mother cat does not return…
If you discover that mom has been hit by a car, or if for any reason it appears that she is not coming back, then you should remove the kittens. This is crucial to the kittens’ survival. But you must be prepared to see this project through to weaning and possibly longer if you decide to intervene!
If you take the kittens in, it is unlikely that you will find an organization with available staff or volunteers to take on bottle-feeding on short notice. Some organizations do have experienced bottle-feeders, but prior logistical planning is necessary. Veterinarians generally do not take in newborn kittens, since they do not have the staff to feed and stimulate them for elimination around-the-clock.
You can contact the Siskiyou Humane Society at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 926-4052 and we will attempt to find someone to bottle-feed the kittens, but this might take days or weeks, and we may not be successful in locating a feeder or foster family. SHS does have a foster program that will assist the finder who is willing to take on the responsibility of bottle-feeding and/or fostering kittens. The program provides assistance with food, supplies and medical care until the kittens are at least 8 weeks and over 2 ½ pounds. At that time, if there is room, the kittens can be brought to the shelter. They will then be spayed/neutered and adopted. Once available kittens, are adopted quickly. There are requirements for this program such as an initial medical and behavior evaluation of the kittens and/or kittens and mom, appointments for vaccinations and checkups, and feral kittens must have enough socialization to be adoptable. SHS and their highly trained and experienced staff will be available to assist throughout this process. For more information about this program and program requirements, you may call and leave a message for the foster program coordinator or shelter manager at 530-926-4052.
If you do not want to bring the kittens to the shelter and are ready to take on the project of caring for a kitten from bottle feeding through adoption you can contact SHS for advice and guidance. You will be responsible for paying veterinary visits, which might include emergency medical care, and will definitely include spay or neuter surgery, disease testing, and vaccinations. Finally, you will be responsible for adopting the kittens into permanent homes. There is spay and neuter assistance available please be sure this is done to help stop the cycle of pet overpopulation.
Try to verify the age of the kittens.
This is important because you do not want to take a nursing kitten away from their mom or leave a kitten with their feral mom too long if you want to socialize them. There are many resources online to help with this process.
Under one week: Eyes shut, ears flat to head, skin looks pinkish. Part of umbilical cord may still be attached.
1 week-10 days: Eyes beginning to open, ears still flat. A kitten this age is smaller than your hand.
3 weeks: Eyes are fully open, ears are erect, and teeth are visible. Kittens this age are just starting to walk and will be very wobbly.
4-5 weeks: Eyes have changed from blue to another color and/or kittens have begun to pounce, leap, and are more mobile. Kittens this age will begin to eat gruel or canned food.
Here is a link to help verify age: http://aspcapro.org/blog/2014/07/03/tip-week-4-ways-tell-kittens-age
For tips on kitten socialization: https://www.alleycat.org/community-cat-care/kitten-socialization-how-to/
Kitten Care & Bottle-Feeding
- Prepare for bottle-feeding and proper care before you take the kittens off the street.
- If you feel you must take the kittens in, wrap the carrier or container you will transport them in in a towel for warmth, but make sure you leave air holes uncovered so the kittens won’t suffocate.
- Check to see if the kittens are warm. This is more important than feeding. Never feed a cold kitten! If the kittens are cold, you will need to warm them up slowly. You can tell a kitten is cold if the pads of his feet and/or ears feel cool or cold. Put your finger in the kitten’s mouth. If it feels cold, then the kitten’s temperature is too low. This is life-threatening and must be dealt with immediately. Warm up the kitten slowly over 20 minutes by wrapping him in a towel or baby blanket, holding him close to your body, and continually rubbing him with your warm hands.
- Determine the age of the kittens
Newborn kittens need to be fed and stimulated for elimination every three hours around-the-clock.
Feeding & Elimination
DO NOT FEED KITTENS REGULAR MILK, GOATS MILK OR HUMAN FORMULA
Neonatal kittens (under four weeks of age) cannot eat solid food (not canned, not dry) and cannot urinate or defecate on their own, so you must bottle-feed them around-the-clock and stimulate their genitals after every feeding so they can eliminate. For example, if you have kittens less than one week old, they will need to be fed and stimulated every three hours. That means you will be caring for them eight times a day — for example, at midnight, 3:00 a.m., 6:00 a.m., etc. If the kittens are unusually small or sickly, they might need to be fed every two hours.
Skipping feedings or overfeeding can cause diarrhea, which results in dehydration, a condition that can be fatal for small kittens (not to mention a hassle for you to clean up after). Diarrhea can require a visit to the veterinarian.
As the kittens age, the number of feedings they need per day goes down. You can start weaning at four weeks of age.
Milk Replacement Formulas
Powdered kitten milk replacement formula is better for kittens than the canned liquid formula. We recommend that you use only powdered kitten milk replacement formula from the start — or as soon as possible — to prevent diarrhea. Two major brands of formula are available: PetAg KMR® Powder and Farnam Pet Products Just Born® Highly Digestible Milk Replacer for Kittens. Both brands are available in both canned and powdered formulas It can be purchased at pet food stores such as Noah’s Ark or veterinarians’ offices, or online.
Make sure that the powdered formula you are using is fresh by opening the pop-top and smelling it. It should smell slightly sweet, like powdered milk. If it has a sharp smell like bad cooking oil, cheese, or chemicals, it is rancid, and dangerous to give to the kittens. Do not use any type of formula past the expiration date.
Once opened, kitten milk replacement formula (canned or powdered) must be refrigerated promptly and stored in the refrigerator. You cannot keep opened kitten milk replacement formula out of the refrigerator for very long before it spoils. Think of it as fresh milk.
Tip: Using unflavored Pedialyte electrolyte solution instead of water when mixing the powdered formula for the first 24 hours of feeding helps prevents diarrhea and eases the transition from mom’s milk to commercial kitten milk replacement formula.
Bottle-Feeding Guidance for Beginners
- Visit the NYC Feral Cat Initiative website for detailed information on bottle-feeding orphaned newborn kittens,
- Call us at (530) 926-4052 ext. * # and leave a voicemail in the general mailbox with your name, address, and a description of what instructions/information you need.
SHS offers advice and guidance, when in doubt please call the shelter at (530) 926-4052 and ask to speak to the foster program coordinator or shelter manager. We are closed Sundays and Mondays, please leave a voicemail message or message us on Facebook at Siskiyou Humane Society Adoption Center.