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Kitten Care and Socialization

"But the kitten, how she starts,
crouches, stretches, paws and darts!"
From "The Kittens and the Falling Leaves",
William Wordsworth, English Poet

Do You Really Want To Raise Kittens?

Enjoying the unconditional love of kittens is extremely gratifying.  But, before taking on the responsibility of transforming furry little bundles into cuddly lap cats, consider these aspects of the task:

Additionally, depending on the group of kittens, all may not socialize well enough to be adopted as house cats.  If this happens you will have the difficult task of deciding what to do with the unsocialized kittens.  The older the kittens are when you start fostering them, the greater the risk.


Kitten Season.  It happens every year — in late winter/early spring — "kitten season" begins and it continues well past Labor Day.  Shelters that are barely able to handle the lighter fall/winter intake of orphaned cats and occasional kittens begin to burgeon with homeless pregnant mom cats and neonatal (infant) kittens.  At the same time, others in the community find homeless mom cats with litters in their garage, under their porch and care for them till they are individually adopted out — or taken to the shelter when they are unable to place them on their own.

In our community, about 2,000 kittens each season are taken to shelters and vet clinics for adoption.  Unfortunately only about half that number make it into loving homes — the rest are euthanized for a variety of reasons — no foster home to care for them, not socialized well enough to be a house cat, contracted a treatable viral illness while at the shelter, and even more sadly — there simply weren't enough homes to go around!

Cat Overpopulation.  So, as cute and loving as kittens are, we need to rethink what we do when we find a homeless pregnant cat.  If the pregnancy is not in the final stage, is it more humane to spay the mom cat and abort the kittens — or let them be born and become a shelter euthanasia statistic?

Unless you're a professional breeder, please don't even consider letting your female cat breed.  Don't be lulled by the false logic that since you can find homes for your kittens it's okay to enjoy the experience of raising them.  We live in a closed-loop community — there are a finite number of homes.  Every kitten you actively bring into the world by not spaying your cat will prevent another less fortunate kitten or cat from getting a home.

Working Toward Zero Population Growth.  By the simple practice of spaying early- and mid-term feral pregnant cats — and making sure our pet cats are sterilized by 16 weeks of age — we can easily make a dent in the huge numbers of kittens born each year.  It won't get us immediately to zero population growth — but it will help tremendously.  A cat is a prolific breeder — one female cat can have up to 3 litters per year of an average 4 kittens per litter.  Her kittens can start breeding at 4 months.  The increase is geometric.  The math is staggering!

Even after we have prevented as many kittens as we can, we are still faced with a goodly number we can't prevent.  Feral or outdoor cats are inherently fearful of people.  They do their best to maintain a low profile and we frequently have no idea they are living in our yard, behind our business, or on our campus.  The first we know of them is at the point their kittens are born.

Kitten Fostering Opportunities.  If you happen on a litter of baby kittens and want to save them from an outdoor feral existence, consider fostering them on your own and placing them in loving homes.  Remember that shelters are not set up to care for them.  They need the love, attention and peace of a foster guardian's home where they can thrive and learn to enjoy human companionship.  For this reason cat rescue groups and shelters are always in need of volunteers to foster the kittens they receive and would welcome your assistance.

Preparing To Foster

Preparing Your Own Pets.  If you have pet cats in your home, review their veterinary records and update any vaccinations that may have lapsed.  Rabies and FVRCP (distemper, upper respiratory) vaccinations should be given at least every 3 years and Feline Leukemia vaccinations should be administered annually if your cat is going to be in contact with foster cats.

Preparing Space for Foster Kittens.   It is important to have a small, heated room for your foster kittens.  Make sure everything in the room is "cat friendly", i.e., washable and if need be, replaceable,  A small bathroom or laundry room works well — as does a spare bedroom.

Record-Keeping.  Have on hand a daily journal sheet for each kitten to record vital information — weight, appetite, general appearance and any significant events.  Take the journal with you when you visit the vet.

Reference Material.   This handout is only an overview of what's involved in fostering kittens.  For more complete information, we recommend the ASPCA book entitled The Guide to Handraising Kittens by Susan Easterly.  It is available through the Alley Cat Allies website at www.alleycat.org.

For a better understanding of kitten development, we recommend reading Understanding Cats by naturalist and biologist Roger Tabor published by The Reader's Digest Association.

Fostering "Found" Kittens

If you find a pregnant cat, a mother cat with kittens, or a litter of kittens without a mother — you can live trap and foster them provided you are willing to find permanent homes for them after they are socialized and old enough to be adopted — typically eight weeks — or make prior arrangements with an organization to take them for adoption.  If you do not have a plan for adoption, it may be best to leave them with their colony and manage them as outdoor cats — including getting the entire colony sterilized to prevent further kittens.

Live Trapping.  If the kittens are old enough to move around, you may need to bait a live trap to catch them safely.  Place the trap near their feeding station.  Under a bush or in a hedge is preferable to out in the open.  Make sure the rear (sliding) door is latched.  Line the bottom of the trap with a sheet or two of newspaper just covering the trip plate — they may be hesitant to walk on the wire mesh.

Bait the trap with a generous dollop of pungent food.  Put it on a scrap of paper, small paper plate, plastic dish, peanut butter lid — anything that doesn't have sharp edges.  Then put it as far back in the trap as possible — behind the trip plate but inaccessible from the outside.  You may want to trail bits of the food out to the opening to help lure the kittens in.

Once the kittens are trapped, transfer them to a pet carrier by lining the opening up with the rear sliding door of the trap.  Then open the trap and the kittens will move to the carrier.  (If the kittens are very young and not able to move around, you may be able to simply scoop them up in your hands — protected by padded gloves and long sleeves — and place them in the carrier.  Wait till the mother has left the kittens to take them.)

To trap the mother, place a baited live trap in front of the carrier — cover the live trap with a towel so she can only access the carrier from the front.  The towel will also calm the mother once she is in the trap.

Keeping The Mother Cat.  Whenever possible, if the kittens are less than 4 weeks old, trap the mother cat with the kittens so that she can nurse them and provide them with warmth.  After the kittens are weaned, spay the mother and re-release her where you found her and continue to manage her as an outdoor cat.  Keeping her with the kittens after they are weaned may be counter-productive to socializing them.

Veterinary Evaluation.  Before bringing the mother and her kittens into your home, take them to the vet.  Use this initial vet visit to ask any questions you have on caring for the family and to determine if anyone needs special medical attention.  Viral test the mother cat for FIV and Felv to ensure the kittens are also negative.  If the mother tests positive for either virus, the vet will probably recommend the family be euthanized to prevent other cats from being infected.

Fostering Pregnant Cats.

If you find an obviously pregnant cat outdoors, live trap as described above and take her immediately to a vet for evaluation.  If there's still time, spay her and abort the kittens — then re-release her to her home.  If the pregnancy is too far along, keep the pregnant cat and care for her through the remaining term.

Birthing Box.  Your pregnant cat will need a "birthing box" — approximately 2'x2' with one side cut down for easy access and lined with old diapers or towels.  Let her get used to being in the box before she delivers so she will be more apt to use it for the birthing.

Signs Delivery is Imminent.  A cat's gestation period is approximately 63 days.  The closer to the end she is, the more restless she becomes.  Normally very hungry during pregnancy, she will lose her appetite.  If you can handle her and you sense she is looking for a place to deliver, put her in the birthing box.  If she doesn't want to stay in it, don't force her.

Labor.  During labor, the mother cat will breathe through her mouth and purr.  If the mother does not act or look concerned, there is nothing for you to do other than make sure the room temperature is at least 72 °F.  Kittens are born at least a half-hour apart, giving the mom time to wash each kitten and sever the umbilical cord before the next one arrives.  In some instances as much as 24 hours will lapse between births.

When To Help. The following situations require special assistance:

Fostering Orphaned Kittens

If you find baby kittens alone outside and want to foster them, wait a few hours and observe — especially if they are under 4 weeks old.  Many times the mother cat will move her kittens and can do so only one kitten at a time.  The process can take hours.  As long as the temperature outdoors is relatively warm and the kittens are in a protected area, they will be okay left alone for a few hours.  If the mother does not return, take the kittens, trapping them as explained earlier.

Find A Surrogate Mother.   If the kittens are under 4 weeks old and without a mother, try contacting local cat rescue groups and shelters to see if there is a surrogate mother available.  A mother cat whose kittens are being weaned can be given a new litter to nurse and care for.  In most instances this is preferable to bottle-feeding and hand-raising the kittens.

Preventing Hypothermia.   The most common death in unattended kittens is hypothermia so you need to take immediate action to warm the kittens.  Do not warm them too quickly or you may also cause death.  Kittens can be warmed through your own body warmth while gently massaging the kitten's body.  Make sure you have clothing between you and the kitten for your own protection.

Kitten "Incubator".  If you are fostering orphaned neonatal kittens, you will need a small cat carrier or a cardboard box with a heating pad set at low running down one side and halfway underneath the box.  The other half of the bottom should not be heated so that the kittens can move away from the pad if it gets too hot.  Line the bed with a towel.  The kitten area must be kept at 85 to 90 °F during their first week, then lowered 5° weekly until the temperature is 72 °F.  Use a thermometer frequently to check the heating pad temperature.

Feeding.  Following the directions provided on the package, feed orphaned infant kittens with commercial kitten formula.  Hold the kittens in their natural nursing position — on the stomach — being careful not to hold the head back as that could cause aspiration of the formula into the lungs.  Never feed a chilled kitten formula.  To stabilize him as you warm him, rub a very thin layer of light corn syrup on his gums.

Feed infant kittens a minimum of every six hours to ensure they get enough nourishment.  If a kitten hasn't started eating after 24 hours, seek veterinary assistance.  After feeding, wipe the face with a warm damp cloth and then dry it off until they are able to groom themselves.

Elimination.  Until they are old enough to use a litter box (2-3 weeks), they need help eliminating.  After feeding, take a moistened cotton ball and gently massage the anal region until they urinate or defecate.  It may take several cotton balls for each kitten to complete this process.

Weaning.  After the kittens are 2-3 weeks old, offer their formula to them in a saucer so they will learn to drink.  Gradually add small amounts of kitten food to the formula and then decrease the proportion of formula until they are just eating kitten food.  Make sure you always have fresh water out for the kittens to drink.

Fostering For A Local Adoption Group

Contact local cat adoption centers — humane society, veterinary clinics and private rescue groups — to see if they have any kittens available or if they maintain a list of foster homes.  They may request you apply to their program and to provide them with information similar to that you would provide to adopt a cat.

You too may wish to make a few inquiries of the organization:

Medical Problems in Kittens

Kittens are susceptible to many of the same diseases that adult cats contract, but since their immune systems are not as well developed, even minor illnesses can be life-threatening.  In Susan Easterly's book, The Guide To Handraising Kittens, she cites the following events that need immediate veterinary attention:

Personal Safety Precautions

Following these precautions will help protect you and your pets from unnecessary exposure to medical issues while fostering:

Bites and Scratches.  Wear padded gloves and long sleeves as a precaution if the cats are particularly scared or wild.  Feral cats can inflict some serious damage.  If a cat bite breaks the skin, wash it well and go immediately to a doctor.  Cats' nails and teeth harbor bacteria and the risk of infection is very high.  If you get scratched, wash out the wound and keep an eye out for infection and fever.  Infected cat scratches can cause lymph node enlargement, fever, fatigue, sore throat and headaches.

Rabies.  Rabies, although feared, is relatively rare.  Still, you might want to get a pre-exposure vaccination if you are working with feral kittens.

Chlamydiosis.  Felines who have this upper respiratory infection can pass it to humans as conjunctivitis (pinkeye).  Don't touch your eyes after contact with afflicted feral cats.

Fleas and Ticks.  Feral cats may carry ticks infected with Lyme disease, which could transfer to humans and other animals.  Check your whole body carefully after spending time in a feral cat area.

Ringworm.  Ringworm is actually a fungus and can be transferred to both humans and other animals.  It makes cat fur fall out in a circular area, and the skin underneath will look red.  Wearing gloves will help protect you.

Internal Parasites.  Many internal parasites live in cat feces.  Toxoplasma dondii is a particularly nasty one that can be passed on to humans.  In pregnant women it can lead to abortion or fetal abnormalities.  If you're pregnant. have someone else clean the litter box and wear gloves and protect your body when handling feral cats.  Everyone should wear gloves and wash their hands well after cleaning litter boxes.

Cleanliness and a little precaution will reduce or eliminate most health risks.  Make sure to clean up leftover food and keep cat feces areas clean.

Excerpted from "Wildcats in Your Backyard", by Jennifer Hunter, an article appearing in the November 1999 issue of Catnip, a publication of the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, www.tufts.edu/vet/cfa.

Kitten Socialization

Kittens need early repetitive human contact — preferably from more than one person, sex and age group — to socialize into wonderful house cats.  If concentrated human contact is not present during the pre-weaning stage of the cat — in particular from 2-7 weeks — the kittens will develop into shy, reserved cats apprehensive of strangers.  No amount of special loving from their adoptive guardian afterward will be able to undo this.

While the kittens are living with you, gradually expose them to all of the aspects of normal housecat living — children, other pets, visitors and noises such as televisions, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and the like.  Take them for little "outings" into the different areas of your home, keeping them secure and protected in a large cat carrier.

Consider taking them for short drives to get used to being in a car.  Anything they are exposed to at this early stage will help them transform into calm, friendly companions in their permanent homes.  In their fact sheet, "Taming Feral Kittens", Alley Cat Allies describes a 5-stage socialization process for kittens:

Placing Kittens In Loving Homes

While you're fostering the kittens, it is a good idea to start the adoption process by doing what you can to find permanent homes for them.  This is true even if you are fostering through a shelter.  Many times you will be pleased to find that all have homes by the time they are old enough to be adopted out.

How To Find A Guardian. Here are some ideas on how to find homes and qualify potential adopters:

How To Select A Guardian.

Here are some procedures that will ensure a responsible home for your kittens:

Kitten Development Timetable

Approximate Age Characteristics
Gestation Period 63 days
Birth Closed eyes / folded ears
5 Days Loses umbilical cord
5-13 Days Eyes open
14 Days Teething begins
18 Days Litter box use begins
Ears straighten
Crawling begins
21 Days Litter box training complete
Starts eating wet kitten food
28-35 Days Kitten stands
Weaning process begins
Able to chew dry food
Eyes become clear
Ears stand fully upright
14-49 Days Critical socialization window
42 Days Deworm and vaccinate (FRTC)
56 Days Old enough for adoption

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