It happens every year — from late winter to early fall. People find feral mom cats with kittens in their garage, under their porch, or in a bush. Although they look recently abandoned, the mother and father have probably been living there all along but — fearful of people — came out only at night. Now with needy kittens, they become more visible. If you find kittens on your land, your first impulse may be to call a shelter but you'll soon learn they are already full. What can you do to help?
Evaluate the situation. If the kittens are in a relatively safe spot, leave them where they are until you have a plan. Observe them from a distance, but don't disturb the mother's care of them. If she senses you may approach, she'll quickly hide them.
If you find kittens without their mother, watch more intently. They may have gotten permanently separated — but, more likely — the mother may be moving the litter (one at a time) or taking a "mommy break". As long as it's relatively warm out and the kittens are in a protected area, they are okay alone — but only for a few hours — then, you may need to intercede.
Determine their age. The options open to kittens depend on their age. The Kitten Development Timetable (below) is a rough age guideline. The ideal time to find them is between 4-8 weeks — when they're old enough to leave their mother, yet young enough to still socialize to people. If you find younger kittens keep them with their mother — if she is gone, find a surrogate (ask vet clinics) or find someone who's able to provide round-the-clock care.
|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
|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||Littermates can be separated|
Kittens Over 8 Weeks Old. If the kittens aren't socialized before they turn eight weeks old, they will likely stay feral no matter how hard someone later tries to tame them. At best, they may socialize to one person — a caregiver they consider "mom cat" — but even that is conditional. This is why most feral cats are best left where they live outdoors. If this happens to be in your yard, you may want to "manage" them — get them sterilized, provide food, water and dry shelter.
This practice, called TNR (trap-neuter-return), helps you, the cats, and the community. Once sterilized, the cats make better neighbors — yowling and spraying stop — and their overall health improves with males no longer fighting and females no longer emaciated from repeated pregnancies. And, their territorial presence keeps other roaming cats away. Best of all, your land becomes a kitten free zone — a place where pro-active cat sterilization (preventing kittens) replaces reactive homeless cat euthanasia to lower overall cat numbers.
Kittens Under 8 Weeks Old. Baby kittens (under 8 weeks old) have more options. One, of course, is to leave them where they are and manage them as outdoor cats — same as if they were older. This is best when the alternative is to take them to an animal control shelter. There they will almost certainly be euthanized as shelters don't adopt out unsocialized kittens. And, even if they did, keeping kittens in a shelter is risky because their immature immune systems can't fight off the airborne diseases omnipresent in shelters.
Ideally, kittens should move to a foster home to receive love, attention and security while they learn to enjoy both human and kitten companionship. For anyone who enjoys kittens, this is a very rewarding experience. It takes only a few weeks, and while the kittens are learning to be house cats, you can typically find them permanent homes. No special education or skills are needed. All you need is a big heart and a small room to foster them.
To learn more about how to socialize feral kittens to be indoor pets — or to manage outdoor feral cats — see our other information handouts. And, whichever way you decide to help, remember the kittens — and mom, dad and any other adults in the colony — need to be sterilized — the sooner the better. Nothing you can do for the cats is more important than that.
Experts agree that chilling is the greatest single threat to neonatal kittens. If you find one cold to the touch, hypothermia has set in — and is life-threatening. Warm the kitten slowly using your own body heat through heavy clothing (to protect yourself). Never feed milk or formula to a chilled kitten — instead, rub a tiny amount of corn syrup or honey on the mouth to stabilize him.
Other serious health emergencies include difficulty breathing, gray or white stool or diarrhea, vomiting, listlessness, not eating, high fever, open wounds or lesions, losing balance or having trouble walking, pale gums or heavy flea (or other parasite) infestation.
If you find kittens with any of the above conditions, consult a veterinarian immediately.
...excerpted from "The Guide To Handraising Kittens" by Susan Easterly.