Kitten Season: When Intervention Does More Harm Than Good

By Larissa Barnes >>>


Spring has sprung and with it the pitter patter of tiny feet … well, tiny little paws, at least. March marks the official welcome of kitten season, which for many sounds like a cute and fluffy time of the year. To those in animal rescue or others who have seen it first hand, it is a dreaded introduction to months of orphaned kittens and all night bottle feeding. The season, which runs until October in some parts of Southern California, stokes the fear it may never, ever end! But what do you do if you stumble upon a delightful nest of tiny, fluffy, mewing babies?

It is not unusual to find a group or a single, un-weaned kitten in your garden or local park, seemingly abandoned by mom. Although you may have wonderful intentions, sometimes intervening is not the answer.

First: Wait & Watch
Mother cats go off to search for food, they hide when they think danger is near and they regularly relocate their kittens (one at a time) to avoid predators. Before removing the kittens, try to determine if the mom is coming back (more often than not, she is). You can do this by watching from 35 feet or more away. Sometimes a mother will not return for hours or until she senses the danger has gone; and in her mind the danger is the human hovering near her litter. Kittens can survive this period as long as they are warm, so obviously assess the situation. If it is raining, freezing or there is an immediate threat such as dogs, cars or heavy foot traffic, you may have to intervene. Mother’s milk is always best for kittens, and taking them away from their mom can mean the kittens will not survive, so be as patient as possible. In fact, 50 percent of young kittens who are taken away from their mom will not survive, so intervening is a big decision to make. If you have to leave before Mom comes back, as long as the kittens seem safe it is still a better option than taking them. Come back to check on them as soon as you can, or see if a neighbor or friend can check for you in a few hours.

If The Mother Cat Returns
If the mom returns and the area is safe, it is best to leave the kittens with mom until the kittens are weaned (six weeks).
You can provide shelter and food, but make sure you keep the two away from each other. The food will attract predators or other cats and Mom will move her kittens to a different location. By offering food to the mommy cat you should get an indication if she is a friendly kitty or unsocialized (or often just terrified).

Mommy is friendly: Many friendly cats are abandoned and when they realize you are not a threat, they will be very affectionate and quite happy to be with their rescuer. If Mommy Cat is friendly and you are able to offer her a place to stay while she weans her kittens then that is a wonderful and very kind act — you won’t regret it. It may take some time to build up to that level of trust and, of course, if Mummy had the kittens in your garden, garage or workshop, then you have easy access to spend time with them. At the age of 6-8 weeks her babies can find homes and the best way to do that is to contact local rescues. If you have brought Mommy and babies inside, then 8 weeks is the preferred age. You want to ensure that the kittens (and Mom) are fixed, vaccinated and microchipped. Giving them away for free to people you don’t know is never a good idea.

Mommy is unsocialized: Most neighborhoods have unsocialized community cats and if Mommy cat fits that category, the six-week rule still applies. Provide food and shelter until the kittens are old enough to leave their mother. Contact your local rescues and shelter about bringing the kittens in so they can be fixed and vaccinated and available for adoption. Please do not forget about Mom — she will be pregnant again soon if she isn’t spayed. Many local rescues offer a Trap-Neuter-Return program. Fix Nation provides low cost spaying for stray and unsocialized cats, and your local rescue community will be happy to help with providing traps to collect her. Consider allowing Mommy cat to be fixed and returned to your care/ garden – she will need a safe place to stay and will help keep away rodents and other stray cats. Most rescues will provide resources and help.

If The Mother Cat Doesn’t Return
If you discover that Mom 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 if you decide to intervene or take the kittens to your local animal shelter. But remember; finding volunteers to take on bottle-feeding on short notice is difficult, and you may need to help the kittens for a few days while volunteers are organized.

Feeding and Caring for Newborns: The first step is to make the kittens warm. Once you have done that they will need feeding. Cow/ regular milk is not an option. The best thing for kittens is kitten replacement formula; but if you cannot get that from the store, goat’s milk is the second best option. If you feel the kittens are dehydrated you can mix the kitten milk replacement with pediatric electrolites. All of these should be served warm and through a weaning bottle or medicine dropper/syringe orally. Never feed a cold kitten; make sure they are warm first! Next you will need to help the kittens go to the restroom. Get a damp and warm tissue and rub it on the kittens anus/genitals. For a newborn kitten, this process of food and elimination will need to occur every three hours. Work with a local rescue or your local shelter in finding help and advice – even providing care for kittens for a few hours or days can help save their lives.

It is always important to remember that it is not the mommy cat’s fault she has had babies, she is doing the best she can and loves her kittens. The best solution for reducing litters is to spay and neuter them, so please ensure that all kittens and cats in your care are fixed. Shelters and rescues are always in desperate need for kitten fosters and donations to assist with the costs of bottle feeding; any help you can offer is always greatly appreciated.