Help! I’ve found kittens!

Springtime marks the beginning of kitten season, when intact, outdoor female adult cats continually go through a heat cycle, giving birth to dozens of kittens before winter comes.  If you’ve found little kittens in your yard or nearby, it is important to know how best to handle this finding and insure a safe survival for both kittens and mama cat.

Much of the following information is from Tompkins County SPCA‘s Feral Cat Series and Alley Cat Allies.  This is a brief overview and is not intended to provide veterinary recommendations.

If You Find Kittens

First, determine whether they have a mother.  Mother cats may be out for several hours at a time getting food for themselves, so try to wait somewhere unobserved to see if she comes back.  If the kittens have a mother, you have several options:

  • Take the mother and kittens into your home and confine them in a large cage or a small room such as a bathroom or laundry room.   This prevents the mother cat from moving the kittens and she will take care of raising them until they are old enough to be socialized and placed in homes.  Once the kittens have been fully weaned, the mother can then be spayed and returned to her original habitat, or if socialized, re-homed.  If mom is truly feral (not socialized to humans), bringing her indoors may not be a safe option if you are not familiar with working directly with ferals and it may be best to move to the next option listed.
  • Allow mom to care for her kittens where you found them until the kittens are approximately four weeks of age (when they begin weaning).  Unfortunately, she may move them at any time, so try to make the location as attractive and comfortable as possible.  Giver her a comfortable shelter and provide food and water every day.  Try to catch the kittens when they are weaned (4-6 weeks) so that they can be socialized and placed in homes.  It is important to catch mom too in order to have her spayed so that she does not continue to reproduce.  Mothers can get pregnant again while nursing kittens.  For help with trapping and spaying the mother cat, please visit SNIPcat.org.
  • A last resort is to take the kittens from the mother, have her spayed, and raise the kittens yourself until they are old enough to be re-homed.  This ensures that the mother will not move the kittens and they will be socialized to humans, but remember that in most cases it is best to keep kittens with their mother for the first few weeks of life.  Mom provides them important antibodies and nutrition, and it is a healthier option for her as well – nursing mothers without kittens to feed can often suffer from mastitis, an infection of the breast, which can be fatal if left untreated.

If the kittens are indeed orphans, bring them into your home to establish their age, medical and feeding needs.  At this point, you must act quickly because neonatal kittens are fragile.  Delay can be fatal.  Kittens should be alert and warm to the touch.  If the kittens are cold and listless, they must be warmed up immediately.  Chilling is a major cause of death of neonatal kittens and can happen in just a few hours.  Do not attempt to feed chilled kittens.  Place the kittens in a box or pet carrier with a towel-covered heating pad set on low inside the box.  Be sure the heating pad covers only half of the bottom of the box – the kittens must be able to move off the heating pad if it becomes too warm.

Determining Age

  • 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, 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 and leap.  Kittens this age will begin to eat regular cat food (wet food, typically or dry food softened with water or milk replacement formula).
  • 8 weeks:  Kittens this age weigh approximately two pounds.  If they have not been exposed to humans, they will be shy and hissy and will need to be socialized by 12 weeks of age, at which point socialization is still manageable, but can be more challenging.

A kitten typically gains 4 oz. of weight per week and at 4 weeks of age weighs 1lb.  At two months of age they typically weigh 2lbs.

For Kittens Four Weeks of Age and Younger

Feeding orphaned kittens:  Kittens cannot be fed until they are warmed – feeding chilled kittens is very dangerous.  Do not feed cow’s milk as it causes diarrhea, which leads to severe dehydration.  You will need KMR or other kitten milk replacement formula, along with special bottles for feeding.  These supplies can be found at any pet food store.  The pre-mixed liquid formula is easier to use than the powdered form.

Depending on their age, kittens will need to be fed every two to six hours around the clock.  To prepare the bottle, pierce a hole in the nipple with a sterilized pin or make a tiny slit with a sterilized razor.  Make sure the hole is big enough for the milk to get through – it should be large enough to allow milk to drop slowly from the nipple when the bottle is inverted.  Warm the formula to approximately 100 degrees F.  Test the formula on your wrist – it should be slightly warm, not hot, not cold.

KMR Feeding Information

Age in Weeks Average Weight Total CC of KMR per Day Feedings per Day
1 4oz 32cc 6
2 7oz 56cc 4
3 10oz 80cc 3
4 13oz 104cc 3

According to this chart, a 4 oz. kitten would be fed approximately 5cc of formula 6 times a day.  Most commercial milk replacers will have daily feeding schedules printed on their products.

Small and weak kittens do best if they are fed every four hours for the first four days.  If they are unable to take the amount of formula scheduled for each feeding, the number of feedings should be increased and the amount of formula decreased at each feeding.  It is important to understand that formula intake is limited by the size of the stomach.  A kitten’s stomach should feel full by not extended after being fed.

Place the kitten on its stomach to bottle feed.  This is done to avoid having milk run into the kitten’s windpipe.  Try to angle the bottle so that air does not go into the stomach.  Encourage suckling by keeping a slight pull on the bottle.  Never squeeze the bottle to force the formula out.  This action could result in the kitten inhaling formula into its lungs which could cause pneumonia.  You will usually see bubbles forming around the kitten’s mouth when it is full.  Always burp the kitten after each feeding.  Kittens can actually die from too much gas formation in their stomachs.

After they eat, kittens need help to urinate and defecate.  To do this, moisten a cotton ball with warm water and gently rub the kitten’s anal area.  Waste will be mostly liquid at this point.

Health:  In addition to chilling, there are other conditions which must be treated without delay:

  • Fleas can cause anemia in kittens and even death.  If you notice fleas, you should flea comb the kitten as soon as possible.  Do not use insecticides or any other flea products.
  • Diarrhea and upper respiratory infection (similar to a human cold) are serious and should be treated immediately by a veterinarian.
  • If a kitten cannot suck on the bottle, she may need to be fed with a veterinary feeding syringe (no needle).

Weaning:  At about four weeks of age you can begin offering canned and dry kitten food.  Kittens are most responsive to a wet food “slop” – a mixture of wet food and milk replacement formula – and eventually moistened dry food.  The kittens will begin using a litterbox as well.

Socializing Kittens

Kittens who are not exposed to humans early in their lives learn from their mothers and quickly become feral.  However, if they are caught and handled at a young enough age, feral kittens can be socialized and place into loving homes.  Remember that spay/neuter is the single most important thing you can do to help feral cats.  It is best to alter as many cats in a colony as possible before you begin socializing.

Kittens under four weeks old can usually be socialized in a matter of days, and kittens up to eight weeks old can take approximately 2-4 weeks to socialize completely.  At 10-12 weeks of age, the kittens can still be tamed but it may take longer and they may always have residual shyness.  Taming feral-born kittens over 12 weeks old can be difficult and they may never be fully socialized to people.

Kittens cannot be socialized while they are still in their outdoor colony.  They must be brought inside and confined so that you have regular access to them.  If you cannot do this, consider surrendering them to a public shelter (ccasd.org) where a rescue group may have the opportunity to place them in a foster home and socialize them, depending upon their age.

Housing Kittens

You will need to confine the kittens at first, preferably in a dog crate, large pet carrier, cat condo or cage. If you do not have a cage or carrier, you can keep the kittens in a small room.  the cage should contain a small litterbox, food and water dishes, and something to cuddle in like a towel, a piece of your clothing or a small stuffed animal.  Be sure to block up anything they could crawl into or under and remove anything that could injure them.

Do not let feral kittens run loose in your house.  They can hide in tiny spaces and are exceptionally difficult to find and coax out.  In addition, a large room can be frightening and hinder the tampering process.

If possible, kittens should be separated from each other when facilitating taming.  Left together, one kitten can become outgoing and playful while another remains shy and withdrawn.  The kittens can be housed together, but be sure to spend time alone with each one.

The Socialization Process

  • Food can be the key to taming.  Make dry kitten food available at all times and give the kitten a small amount of wet food at least twice a day.  The kitten may hesitate to eat in your presence at first, but be patient.  Eventually the kitten will associate your presence with food.  Chicken-flavored baby food is a special treat that few kittens can resist.
  • How soon you begin handling the kitten depends on the kitten’s age and temperament.  Older kittens and those who are most feral are harder to handle.  With these kittens, start by offering baby food or wet food on a spoon through the cage.  Once they are used to this, you can begin handling them.
  • Younger and less feral kittens can be picked up right away.  Wear gloves if you will feel more comfortable, as it is important to be confident and gentle when picking up any animal.  Wrap the kitten in at towel, allowing her head to stick out.  Offer baby food or wet food on a spoon.  If she does not respond, dab a tiny bit on the end of her nose. Once she tastes it, she will soon want more.
  • When petting a feral kitten, approach from behind her head.  Gradually begin to pet the kitten’s face, chin, and behind the ears while talking gently.  Try to have several feeding/petting sessions (15-20 minutes) with each kitten as many times a day as you can.
  • Progress will depend on the kitten’s age and temperament.  Each day you will notice improvement – falling asleep in your lap, coming towards you for food, meowing at you, purring, and playing are all great signs.  Once the kitten no longer runs away from you but instead comes toward you seeking to be fed, held and pet, you can confine her to a small, kitten-proofed room rather than a cage.
  • Expose the kittens to a variety of people.  Everyone should use low voices at first and approach the kittens in a non-threatening manner.  All interactions with young children should be monitored very closely to ensure that the children are treating the kittens delicately and appropriately.
  • Once the kitten is willing to play, offer toys or a cat dancer for her to chase.  Do not let the kitten bite, scratch or play with your hand as this will teach her to do so.  Kitten teeth and nails are very sharp!
  • If the kittens are staying awake at night, try to play and socialize with them more during the day and cover their cage at night with a towel or blanket.
  • Leave a television or radio on (not too loud) during the day so that the kittens get used to human voices.

For further information on handling kittens with or without a mother cat, please visit Alley Cat Allies website.  You may also download this Neonatal Kitten Care guide, available through Alley Cat Allies and Austin Humane Society.

If you have found kittens and/or a socialized mother cat and are unable to accept them into your home, you can surrender them to Contra Costa County Animal Services (the public shelter).