Do you know what to do when you find a litter of kittens?
If you've ever visited a shelter or rescue organization, chances are you've heard the words "kitten season", and you may be wondering what that is. Kitten season is the time of year when cats give birth, flooding animal shelters and rescue groups across the nation with homeless litters of kittens and pregnant cats. Kitten season typically starts in the spring, peaks in late spring or early summer, and ends in fall, but warm weather may increase the length of time the season lasts.
Kitten season happens because too many kittens are born when cats who are not spayed and neutered mate. The easiest way to help reduce the overwhelming numbers of unwanted cats is to spay and neuter your own cats, and encourage others to do the same. Unaltered cats are driven by their hormones and tend to sneak outdoors primarily in search of a mate. Mating just once can start a domino effect that can result in dozens, even hundreds or thousands of unwanted animals.
Cats can become pregnant as young as five months of age. Fortunately, kittens as young as three months and weighing three pounds can be safely altered. Many people ask their veterinarian to spay or neuter their pet. If you have trouble affording the fee, organizations such as Emancipet, Animal Trustees of Austin (ATA) and Austin Humane Society can help. Work with your local animal control or feral cat group to help manage your neighborhood's feral and stray cat populations and make sure you spay and neuter your own pets as well.
I found some little kittens, what do I do now?
During kitten season, it’s not unusual to discover a nest of unattended kittens or a single kitten seemingly abandoned by the mother. Your first instict is to want to rescue and help these tiny defenseless babies but before jumping to the rescue, consider these recommendations.
First, wait & watch
It is very rare for a mama cat to abandon her litter for no reason. In most cases, you might have come across the kittens while their mother is nearby
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 because if you stand too close, the mom may not feel safe to approach her kittens. You might need to go away completely as she may not return 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 there dogs or wild animals that might harm the kittens close by? Are there kids or adults who are likely to harm the kittens around? 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.
If the mother cat returns ...
If the mother comes back, don't worry, they are in good hands. A kitten's best chance of survival is to remain with its mother until fully weaned. The best food for the kittens is their mother’s milk so wait and watch as long as you can, and only remove the kittens if they are in immediate, grave danger.
If you are able to safely approach the mom, you can offer a shelter and regular food to her, 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.
Six weeks is the optimal age to take the kittens from the mother for socialization and adoption placement, and any time after eight weeks for Trap-Neuter-Return (spay/neuter, vaccination, eartip, and return to their colony). 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.
If the mother cat does not return ...
If after waiting a few hours, it appears the mother is not coming back, then remove the kittens and immediately offer them a warm and cozy area to stay while you determine your next steps.
Carefully approach the kittens, scoop them up and place them in a carrier or box lined with towels or soft blankets. If at all possible, include a heating pad (not too hot) for them to curl up on. Young kittens are unable to control their body temperature and it is very important that they stay warm in order to prevent hypothermia.
If you take the kittens in and help them yourself, you must be prepared to see the project through. Young kittens need to be fed and stimulated for elimination around-the-clock. It is a time consuming and potentially challenging effort and not many people are prepared to handle it. Fortunately, there are many resources available online to help you know what to do to properly care for newborn and young kittens.
If you find that you are unable to keep the kittens, take them to a
local area shelter
as soon as possible. Most local shelters have established foster care programs where kittens can be placed and cared for until they are ready for adoption.