Many animal lovers assume when they see a tiny kitten alone and defenseless they need to rescue it and find a home for it.
But Becky Robinson, president of Alley Cat Allies, a national advocacy group for stray and feral cats, says that’s not always the right thing to do.
“Should you come across kittens, you may be tempted to pick them up and bring them home with you, but that might not be in the best interest of the kittens," Robinson says.
What should you do instead? Robinson’s organization recommends the following steps:
- Try to determine the kittens' age
- Wait to see if the mother cat returns to her litter
- Then get advice on catching and neutering the animals as appropriate
Many people assume “feral” and “stray” are different terms for the same type of cat.
Nothing could be further from the truth!
The Difference between Feral and Stray Cats
Stray cats have at some point lived with people. These kitties have been separated from their owners somehow, but if they haven’t been on the loose for too long, they can still be approached and handled.
Feral cats, on the other hand, are what we term “wild.” Technically they are domesticated cats that have reverted to an untamed or free-living state.
Most feral cats are born in the wild, though a small percentage are assumed to be strays that for whatever reason reverted to wildness over time.
Unlike strays, feral cats don’t trust people and will not allow you to get close to them. They won’t eat if you’re nearby, and their eating behavior tends to be hurried and furtive.
Feral kitties typically hide during daylight hours and roam around at night. They find out-of-the-way places to rest and sleep – hiding places where they won’t be disturbed. Feral cats often live in colonies in areas that provide shelter, food and water, like around garbage dumpsters.
The central difference between stray and feral cats is that as a general rule, stray cats can be re-socialized and placed in new forever homes, whereas feral cats older than about eight weeks are considered unsuitable for adoption.
According to the ASPCA, “The fact is, most feral cats exhibit wild, shy or frightened behavior and it's impossible to predict how or if they will ever acclimate to indoor life. Feral cats make up a large percentage of the four million to six million cats euthanized yearly by U.S. animal shelters. Adopting a feral is seldom the best course of action for either the cat or the prospective owner.”
Why Trying to Tame a Feral Cat is Discouraged
This is a very difficult thing for cat lovers who are inexperienced with feral kitties to appreciate.
It’s hard to understand why a feral cat that looks identical to your pet can’t be brought into your home to live just as comfortably as your beloved Fluffy.
According to organizations that work closely with feral cat populations, including Alley Cat Allies and the Humane Society of the U.S, the survival instinct of feral kitties drives them to avoid human interaction. If their basic survival needs are met, feral cats do much better living outside on their own “turf.”
Jesse Oldham of the ASPCA describes his own experience with ferals this way: “I, like many first-time rescuers, tried to socialize a feral cat. He remained under my bed for over a year before I could even touch him. With so many adoptable domestic cats and kittens who are truly happy being indoors, socializing a feral cat should not be the goal.”
Of course, as is the case with most animal advocacy issues, there are opposing views as to whether trying to tame a feral cat is advisable. If you’d like more information, you can review the Stanford Cat Network’s list of Tips on Taming Feral Cats and Kittens.
What to Do If You Find a Litter of Feral Kittens
Tiny kittens seemingly alone in the world and completely vulnerable are hard to resist, but resist you must, at least temporarily.
Before you gather up those kittens and take them home, the first thing you should do is try to figure out how old they are.
If your plan is to care for the litter with the goal of finding homes for them, the kittens must be handled and socialized with a few weeks of birth. If the kitties are over a few weeks old, it may be too late to turn them into pets that can live comfortably with people.
It can be difficult to determine a kitten’s age, but Alley Cat Allies has an online kitten age progression tool that you might find helpful.
Step two is to wait to see if the mama cat returns.
The litter you’ve found may or may not be abandoned by their mother. She could be out hunting for dinner. Or she might just be hiding in the shadows in response to your approach.
It’s best to wait awhile, at least an hour or two, to see if the mother returns to her babies.
If the Mother Cat Returns to Her Litter …
In this case, the best thing you can do for the kittens is keep them with mom until they’re weaned.
If the mother cat is approachable, you can trap her, collect the kittens, and bring everyone home until the kittens are at least eight weeks old and can be adopted out.
The best location to shelter a semi-feral or socialized mother and kittens in your home is in a small room or enclosure in a quiet area.
If mama is feral, you can provide her with food, water and outside shelter if she and her kittens are exposed to the elements or are in an unsafe area.
When the kittens are weaned, if you’ve had an opportunity to socialize them, you can consider placing them for adoption.
If the Mother Cat Doesn’t Return …
Kittens not yet weaned will need a great deal of round-the-clock care in order to survive, and some may not, despite your best efforts.
If you can find a nursing mother cat through a local veterinarian, shelter or other animal organization, it’s possible she can take over duties with the feral kittens in addition to her own.
Read here for more information about how to handle very young kittens abandoned by a feral mother cat.
Kittens that are weaned but still young enough to be socialized can be fostered with the goal of adoption.
If you plan to socialize a litter of feral kittens, be prepared to make a significant investment of time and effort. Alley Cat Allies offers a great resource for how to socialize feral kittens, as does the Urban Cat League.
Older, unsocialized kittens that are not good candidates for adoption should be included in a trap-neuter-return (TNR) program.
Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR): Controlling the Feral Cat Population
Trap-neuter-return programs are designed not only for humane population control, but also to improve the general health and well-being of feral cats. According to the ASPCA, TNR is the least costly, most humane and effective method for managing feral cat populations.
Feral cats that are part of TNR programs are healthier than cats in unmonitored colonies. Sterilized cats that live in monitored colonies can have life spans exceeding 10 years.
Trap-neuter-return programs also benefit towns and neighborhoods by reducing the feral cat population and eliminating the nuisance behaviors that go along with intact felines.
In TNR, the kitties are caught, transported to veterinary or spay/neuter clinics, sterilized, ear-tipped for identification purposes, vaccinated against rabies, and returned to their colonies.
Feral cats that are part of TNR programs have colony caretakers who:
- Provide shelter, food and water for the cats
- Monitor their health status
- Rescue socialized kittens and strays from the colony for fostering and adoption
- Arrange TNR services to all new feral additions to the colony
For more information on feral cat population management or to learn how to get involved to help these kitties, Neighborhood Cats and the Alley Cat Allies Make Connections page are great places to start.