By Dr. Becker
Kitten season, which runs from April to October in most locations in the U.S., is upon us.
During this time of year, sadly, shelters across the country are overwhelmed with cats and kittens, in part because according to the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), in this country alone, feral cats number in the tens of millions, and thousands of kittens are born each day.
Many people don’t realize cats are almost as prolific as rabbits when it comes to reproducing. An intact female cat can become pregnant at 5 months of age, and can have multiple litters a year. Each litter is typically 4 to 6 kittens, so just one mother cat can bring 12 to 18 kittens into the world every year of her life.
During this time of year, it’s not unusual to encounter either a nest of kittens or a single kitten, and no mother cat in sight. Upon seeing such a tiny, defenseless creature, your first instinct may be to scoop him up and take him somewhere safe. However, that’s not the best course of action in every case.
Where Is the Mother Cat?
It’s possible you’ve come across the kitten(s) while mom is off hunting. Or perhaps she’s moving her litter, kitten by kitten, to another location. So the first thing you should do is try to determine if the mother cat is coming back.
You’ll need to get far enough away from the kittens that mom can’t sense your presence. Since it could be several hours before she returns, you might want to leave and come back later if you’re reasonably sure the kittens are healthy and there are no immediate threats in the area (cold weather, off-leash dogs, wildlife, etc.).
Healthy kittens can survive while mom is away as long as they’re warm. In fact, hypothermia is a much greater immediate risk for very young kittens than lack of food. In addition, the mother cat’s milk is the best nutrition by far for her kittens, so it’s best to try to wait her out as long as the babies aren’t in immediate danger.
If the mother cat returns and seems friendly or at least approachable, you can take her and her litter indoors until the kittens are weaned. 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.
However, if mom is feral (more about that shortly) and the area is relatively safe, leave the kittens where they are and let her care for them.
You can certainly offer food and shelter to the mother cat during this time. For the best results, the shelter needs to be a safe distance from the spot where you leave her food. This is because the food is likely to attract other cats or predators, and the mother cat will want to keep her kittens out of harm’s way.
Once the kittens are 6 weeks of age, they can be removed from the mother cat to be socialized and put up for adoption. If the mother is feral and the kittens will be TNR’d (Trapped-Neutered-Returned), they can be taken from mom once they turn 8 weeks old.
It’s important to also insure the mother cat is spayed, whether she’ll be put up for adoption or returned to her feral colony.
Is Mom Stray or Feral? – How to Tell the Difference
Stray cats have at some point lived with people. They’ve 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 probably 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 8 weeks are considered unsuitable for adoption.
According to the ASPCA:
“The fact is, most community [feral] cats exhibit wild, shy or frightened behavior, and it's impossible to predict how or if they will ever acclimate to indoor life.
“While a community cat might look exactly the same as a pet cat, community cats survive by avoiding close human interaction. When properly cared for, community cats are happier outdoors in their own territory.”1
If the Mother Cat Doesn’t Return
If the mother cat doesn’t return to her litter, you’ll need to step in and rescue them, or chances are they won’t survive.
If you can find a nursing mother cat through a local veterinarian, shelter or other animal organization, it’s possible she might be willing to take over duties with the orphaned kittens in addition to her own.
Another option could be a kitten nursery, if you’re lucky enough to live near one. In the past few years, shelter-sponsored cat foster care programs have increased in number, and along with them, the establishment of kitten nurseries designed to care for the tiniest and most vulnerable victims of the homeless cat population.
According to Dr. Martha Smith-Blackmore of the Animal Rescue League of Boston:
“Kitten nurseries take life-saving to the next level for animal shelters. Newborn kittens are precious and delicate. By providing a dedicated care space and caregivers, animal shelters can save vastly more lives for the most vulnerable animals among us.”2
The nurseries meet more than just the kittens' physical needs. The socialization period for kittens is from 2 to 7 weeks of age. The handling and attention the kittens get while in the nursery helps make them more adoptable.
If you want to try to care for a newborn kitten yourself, please understand it will be a tremendous commitment of your time and energy for several weeks, depending on the kitty’s age. I strongly encourage you to read my detailed instructions for hand-raising an orphaned kitten.
Kittens that are weaned but still young enough to be socialized can be fostered with the goal of adoption.
If you plan to try to socialize a litter of feral kittens, be prepared to make a significant investment of time and effort. For more information, read the Alley Cat Allies page on Socializing Feral Kittens.
Older, unsocialized kittens that are not good candidates for adoption should be included in a TNR program.