It’s that magical time of year: kitten season, when it almost seems as if it’s raining kittens. Shelters are packed to the rafters (or soon will be) with every shape, size and color of kittens. And that’s just the kittens we know about! Feral moms are giving birth in bushes, in empty garages and garden sheds, wherever they can find what they think is a safe spot.
Sometimes what looks like a safe spot to them ends up being an area that we humans wander through or that presents other risks to the little feline family. So today’s “kitty lesson” is what to do if you find a litter of newborn/young kittens, with no Mom in sight. First thing: do nothing at all but watch and wait! Many, many times Mom hasn’t abandoned her new little family but is out hunting, looking to provide for her newborns. Moms can often be gone for several hours. In most cases, a little patience on your part will reveal that Mom returns to feed her family. Check on the family several times a day, from a SAFE distance (binoculars are a big help!). Keep an eye on numbers: if the little family seems to be getting smaller in number, Mom may be moving them to a new and safer location.
Our first instinct is to help – and for us, helping usually means rescuing the kittens. But this good-hearted instinct creates more problems than not. First of all, if the kitties are truly wee little ones, they will need to be bottle fed. And while bottle feeding little ones is a wonderfully satisfying task, it is still a lot of work. And, even more importantly, bottle feeding is a really an unsatisfactory substitute for mom’s milk. Mom is the best at raising her brood: her milk provides crucial nutrients and there’s no substitute for the training and discipline that Mom provides.
But we understand wanting to help. So here’s what to do: put some dry kitty food and water out for Mom but at a distance from her litter. Mom purposely puts her litter away from food since she understands that food attracts predators.. When she returns from the hunt, she’ll appreciate the easily accessible banquet! And keep a quiet eye on the little family, from a distance and at different times of the day. That way you’ll have the best chance of seeing if Mom returns to care for her family. Kittens who aren’t receiving enough milk will most likely be either crying constantly or very lethargic and inactive. Assess the health of the kittens: is their fur dry and fluffy? Or wet? Are they sleeping quietly? Or crying/squalling? Are they dry and away from danger? Is their location away from traffic, people, bikes, etc.?
If after a day or two, you sense real trouble, seek out help from an organization experienced in dealing with feral cats. They can offer advice and direction on how best to proceed. In Sonoma County we are fortunate to have Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County as our feral experts, but more and more grass roots/volunteer organizations dedicated to the care and protection of feral cats are popping up all over the country. The Community Cat Coalition in Washington state, Alley Cat Allies on the East Coast and many others. A quick Google search for feral cat organizations should provide you with the contact information you need.
If the little family can stay together until the kittens are old enough to be weaned (usually 6-8 weeks) then you can consider how best to trap the family for spay/neuter (once again many local organizations offer free or low cost spay/neuter) and can pull the kittens for socialization and Trap/Neuter/Return the feral mom.
Careful and watchful waiting will yield the best results for everyone.