What to do if you come across stray kittens
Since the start of quarantine, we’ve fostered ten kittens. Our current foster kitten is ridiculously adorable but has needed extra care. We are certain that if he had waited any longer for help, he wouldn’t have made it. He was anemic, full of parasites, fleas, and even battled a fever. Thanks to The Catcade, Dude is thriving and he is the cutest. We will see if this one can get Roni & Cheese to like him and become a permanent resident… 😉
We’re in full swing of kitten season. I am getting messages, texts, and calls from friends, family, and followers about stray kittens. Unfortunately with COVID, so many clinics stopped seeing cats for TNR appointments in March and April. That means intact cats were left to roam and mate how they pleased. We also had a warm spring so cats started breeding earlier.
Every day, well-meaning members of the public bring in litters of kittens to our city shelter. While the intention is always to help them, this can usually cause the most harm. Here’s what to do if you find a litter of kittens (or just one kitten) outside!
This will determine your next steps. Take a look and try to figure out how old they are. I always refer to this handy chart from The Kitten Lady to best approximate ages.
If the kittens appear to be at least four weeks old, go ahead and skip to “Trapping” because they can be taken away from mom and socialized. You’ll also want to try to catch mama cat too so you can spay her and stop her from having another litter!
If the kittens appear to be less than four weeks old, continue below!
Before jumping to grab the kittens, stand back and observe. People often rush to help kittens thinking they are abandoned. Usually, however, the mom is nearby either hunting or hiding from the very people trying to help.
Distance yourself away from the litter, at least 35 feet, and see if mom comes back over the course of a few hours. Kittens under four weeks can be left for as long as six hours. Kittens older than four weeks can be left for ten. If you can’t sit and wait around all day, grab some flour and sprinkle it around the litter. When you come back in a few hours, you’ll be able to tell if mom has been there if the flour has been disturbed.
While you wait for the mom, take note of the situation and condition of the kittens.
Kittens are most likely safe and okay if:
- Their fur is clean, fluffy, and full
- They are healthy/plump looking
- Eyes are clear and not crusty
- They are in a quiet spot and sheltered/in the shade
- The weather is not extreme
- They’re sleeping peacefully
Kittens may need you to intervene if:
- They are crying and screaming
- Weather is cool/raining
- Kittens are on a busy street/in the way of traffic
- Fur is missing or extremely dirty
- Eyes are crusty, runny noses
- Appear too thin/sickly
Use your best judgment call. Kittens are far more likely to die of hypothermia than of starvation. So if they seem to be safe and healthy, do not intervene immediately.
If mama cat returns
So the mom came back, now what? If the kittens are less than four weeks and they’re in a safe area, leave them be. Young kittens have the best chance of survival with their moms. Her milk and consistent nursing provide them all the nutrients they need. Shelters are often not equipped with enough staff or supplies to care for young nursing kittens. If you’re able to continue to check-in and support mom by leaving food (but not too close to the litter!), definitely do so.
When the kittens appear to be at least four weeks old, you’ll want to get them socialized and off the streets. Kittens are harder to socialize after they reach eight weeks of age, so it’s a crucial time to grab them after they’re weaned and before they’re too old.
Trapping and Care
If mom hasn’t come back after three hours, or the kittens appear to be at least four weeks, it’s time to grab the kittens! Place them in a warm, dry box or carrier. You’ll want to bring them inside to get them warm and feed them immediately. Keep them separate from any resident cats in your home. Usually, a small spare bathroom or even a closet is plenty. They’ll need to be fed right away.
Kittens four weeks and younger will need to be bottle-fed. They’ll need to be fed every 2 hours and then stimulated to pass stool and urine. It’s a big undertaking but there is almost certainly someone in your area who can help guide you through the process. You can do this! Check out Kitten Lady for more specifics with bottle babies. Contact local rescues in your area for support. Do not drop bottle babies off at a shelter, they are not equipped to handle babies this young.
Kittens four weeks and older can be weaned onto wet food. Any kind of wet kitten food should work. Mix the wet food with warm water to ensure they’re able to eat it and it’s appetizing. You may have to help them eat at first by swiping a bit of wet food on their nose. Once they understand it’s food, they’ll usually eat. You can also offer them dry kitten kibble. Leave out plenty and let them eat however much they want!
Provide kittens with food, water, litter boxes, and toys. You’ll also want to give them a flea bath using dawn dish soap to get off grime and, of course, fleas. Capstar is safe to give young kittens for fleas. If you have a kitchen scale to monitor daily weights, I recommend weighing them daily. You can check out my recommended kitten supplies here.
My advice is to see if you can find a foster for the kittens if you can’t foster yourself. Rescues are slammed and often don’t have room to simply take kittens in, they need fosters. If you can foster, or you know someone who can, you’ll likely be able to get the support of a local rescue.
Rescues often will pay for vetting, supplies, and help get them adopted once they’re healthy enough. Each rescue organization varies so email or message a few in your area. Please know that rescues are all working hard with limited staff and budgets. Be patient and kind and you’ll be more likely to get help!
When people come across kittens, their instinct is to help. Sometimes, how we help isn’t what is expected. Mama cats are generally pretty well equipped to raise their babies. If you need to intervene, I hope these steps help!
Dude – This is our current foster and yes, he’s the cutest. We’re fostering him through The Catcade and he has come a very long way since we’ve brought him into our house. He is now thriving and should be available for adoption shortly.