by Bernadette E. Kazmarski
The universal response to finding kittens is to presume they are abandoned and unable to care for themselves and to take them home, but not only is that rarely the right response, it’s not even the right presumption and can often be harmful to the kittens and backfire if you are attempting to manage a colony through TNR. These kittens may be found by someone else or by you as you are working on a TNR project, but whether you are advising someone else or doing the work yourself, the decisions remain the same. The kitten decision game involves the approximate age of the kittens and the presence, or lack, of a mother cat, and the knowledge that kittens younger than eight weeks belong with their mother, even if she is feral.
Kittens as part of TNR
The premise of TNR is simple: trap a cat, neuter it, release it back to the care of its caretaker to live out its life without reproducing, or, if it’s amenable, bring it indoors and give it, or find it, a loving forever home.
But what happens when you find kittens? And you are likely to—kittens born outdoors are what replenishes stray and feral colonies just when you thought you had them under control.
Kittens old enough to be spayed or neutered and too old to be socialized can be trapped with their mother, neutered and returned, but younger kittens, with or without their mother, present a lot of options, most of which involve fostering and sometimes a great amount of care.
Kittens can be socialized and adopted, even if their mother is feral, so they aren’t necessarily returned on the basis of their mother’s behavior. Kittens younger than eight weeks are best living with their mother even if she is feral, but do you leave them there knowing the mother will likely move them, and hope to find them when they are eight weeks and ready for surgeries, or do you somehow foster a feral mother while socializing her kittens?
The TNR group that I work with does not leave kittens of any age outdoors because that may be the only chance to catch them and, just as important, their mother, who needs to be spayed. Also, I’ve sometimes wondered at the wisdom of a mother cat who gives birth under a bush near a busy road where chances are good that some of them will not survive. Kittens should never be left in a potentially dangerous situation.
The health of the mother and kittens is reason to bring them in as soon as possible as well. The mother may have no vaccines at all and certainly the kittens don’t, and the longer they stay outdoors the more likely they are to encounter common diseases which vaccines would prevent like distemper, rabies, certain URIs and calici along with parasites like various worms, fleas, ticks and mites. Trapping them later often brings in a litter of sick kittens and their mother who may not survive.
In addition to diseases and parasites the mother may have an inadequate diet unless she has a feeder, but even then many people don’t realize that pregnant and nursing cats need far more and better nutrition than other cats, and kittens can suffer health and development issues in utero as well as in the environment if their mother doesn’t have adequate nutrition and sufficient clean water to drink.
Remember that whatever you choose to do, make a plan keeping the cats’ best interest and care in mind before you trap.
Plan what you’ll do
Trapping kittens means that you need to be prepared for several circumstances:
- If the mother cat is trapped and is friendly you need to be prepared for fostering a mother cat with underage kittens in a quiet room that is closed off from the rest of your cats and other animals, and, depending on the age of the kittens, fostering could be two to three months, or more.
- If the mother cat is trapped and feral and shows no signs of interest in socialization, you need to accommodate her need to keep a distance from you while socializing her kittens.
- If the mother does not show up and the kittens are not weaned, then you need to be prepared to give them intensive neo-natal care and wean them along with socializing them.
- If the mother cat does not show up and the kittens are weaned and less than 16 weeks old, you can either TNR them or work on socializing them while keeping them confined.
Guessing kitten ages and development
Unless you see kittens all the time it’s hard to guess the age, especially if you are out at the edge of a parking lot somewhere and are watching them from a distance. There are a few clues to a kitten’s age that you can identify out in the field until you get a closer look, though. Up to about three weeks old, kittens still sleep most of the time, especially when their mother isn’t around, but are more active and coordinated each week. You can usually see the position of a kitten’s ears, which are tiny and folded against the side of the kitten’s head when born, but begin to fold outward and also move upward toward the top of its head and grow pointier as the kitten grows week by week. The kitten’s activity level and coordination increase and it’s able to walk and jump and wrestle, then run and pounce by six weeks.
- Eyes are fully open, ears look like Hello Kitty out from the sides of its head, probably around two weeks.
- Walking but clumsy, ears opened out at about 10:00 and 2:00 on the kitten’s head, about three weeks.
- Coordinated, jumping, wrestling, ears about 11:00 and 1:00, about four weeks.
- Able to run, ears fairly large and near the top of the head, about five weeks.
- Very coordinated, sitting, standing, walking, running, pouncing, about six weeks. From this point they continue to grow larger and their faces mature, but more slowly than the previous six weeks.
Outline of age-based care to provide if no mother cat shows up
Birth to three weeks you will need to keep them warm and free from drafts, and bottle feed each one and stimulate them to eliminate every two to three hours, all day long.
At about three weeks you would still bottle feed them while also providing a dish of formula for them to learn to lap.
Once they clean that up readily, about four weeks, you can slow down on the bottle feedings and begin adding canned food to the formula in the dish, a little more each day for about a week until it’s mostly food that’s slushy with formula, and offer a dish of plain water.
At five weeks you can taper off the formula completely and begin to introduce dry food mixed into the canned food if you choose.
They may still be nursing at six weeks if they are with their mother but will also be eating adult food, so by six weeks they can be fully weaned and you can focus on socialization.
The next important age point is eight weeks, when they should weigh enough, two pounds, to be spayed or neutered.
Three scenarios depending on the age of the kittens you find
These kittens are the hardest to leave where they are because they are completely helpless.
No mom present
Unless she’s mortally wounded or no longer alive, she is near, and she will be back soon. Kittens at that age nurse every two to three hours and will typically begin to mew if they are not fed promptly. Mom stays in range while she’s hunting for food, be it mice in the woods or crunchies in a feeding station provided by a human. If the kittens appear to be sleeping then the mother cat has fed them recently, and when she returns you don’t want to frighten her away.
Even if you find only one kitten, don’t presume it’s abandoned. Mother cats move their kittens frequently for safety and though mother cats are determined they can still only carry one kitten at a time. The single kitten you find may be the first one moved and she’s off to get another, or it’s the last one to be moved and she’s coming back for it.
Go to a distance where you can still see the spot where the kittens are sleeping and just watch. Be patient. Or go and find an adult size humane trap for the mother and a carrier for the kittens and maybe some KMR, then come back and watch.
Mother cat returns
Observe her and let her feed her kittens. When she’s done and she’s cleaned all the kittens and rested, show yourself and see how she reacts. Almost any cat would be skittish and defensive in a situation like this, so don’t go walking in to pet mom and the kittens. If the cat acts unfriendly or downright feral, you have one situation. If she seems nervous but curious, you have another situation. Either way you may need to trap her, but if you can befriend her the task is easier.
She may decide the area isn’t safe and move her kittens, so it’s best to prepare to trap as soon as you can.
Mother cat does not return
Give the mother cat several hours or more to return. If the mother cat does not return and the kittens begin to mew and cry, you can mix up some formula and feed them, then settle them back down and keep watching for their mother. If night falls, weather turns, or you’ve passed 12 hours, pack them up and take them home or to a foster who is skilled with bottle feeding kittens if you are not. If this is the case, you should still check back for the mother and see if she returns—she may be injured or ill, she may have been trapped in someone’s garage, but if she’s able she will return. If you find her later you would still trap her. If she’s still lactating you would put her with them, making sure she accepts them. If not, the rest of the job of raising kittens is up to you. In any case she can be spayed and either returned or adopted.
Obviously, you don’t need to trap kittens this young, but if the mother is around you would need to trap her. Mother cats are often reluctant to enter a trap, though food provides a hungry mom a big incentive. But if she won’t go into the trap because she’s eating elsewhere or is trap wise, you can use the kittens as bait. Tuck the kittens into a carrier and make sure they are warm enough with a blanket and even a rice sock. Back the carrier up to the back of a trap, and cover both so that the mother cat sees she can only go into the trap to get to her kittens. If the kittens are hungry and begin to cry she will be even more willing.
We have found that if the mother cat still won’t go in, playing sounds of kittens crying on a phone will often work just as well. A friend and I trapped a mother cat who would not be trapped for months before that, even before her pregnancy. She would not go into the trap when her kittens were mewing a little. We found a video of kittens mewing on Facebook and set the phone on top of the back of the trap and she was in it in about five minutes.
YOUNG KITTENS WHO ARE NOT WEANED
No mom present
As above, the mother cat may only be away hunting or scouting a new home. You should always take time to see if the mother returns. When kittens are older she doesn’t return only for feeding, she also returns to spend time teaching them things they’ll need to know, like hunting, even if just by example, and bathing and how to bury their stuff. Even at three or four weeks old the kittens may react to your presence and scatter if they have no experience with humans, so be certain not to startle them, just wait and watch, or even get a trail camera to observe their activities when you aren’t there.
Mother cat returns
Determine if she is friendly or feral and make a plan for the kittens. If they are three to four weeks they may not be heavy enough to set off a trap so you would either need to grab them by hand* or net them if still very young. If they are older you can still try to net them if you can’t trap them. They might all be very friendly if mom was a socialized cat and they’ve encountered humans through feeding.
Mother cat does not return
If the mother cat does not return then you need to put your energies into trapping the kittens as quickly as possible so that you can keep them healthy and socialize them before the window of opportunity closes. Check back for her to make sure she really hasn’t returned.
You can still use kittens as bait to trap the mother as explained above with neonatal kittens. Mother cats respond to their kittens’ cries no matter the age. You would place one of her kittens in its trap behind her trap, or if you’ve managed to get them all into one carrier you could use them all together.
WEANED KITTENS TO BE SOCIALIZED
No mom present
You still want to trap their mother so be patient and observe as long as possible. You can still trap them and come back to trap their mother if you see her later.
Mother cat returns
Determine if she is friendly or feral. If she’s feral, and the kittens are weaned, she can be spayed and returned. If she’s friendly you might as well bring her in and foster her with her kittens—any friendly cat deserves a chance at a home.
Mother cat does not return
If the mother cat does not return then, as above, you need to put your energies into trapping the kittens as quickly as possible so that you can keep them healthy and socialize them before the window of opportunity closes.
Good luck! Especially with trying not to get attached!
*It’s best to leave catching cats by hand for an absolute last resort, even tiny kittens. Any bite from an animal can become severely infected or even be life-threatening. Tiny kittens have carried rabies. If you don’t know the cat’s health status, try not to handle it without gloves or some protection. If you are bitten, get medical attention as soon as possible.
Alley Cat Allies: Trapping Mom and Kittens https://www.alleycat.org/community-cat-care/trapping-mom-and-kittens/
Alley Cat Allies: How Old is That Kitten https://www.alleycat.org/resources/how-old-is-that-kitten-guide/
Alley Cat Allies: Kitten and Mom Scenarios https://www.alleycat.org/resources/how-old-is-that-kitten-guide/
Alley Cat Rescue: Caring for Orphaned Kittens https://www.saveacat.org/caring-for-orphaned-kittens.html
HSUS: Kitten Behavior Basics https://www.humanesociety.org/animals/cats/tips/kitten_behavior_basics.html
Kitten Rescue: https://www.kitten-rescue.com/
ASPCA/Alley Cat Allies: Guide to Trap-Neuter-Return and Colony Care (PDF) https://www.aspcapro.org/sites/default/files/TNR%20workshop%20handbook%20printable%20final-4th%20printing.pdf
Feral Cat Coalition: Taming Feral Kittens https://www.feralcat.com/taming.html
Under the supervision of her rescue and foster cats Bernadette E. Kazmarski is author of the award-winning daily blog The Creative Catfeaturing stories on feline and pet health, welfare, adoption and rescue plus humor, photography and fine art. She works at home as a self-employed commercial artist and writer, graphic designer and illustrator, and is also a fine artist creating over 100 commissioned portraits of pets and their people as well as landscape and wildlife artwork. Bernadette has been rescuing and fostering cats for 30 years and works with her local TNR organization to trap and transport and also to volunteer at high-volume spay-neuter clinics. Her current “permanent collection” of cats includes five incredible house panthers and her feline family always includes several feral kittens and often a senior or geriatric rescue from TNR and rescue efforts.