The time between late spring and early autumn is known as “kitten season”. During this time of year, unaltered cats reproduce prolifically. A female cat can begin reproducing as young as 5 to 6 months of age, and during Kitten Season, they will go back into heat every 14-21 days until she is bred.
During high kitten season, it’s not unusual to discover unattended kittens seemingly abandoned by the mother. As many as 50 newborn kittens might be brought to PAWS in a single week. If you encounter a litter of kittens that seem to be abandoned, ask yourself these 5 questions and learn how to best help them.
1. Are The Kittens Actually Abandoned?
A mother cat will periodically leave her young to hunt for food. If you see young kittens without their mother, it is likely she will return, so try not to disturb them, but rather, keep a watchful eye from a distance to be sure that they’re safe. It is always better for young kittens to remain with their mother. Pre-weaned kittens (under 4 weeks) are very difficult to care for and have a high mortality rate.
A mother cat will also regularly move her kittens instinctively. If you see a single young kitten, it is likely that it’s the first of the group moved to a new location or the last of the group in the old location.
It is important that you do not take pre-weaned kittens away from their mother. Only take them in if, after watching for several hours, you are 100% certain the mother is not returning.
The mother cat offers her kittens’ best chance for survival, so wait and watch as long as you can. The best food for the kittens is their mother’s milk. Remove the kittens only if they are in immediate, grave danger.
2. How Do I Determine If The Mother Will Return?
To determine if the mother will return, stand far away from the kittens – 35 feet or more. If you stand too close, the mom will not approach them. You might need to go away completely so she trusts that the coast is clear. It could be several hours before she returns – at least until she no longer senses the presence of humans hovering near her litter.
Healthy kittens can survive for several hours without food as long as they are warm. Neonatal kittens are much more at risk of hypothermia than they are of starvation. During spring and summer months, waiting a longer time to see if mom will come back is much safer than during frigid winter months.
3. If The Mother Returns, Does She Need Shelter & Food?
If mom returns and the area is relatively safe, leave the kittens alone with mom until they are weaned. You can offer a shelter and regular food to mom, but keep the food and shelter at a distance from each other. Mom will find the food but will not accept your shelter if the food is nearby, because she will not want to attract other cats to food located near her nest.
Six weeks is the optimal age to take the kittens from the mother for socialization and adoption placement. Any time after eight weeks is ok for Trap-Neuter-Return (spay/neuter, vaccination, eartip, and return to their colony). Female cats can become pregnant with a new litter even while they are still nursing, so don’t forget to get the mother cat spayed or you will have more kittens soon!
4. What Age Are The Kittens?
Before you do anything with a litter of kittens you’ve found, you’ll want to figure out their age. They should remain with their mother for at least 5 weeks.
Umbilical cord attached: They are 3 days or younger.
Eyes: They begin to open at 7-8 days and all eyes should be open by day 10. Their eyes generally change from blue to blue/gray then yellow/green between 6 1/2 to 7 weeks of age but can vary kitten-to-kitten and litter-to-litter. In one litter, kittens can be conceived 4-5 days apart. This also contributes to the different days the eyes open.
Ears: Their ears stand up at 3-1/2 weeks of age.
Teeth: Another way to age the kittens is by the teeth. The following is from the Cornell Book of Cats. The ages are when the teeth break the skin or ‘eruption of the teeth’ happens, or when they break the surface.
Baby teeth: Center (4) Incisors (front teeth between the canines) 2-3 weeks. Outer Incisors (still between the canines) 3-4 weeks . Canines 3-4 weeks . Upper molars (called a premolar) 2 months (8 weeks). Lower molars (called a premolar) 4-5 weeks
Adult teeth: Center (4) Incisors (front teeth between the canines) 3-1/2 to 4 months (14-16 weeks) Outer Incisors (still beaten the canines) 4 to 4-1/2 months (16-18 weeks) Canines 5 months Upper molars (called a premolar) 4-1/2 to 6 months (depending on tooth) Lower molars (called a premolar) 5-6 months for all . Upper molar in back, no baby tooth, just the molar at 4-5 months.
Mobility: They are unstable on their feet until they are around 4 weeks of age and can run pretty well by 5 weeks. If you see kittens running around a yard, they are at least 5-6 weeks old.
Eating: They generally are eating on their own between 5 and 6 weeks of age. Some will eat as young as 4 weeks and some will take as long as 8 weeks to stop the bottle if you are bottle feeding. The older kittens who refuse to leave the bottle are generally needing the one-on-one affection they are receiving.
5. Are You Prepared To Do What’s Best For The Kittens?
If you discover that mom has been hit by a car, or if for any reason it appears that she is not coming back, you should remove the kittens. This is crucial to their survival. You must be prepared to see this project through to weaning if you decide to intervene! If not, bring them to someone who can care for them properly.
If you take the kittens in, it is unlikely that you will find an organization with available staff or volunteers to take on bottle-feeding on short notice. Some organizations do have experienced bottle-feeders, but prior logistical planning is necessary. Animal shelters and veterinarians generally do not take in newborn kittens, since they do not have the staff to feed and stimulate them for elimination around-the-clock.
If you cannot foster the kittens, find someone who will before you remove them.
Sources: Animal Alliance Agency & MultiCoPets.org