It’s Kitten Season y’all. Sounds cute, right? Who wouldn’t want to live in a world where there is a whole season devoted to adorable purring kittens?
Until I started working in animal welfare, the term had a very different connotation in my imagination. A montage of images of kittens playing in a grassy meadow, swatting at little balls of tinfoil, taking lazy naps in the sun, and chowing down on lasagna like Garfield the cat.
As it turns out though, life isn’t a cartoon, cat’s don’t generally like lasagna, and kitten season is pretty much a hot mess cluster that creates significant challenges for the community and the shelters that support them.
Now that Kitten Season is in full swing, we are inundated with people coming in with litters of kittens they’ve found near their home they assume have been abandoned. But in many cases, these kittens haven’t been abandoned. Their mother’s have just gone off in pursuit of food so she can keep her strength up in order to care for her kittens.
When people assume kittens have been abandoned without first making sure there isn’t a mama somewhere nearby, they inadvertently do more harm than good since there is no one better to care for kittens than their own momma.
So before you accidentally kittennap a litter – here are some pointers on how to best deal with your unexpected bundles of joy this summer.
First, Wait & Watch
Wait and watch to make sure mama has actually abandoned them and isn’t just off searching for food or in the process of moving them to a different location. Do not approach them, do not touch them, do not disturb them. Your actions could cause the wary mama to abandon them.
Instead, stand far away from the kittens — 35′ or more. If you stand too close, mama will not approach her kittens. You may need to go away completely before mama will return to her kittens. It might be several hours before the mother cat returns — until she no longer senses the presence of humans near her litter.
If you need to leave before mama returns, evaluate whether the kittens are in immediate danger: Is it raining? Are dogs, raccoons or people nearby that might harm the kittens? Are the kittens located in an area with heavy foot or car traffic?
Mama may take several hours to return and healthy kittens can survive this period of time without food as long as they are warm. Mama has an instinct about how long she can safely leave them on their own.
Bottom line: just remember that mama is the best caretaker for her kittens. 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.
What to do if mama returns
If mama returns and the area is relatively safe, leave the kittens alone with mama until they are about 6 weeks old or weaned. You can offer a shelter and regular food to mama to keep her in this location so that you rescue them all when they are older. Keep the food and shelter at a distance from each other. Mama 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 mama for socialization and to prepare them for adoption when they are over 8 weeks old and 2 lbs in weight. Female cats can become pregnant with a new litter even while they are still nursing, so it’s a good idea to trap mama at the same time you take the kittens. Otherwise, she may split and have more babies right away that you’ll have to rescue.
If mama does not return…
If you determine that mama is not returning or she was hit by a car, it’s now your time to be a kitten hero and rescue them. This is crucial to the kittens’ survival. Be prepared to see this project through to weaning and adoption if you decide to intervene. But don’t worry, we’re here to help you every step of the way. We can help you by loaning traps and coaching you on how to use them. We can also teach you the proper technique should your kittens need to be bottle fed in the first weeks.
Since we do not have staff onsite at the shelter 24/7, we don’t have the capability to care for kittens until they are at least 2 pounds. So we rely on our volunteer fosters to care for kittens until they are old enough to be spayed/neutered and placed for adoption.
But if you’re willing to chip in and help during those first critical weeks of life, we will work with you on making sure your kittens have the right medical care, food, and support. And once they are old enough to be placed for adoption, we’ll take them in and find them homes.
If you’re interested in becoming a kitten foster volunteer, we would love to hear from you! Just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.