During kitten season it’s not uncommon to find a litter of unattended kittens, or a seemingly orphaned kitten by itself. Although it may be tempting to jump in and help, take the following steps before doing anything.
Chances are, momma cat is somewhere nearby. She may be watching from a distance, or off searching for food. It is not uncommon for a momma cat to leave the kittens alone for several hours. If you find a kitten alone, she may be in the process of moving her litter from one location to another.
Before doing anything, assess the kittens’ apparent health. Does their fur look healthy full and fluffy? Or are they dirty and look sickly? Are they sleeping quietly? Huddled together? Or are they crying? Lastly, are they dry, or wet? Next, asses the environment. Are the kittens in immediate danger from rain, wet weather, or the cold? Are there potential predators around, such as racoons or dogs? Is there traffic, like pedestrian foot traffic, bicycles or cars?
After assessing the situation and determining that the kittens are not in immediate danger, it is best to wait and watch to see if the momma cat will return. You should stay at least 35 feet away, but the father the better. Do not place food near the kittens to try to entice the mother to return. She almost always hides her litter away from food sources to protect them from other cats or predators.
In some cases you may need to leave the area completely and check back in 4-6 hours to see if the kittens are still OK. Especially if momma cat is feral, she will most likely not return until she no longer senses the presence of humans. Keep in mind that healthy kittens can survive several hours without food as long as they are warm. Hypothermia is a much greater risk than starvation for neonatal kittens.
If momma cat returns and you’ve determined the area is relatively safe, leave the kittens along until they are weaned at approximately 5-6 weeks. You can monitor the area from a distance and offer shelter and food, but keep the two apart from one another. Mom won’t use the shelter if food is nearby.
At five to six weeks old, it is time to take the kittens from the mother for socialization and adoption. Any time after eight weeks is suitable to TNR.
Remember, female cats can become pregnant while she is still nursing, so make sure that the mother cat is spayed so she does not have any more kittens.
If momma cat does not return and you decide to intervene, be prepared to see the kittens through until you can get additional help, which may be days or weeks.
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