Although “kitten season” started later this year than in previous years in San Diego County, it has now arrived in full force and reports are coming in daily of litters of kittens being found.
Unfortunately, many of these calls are from people who have found a litter of kittens outside and plucked them out of the nest way too soon. Taking kittens away from the momma cat too early compromises the health of the kittens, stresses out the momma cat and is a hardship for whoever has to care for the kittens.
Where is mom?
Momma cats, whether stray or someone’s indoor/outdoor cat, typically find a quiet and safe spot to give birth to their kittens. After birth, they will move the kittens from one spot to another if they sense any danger to the kittens. They also will leave the nest of kittens to forage for food, urinate or defecate, or to stretch their limbs.
So when you discover a litter of kittens on their own, it does not mean that they are orphaned. You need to watch the nest for a number of hours to make sure that mom has definitely disappeared and that the kittens are orphaned and need your help.
While you are evaluating the situation, stand at least 35 feet away from the nest. If you stand too closely, the mom may not return while you are there. If she senses you there, you may need to totally remove yourself from the area before she will come back. You need to be patient as it may take hours before she returns.
If mom returns and the area is relatively safe, leave the kittens alone with mom until they are weaned, about 4 to six weeks of age – see additional information below.
You can feed mom if you want, but make sure the food source is not near the nest. Mom will not want you near her litter of kittens when you feed her nor will she want the food near the kittens in fear of attracting other cats to her nest.
The need for mom
Unweaned kittens are very helpless and need mom. She instinctively knows and caters to all of their needs. She feeds them, keeps them close by for warmth, bathes them with her rough tongue, which also stimulates their digestion and helps them urinate and defecate.
Negatives of taking kittens too soon
While newborn kittens can be bottle fed, it is a time consuming process with newborn kittens needing feedings every two hours. They also need to be stimulated for elimination after every feeding.
Although feeding times decrease as the kittens age, caring for them will still require hours a day for a period of weeks or months depending on the age of the kittens.
There are many kitten milk substitutes available, but they are not as good for the kitten’s health as mom’s milk.
Additionally, caring for and socializing under socialized kittens is a time-consuming process which requires devotion, patience, and attention.
Determining kitten age
While determining a kitten’s age can be difficult, most people can tell when a kitten is newborn or just a few days old. They are very small, typically weighing just 3.5 ounces. Their eyes are not open and their ears are folded over protecting their as of yet unopened ear canals. The umbilical cord may still be attached, falling off within two or three days of birth.
For kittens obviously not newborn you need to look at physical signs to determine their approximate age. The physical signs include weight, how open their eyes are and how upright their ears are.
Their behaviors will also give clues to their age. Are they standing, walking, playing with their littermates or venturing away from their mother?
Kitten aging guidelines from Alley Cat Allies
Here are tips from Alley Cat Allies on how to estimate the age of a kitten:
Under one week: Weigh 3-8 oz; eyes are shut, ears are folded down, and kittens are unable to walk. They can purr and make tiny noises. The umbilical cord may still be visible.
One-two weeks: Weigh 8-11 oz; eyes start to open (they are blue) and focus. Ears begin to open and movement is improved to crawling, snuggling, and kneading.
Three weeks: Weigh 7.5-14.5 oz; eyes fully open and ears are open and standing up. The kitten will start to respond to noises and movement. The first wobbly steps are taken and baby teeth start to come in.
Four-five weeks: Weigh 8-16.75 oz; running, playing, digging, and pouncing occur often. Kittens will start to wean and will be able to lap up formula, eat soft food, and use the litter box by themselves. Eyes have fully changed from blue to their adult color.
Only take action after they are weaned
The kitten weaning process normally begins when kittens are about four weeks old, and is usually completed when they reach eight to ten weeks. During the weaning time, the kittens will try to eat mom’s food and she will push them away to teach them to be independent. She will also begin to push them away when they try to nurse.
This is the critical time to take action to save the kittens.
Ideally you want to trap both mom and the kittens. The kittens are now old enough to survive successfully and easily away from mom. They can be cared for until they are old enough to be spayed or neutered and then put up for adoption.
Depending on the circumstances and mom’s degree of socialization, she may be spayed, vaccinated and returned to the location (TNR or TNVR*). If mom is social, she can be spayed, her other medical needs taken care and put up for adoption.
What if mom is gone?
If you monitor the nest and mom is definitely not coming back, then you should remove the kittens to help them survive. Know that once you take the kittens you have a responsibility to them.
Unfortunately, some animals shelters do not have the resources to care for unweaned kittens and kittens turned into these facilities are sadly killed.
You may be able to find an organization or animal care facility that does have a program in place where they care for young kittens. But, if they are full and have no space or foster homes for the kittens, you will need to be prepared to care for them yourself or find a family member or friend who can care for them.
Remember, the mother cat offers her kittens their best chance for survival and the best food – mother’s milk. So wait and watch as long as you can before you decide to remove the kittens to be made ready for adoption.
* TNR = Trap, Neuter, Return
* TNVR = Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate, Return