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Veterans of the Pregnant Cat & Kitten Care forum are familiar with springtime posts that read:
"I came across 4 kittens hiding under my front porch!" "Last night, I found these three kittens." "We found two kittens that are about 1 day old."
Come kitten season, cat lovers across the globe are likely to come across what appear to be abandoned kittens. Whether hiding and meowing pitifully, actively approaching you or simply huddled quietly under a bush -- their fate is suddenly in your hands.
So, what should you do?
There is no one simple answer to that question but there are some guidelines. Following these guidelines and using your common sense can literally mean the difference between life and death for these kittens.
Is the mother cat really out of the picture?
Kittens stand a better chance of survival if raised by their mother. The younger the kittens, the more they need their mother's milk and her instinctive care.
Sometimes it's clear the kittens had been deliberately abandoned by human owners. TheCatSite.com members have shared many stories about finding kittens in boxes, trash bins and other locations which made it very clear that the kittens had been deliberately separated from their mother.
Normally I didn't care much about street kittens meowing all the way to the other side of the road because I know the mother would eventually come back for them, but these guys were different. They were in a box...
Other times, people come across kittens hiding under the porch or just hanging around a spot in the backyard. In these cases -- especially if the kittens are clearly trying to hide -- back away from the kittens but stay and watch from a distance. A mother cat can leave her kittens for several hours at a time to look for food. How long you should wait depends on the kittens' safety and well-being but if possible, give it 3-4 hours.
How old are the kittens?How Old Is My Kitten Kitten Development Stages - Illustrated Guide
The age of the kittens directly affects the level of care they need should you decide to take them.
1. Kittens younger than three weeks of age need to be hand-reared and require intensive around-the-clock care. Read more about hand rearing orphaned kittens.
2. Kittens between the ages of three and four weeks are more independent. They do not have to be bottle-fed and can eat and defecate on their own. They are usually not agile enough to run away, even if they are feral, so they should be easy enough to scoop up and take home.
3. Older kittens, up to 4 months of age, may be more difficult to catch. The older they are, the stronger and faster they get. You may need to use a trap if you want to take them home. If they are feral (see below) they will need to be properly socialized before you can find them homes.
4. After the age of four months, the same considerations of adult cat rescue apply. According to Cat Ally Allies:
If the kittens are feral they may be better off left as members of a managed feral colony where they will be trapped and neutered.
Are the kittens feral or stray?
This question really applies only to kittens who are older than 2-3 weeks. Any younger and it hardly matters whether or not they've been handled by humans before. Three-week-old kittens may hiss at you at first but they will usually adjust to being handled within minutes or hours.
As they mature kittens need to be socialized with humans in order to become pet cats. Without that kind of socialization, they will be aggressive and fearful of humans. It is possible to socialize kittens as old as 2-4 months old and even older. The older the kittens, the longer and more time-consuming the process.
If you come across a kitten that appears friendly and approaches you voluntarily then you have a stray kitten on your hands. That means the kitten was probably raised within a home and had enough positive exposure to humans. Stray kittens are very vulnerable and if possible, should be taken off the street and re-homed.
Are the kittens healthy?
So What Should I Do?
Now that you are familiar with the considerations, it's time to assess the situation.
If you're sure the kittens are indeed abandoned and the mother cat is away, or if a kitten is sick or injured, it may be time for you to step in. The same is true for any case where there is a clear and immediate danger to kittens' lives.
Caring for one or more kittens can be time-consuming and take up a lot of resources. The younger the kittens and the more of them you found, the harder the task at hand.
Not everyone is able to care for young kittens, especially newborns. If it's a question of a sick or injured kitten then you may need to invest not only time and energy but also a substantial amount of money in veterinary care. Know your limits. If you can't care for the kittens, pass them along to someone who can. Local cat rescue groups may be able to help and place the kittens at a foster home with someone who specializes in kitten care, including the care of orphaned newborns. Some may be willing to offer financial help as long as you foster the kittens yourself.
Where healthy feral kittens are discovered with their mother in a safe spot, you can help the mother by providing food and water. Consider taking the kittens in only if you know that you can care for them, socialize them and find them all good homes. If that is the case, it's best to take the kittens when they are around 4 weeks old when socialization will be easier. Please note that the recommended age for separating kittens from the mother cat in a household situation is 16 weeks. The exception suggested here applies only to feral kittens, where removing them earlier on can help socialize them.
If the kittens are older than four months of age, or if you saw the mother return and know they are safe with her for now, it's time to start thinking about TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return). These will be feral cats, and the best way to care for them is to humanely trap and neuter them. Read more about TNR here: Everything you need to know about TNR (Trap-Neuter-Release)
Last, but not least. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. With so many unwanted kittens out there, please spay and neuter your own cats and the feral cats living in your area!