By Mansie Hough
While the dog days of summer bring sunshine and oppressive heat to the D.C. area, we at SPCA NOVA are experiencing something else: kitten season!
This is the time of year when shelters and rescue organizations get an influx of kittens that need veterinary and foster care and forever homes. While caring for kittens is rewarding, it’s a big responsibility and a lot of work to get these extra bundles of joy healthy and ready to find new families. We rescue at least 250 cats and kittens per year, and many of these rescues are kittens found outdoors by good Samaritans.
Not only is it more work to take care of more cats, but kittens require special TLC – their bodies are more fragile and prone to
injury, and their health needs to be closely monitored since kittens often arrive into our care sick, malnourished, and sometimes injured. Because of this, we spend a lot of time not only caring for the kittens but also teaching our fosters, adopters, and other good Samaritans how to care for them too.
A common phone call or email we receive goes a bit like this:
“I was taking out the trash today, and I heard a little squeak coming out from under my house. I bent down to see what the noise was, and was shocked to see five baby kittens huddled together with their mom! One of them looks like he might have an injured paw, and the mom looks thin and hungry. But, when I try to go near them, the mom gets really protective and hisses at me. What should I do to help these poor kitties?”
In fact, when I was in college in rural southwest Virginia, a very similar thing happened to me! My roommates and I were surprised to find a baby kitten living under our house as we were packing to leave campus for spring break. We had no idea how to help her and did not act quickly enough – when we came back from spring break, she was gone. Since then, I’ve become more informed about things like humane trapping, assessing and handling stray vs. feral cats, and being aware of whom to contact for help.
Steps to Take
The first thing to know, especially if you are handling young kittens, is it is crucial to act quickly to either bring them into your home, or get them into the hands of an experienced caretaker or rescue organization. Socialization at a very young age – before they are six weeks old – is critical. Their chances of a long, healthy life post-rescue decrease the longer they are left outside without human interaction and exposed to heat, parasites, and other animals who might be aggressive or pass on diseases.
The following is a good guide to follow in most situations:
1. Create a Welcoming, Non-Threatening Environment
Put out food and water – especially canned food for kittens since at a young age they can’t eat dry food. This not only helps ensure they get proper nutrition but will give the mom an incentive to stay close by so they can be rescued.
2. Assess the Situation
Are the Kittens Alone?
Even if the kittens appear to be alone, don’t get too close right away. There may be a mom cat nearby caring for them. Mom cats instinctively move their kittens often to hide them from predators, especially when she realizes they have been discovered.
What If There Is a Mom Cat?
If there is a mom cat, does she appear to be a friendly stray cat or is she feral? It’s not always easy to tell since she may be scared and will be protective of her kittens. A stray cat was cared for by humans prior to being lost or abandoned and will be social toward people once she doesn’t feel threatened. A scared and protective, but otherwise friendly, stray cat may just need time to learn to trust you.
A feral cat has not had meaningful, ongoing contact with humans and was probably born outdoors. A feral cat may come to you for food, but won’t be very trusting or curious toward you.
Can the Kittens Eat on Their Own?
If kittens are too young to eat on their own (under four to five weeks of age), you need to consider whether you or someone else is available to bottle feed them if they are rescued without the mom cat.
Can the Kittens Be Socialized?
Kittens are easily socialized only when rescued at a very young age (ideally four to five weeks, but generally not older than six weeks). Otherwise, they don’t typically bond well with humans. Older kittens may bond with their caretaker, but don’t often transfer that trust to other humans.
Do the Cats Appear Sick or Injured?
A cat with health issues may appear too skinny or malnourished, have discharges from their eyes or noses, or be sneezing or coughing. Look to see if there are any noticeable injuries to their paws, legs, or bodies. If they are up and about, check to see if they are walking and running around with ease.
Are the Cats in Immediate Danger?
Are they in an area where they could be hit by a car, or attacked by another animal? Assessing their degree of safety is important in determining how quickly you need to act to rescue them.
3. Take Action
Rescue Them Yourself
If the mom cat is friendly and/or the kittens are easily accessible and young enough to socialize, bring them inside your home to care for them until you find a longer-term solution.
To get the mom and kittens safely inside your home or into the hands of a rescue organization, you may be able to set a large carrier outside with food in it to lure the mom inside and then pick up the kittens. If the cats are shy, you may need to humanely trap them. If you are bringing them inside your home, put them in a bathroom since they may have fleas and the mom will feel safer in a relatively small space where she can see there are no immediate threats to her kittens.
For tips on how to socialize feral kittens, read Taming Feral Kittens.
If you can’t determine if the mom is friendly, can’t easily pick up the kittens safely, are on your way out of town, and/or can’t figure out what to do:
- Contact local shelters and rescue organizations for advice and/or assistance. Remember, during kitten season shelters and rescue organizations are swamped so be persistent.
- Contact your local veterinary office to see if they have an experienced staff member who can provide you with advice, especially if the mom cat or kittens are sick or injured. Vet offices also often work with rescue organizations and may be able to recommend groups to contact.
- Do not take a mom cat and/or kittens to a shelter without first contacting them to learn about their policies. Some shelters won’t take stray or feral cats/kittens and will tell you to simply put them back outside. Others will euthanize them. If you have young kittens without a mom, find out whether the shelter has a foster program to bottle feed the kittens.