If you've found kittens outside, and there is no mom in sight, here are some tips about what to do (thank you to Austin Pets Alive for this helpful advice):
- Leave them alone and evaluate the situation. With kittens, as with any other wild animal, a missing mom doesn't mean a mom that's never coming back. The mother cat may be out hunting, looking for other shelter, or in the process of moving the cats to a new location (mother cats move kittens frequently in the first few weeks for safety). If you see kittens and no mom, wait a few hours before trying to rescue them. The mom may very well come back and get her babies - and the kittens have a better chance of survival with their mom. Watch the kittens for a couple of hours from a distance to see if the mother cat returns.
- If the kittens have no mother, know the next steps. If, after careful evaluation, the kittens appear to be abandoned, you'll want to consider how best to care for them. Unweaned kittens need round-the-clock care and monitoring. The kittens will need to be bottle fed with milk replacer every 2-3 hours (including overnight), and kept warm and dry. Austin Pets Alive offers a great video on how to feed nursing kittens. If you, a neighbor, friend or relative are able to take on this responsibility, you can give these abandoned kittens a shot at life! If your schedule does not allow for it, there may be resources in the community to help. Contact local shelters to find out if they have fosters who can bottle-feed kittens. Kittens (and any new animal) should be kept away from your other pets until they can be evaluated by a veterinarian.
- If the mom returns and is friendly, the best approach is to bring the mom and the kittens indoors (again, kept separate from any other animals in the household). Keep them together until the kittens are weaned. Kittens can begin eating solid foods at approximately 4-6 weeks old; offer them wet food mixed with water at 4 weeks. When the kittens are fully weaned, the mom should be spayed, and either adopted out or returned outside. The kittens should be fixed and adopted out. Handle the kittens early and often while they're nursing - kittens that are socialized well will be easier to adopt out later!
- If the mom returns and is feral, leave the family outside, and provide food, water and shelter. The mother will likely move the kittens - but don't panic! If she knows this is a safe place with a stable food source, she'll return with them. And she will need extra calories while she's nursing.
Ideally, the kittens should be taken in, socialized, and adopted out. If you are able to commit to this process, the kittens should be taken away from their mom when they're able to eat food - at about 5 weeks of age. When you bring them inside, handle them often to get them used to humans - pet them while they're eating, hold them in a towel when you're watching TV. A socialized cat is much easier to place in a home then a cat that is shy or aggressive with people. Contact local shelters to find out if they might be able to help you place the kittens (but keep in mind very few will be able to take in feral kittens - you will probably have to do the work to socialize them first!).
If you cannot foster and socialize the kittens, and either find homes or place them in a shelter, leave the kittens outside! Don't socialize a kitten that you cannot place; they will learn survival skills (including a healthy fear of humans) from their mother that will give them their best chance at outdoor survival as a feral cat.
- How to judge the age of a kitten. It's important to know the age of a kitten to know how to proceed - you don't want to take a nursing kitten away from their mom, or leave a kitten with their feral mom too long if you want to socialize them. Here are some good tips for telling a kitten's age (for visuals, check out Alley Cat Allies):
- Under one week: Eyes shut, ears flat to head, skin looks pinkish. Part of umbilical cord may still be attached.
- 1 week-10 days: Eyes beginning to open, ears still flat. A kitten this age is smaller than your hand.
- 3 weeks: Eyes are fully open, ears are erect, teeth are visible. Kittens this age are just starting to walk and will be very wobbly.
- 4-5 weeks: Eyes have changed from blue to another color and/or kittens have begun to pounce and leap. Kittens this age will begin to eat gruel or canned food.
- Adopting out the kittens is the final step in the process. Successful socialization is the most important part of the process, so make sure you teach them to trust and like humans as early as you are able! If you can spay and neuter them before you adopt them out (kittens can be fixed at 8-10 weeks of age), they will not only be more attractive to adopters, but it will also help prevent this cycle from happening all over again. Once they are fixed, advertise liberally! Use social networking sites, tells friends, relatives, colleagues and acquaintances, and get them adopted out as early as you can! The older the kittens get, the harder it will be to find them homes. Read more from OAR on finding homes for strays.