Spring and summer is prime time to hear little “meows” on your walk home. You look around and find a few kittens under a bush.
Your first thought is “aww how cute, babies!” Followed shortly by “ hmm… now what?” The following is a handy guide on deciding whether or not to take in a kitten and what to do if you do.
First things first: Look for the mom.
Is momma cat still around? If mom is around, leave the kitten(s) be. Cats raised by mom and their siblings are much more well adjusted than hand-reared kittens.
Second: Determine if the kittens have been orphaned.
If mom is not around but the kitten(s) look good, leave them. Momma is likely out hunting for food. However, if the weather is freezing or hot take them inside while leaving food and water for mom. If not, then leave them in a safe/same place with water, mom will be back soon.
If momma is not back in 12-24 hours then consider taking the kitten(s). If they look dirty or underweight its likely they have been orphaned and need your help.
Third: Make a plan.
The choice: call animal control or take them home.
If the kitten(s) looks sick or malnourished call your local shelter or bring them to a vet for evaluation. If the kitten is over two months old ( see link below for help with aging kittens) and not friendly leave it be. Feral kittens are unlikely to adapt to home life.
If you decide to take home any kittens please ask yourself: can you actually raise one? Is your home a good candidate? Small children, finances, other pets, HOA and apartment rules all play a part in your ability to care for this new life.
If you can’t raise a small kitten and care for it its whole life consider calling animal control or bringing them to a shelter instead.
Fourth: Prepare to foster.
If you’ve gotten this far then you’ve deemed it necessary to take the kitten(s) and bring them into your home. Here are some tips to help you.
First, bring the kitten to a vet for a full workup no matter the age as soon as you can. See #5 below for more information about the vet visit.
Feeding and caring for the kitten will vary depending on age. Cats are lactose intolerant so please get them kitten formula at your local pet store. Do not feed cats/kittens cows milk. Kittens under 6 weeks will need to nurse every 2-4 hours. Young kittens cannot regulate their body temperature and need external sources to keep warm.
If possible do not hand raise a bottle fed kitten by itself. Cats learn proper cat behavior from their mom and siblings, single kittens raised alone can be hard to live with and often get surrendered to the shelter. Secondly, they will need to be stimulated by rubbing their back-end to go potty every few hours before they are old enough to use the litter box.
Third, when kittens are weaned at 6-8 weeks of age its recommended to offer many flavors, as well as, both hard and soft food for them to eat.
In the wild momma cats bring home many different types of meat so they know what they can hunt when they grow up. For example, if kittens are only fed chicken flavored hard food they won’t eat anything else as an adult.
That means if they ever need prescription food and it’s salmon flavored they won’t eat it and this can lead further medical problems.
Fifth: Take the kitten to the vet.
The vet will first determine if the kitten is healthy or sick. If healthy they will recommend vaccines based on estimated age and set up a vaccine booster schedule. They will also check and treat for intestinal worms. Additionally, they will recommend flea and heartworm prevention. It’s recommended to spay/neuter every cat at 5-6 months of age.
Kittens found outside frequently have eye and respiratory infections that require treatment. Coming from the feral population they are also more likely to have feline leukemia and FIV (equivalent to human HIV) and will need to be tested. If positive they will need to be quarantined from other cats.
Your vet will give you further advice for all stages of kitten and adulthood at each visit specific to your kitten and your situation. This article is not intended to be a substitute for in person veterinary advice.
Raising kittens is hard work. Below are a few sources and resources to help you raise an orphaned kitten. Hopefully, the kitten you saw on your walk has a momma waiting for you to continue on and will be back soon.
If not, then I hope this guide helped you determine the right course of action and/or helped you care for the little one(s). Good luck!
PS: If feral cats are abundant in your area ask your local shelter if there is a trap-neuter-release (TNR) program.
Key resources for kitten care:
Dr. Lindsay Wolcott is an Associate IndeVet practicing in South Carolina.