You’re walking down the street and you hear, “Mew, mew, mew.”
Upon closer look, it’s a tiny kitten (or kittens). With kitten season in full swing, this scene plays out every day all over the Bay Area. People’s first instinct is to scoop up the kittens. Don’t — avoid “kitten-napping.” Kittens do best with their moms. Humans, no matter how experienced or well intentioned, are poor substitutes for mom cats.
Here’s what you should do if you find kittens.
Stop: Step back for a second and take a deep breath while you assess the situation.
Watch: Not all kittens are abandoned. Mama cats leave their babies to hunt, among other things. If you see kittens without a mama, she’s likely nearby. And even if she isn’t, odds are she’ll return. Be sure to watch from afar. It’s best not to risk spooking mama. If she feels threatened, she’s more likely to move her kittens to a different location.
Wait: Mom cats usually return in a matter of hours. Warm, well-fed kittens in a safe location will be quiet and should be left alone. Hungry kittens will cry for mom to return. If she doesn’t return immediately to her kittens’ cries, it doesn’t necessarily mean trouble. Mom might be waiting, too — for you to leave. Check periodically to see if mom’s come back.
Track: If mom’s still in the picture, keep track of the kittens in the upcoming days and weeks. Once they’re walking and eating on their own, it’s safe to remove them from mama. Generally, this happens around 5 weeks, which is the ideal age to socialize them. If you aren’t sure how to age a kitten, there are plenty of resources online to help you. If you don’t live in the area, alert a local shelter or rescue group to the kittens’ location and ask them to follow up. It’s normal to feel a little nervous leaving kittens where they are since there’s no guarantee they’ll be safe in the wild. Keep in mind that kittens’ chances of survival are much lower without mama and they often become at risk in a shelter.
Trap: The best solution is to trap mom and bring the entire family inside until the kittens are weaned. Kittens are great bait for trapping mom. Once mom is trapped, she can be fixed before being released, which is a key step to prevent the breeding cycle from repeating. Again, there’s some great information online about trap-neuter-release, aka TNR. The links below outline best practices and basic precautions. If you have to turn the kittens into a shelter, they have a better chance of making it with mom since she’ll do most of the work.
Rescue: Under some circumstances, it’s OK to remove the kittens from their environment, even if you can’t catch mom. These situations are rarely black and white, so you’ll have to use your best judgment. If kittens are wet or cold to the touch, it’s better to take them inside, dry them off, and warm them up. If the kittens are unsafe for any reason, move the kittens to safety someplace nearby or bring them inside.
Foster: The sad truth is that there are more tiny kittens than foster homes and very few shelters have the resources to care for underage kittens in-house. Once kittens reach 2 pounds most shelters will spay or neuter and make them available for adoption. If you can keep the kittens until they reach that critical weight at around 8 weeks of age, their chances of survival in the shelter system increase exponentially. Raising very young kittens is a lot of work with a fairly steep learning curve. Check out the resources below, look for rescue groups that can offer training sessions, watch tutorial videos, and don’t forget to visit your veterinarian to get the kitten checked out. If you can’t care for the kitten, try networking with your friends and neighbors as the shelter should be a last resort.
Volunteer: If all this talk of kittens has you craving your own little furry bundle of joy, you can contact your local shelter or rescue group to become a foster. All you need is a quiet bathroom and the willingness to learn. It’s a good way to satisfy your kitten fix without a long-term commitment, and it’s sure to save lives.
Resources: Kitten Lady, www.Kittenlady.org; Alley Cat Allies, www.AlleyCat.org.
Shira A. Rubin, D.V.M., works in general practice and emergency medicine in the South Bay. She regularly consults for several local rescue groups and fosters sick kittens who need intensive, around-the-clock care. She is currently fostering two kittens that are severely emaciated and a bottle-baby with a life-threatening infection. Kim McIntyre works for eBay by day and runs St. Francis Animal Protection Society in her “free” time. She’s a self-professed animal nerd, an avid cat trapper, and educator on all things TNR.
Are you a San Francisco Bay area cat behaviorist, cat consultant, or cat expert who would like to contribute to this column, Kitty Corner? Send email to Editor@BayWoof.com.
Above: Little Carrot at a day old.
Main article photo by: Photo by Katherine Bree Walker Photography