There is not much in this world cuter than a kitten. These magical little fluff balls are beyond adorable, but many myths abound regarding what to do if you find a litter of nursing felines. We are well into "kitten season," that time of year when already-overfilled shelters see a huge influx of these little creatures. So I wanted to share some valuable tips on what to do if you find a little nursing kitten or litter that appears to be without a mama nearby.
My dear friend Jane Garrison knows a great deal about newborn kittens, and I have had the pleasure of cuddling many she has fostered. She and I, along with Adopt-a-Pet.com-founder David Meyer, co-led a large animal-search-and-rescue effort following hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"Mama cats never abandon their kittens on purpose," Jane says, so when someone frantically rings her doorbell with a nursing-age kitten they believe has been abandoned, she almost always instructs them to put the kitten back where they found him or her. Then, she says, watch from afar and wait. Unless the mama is sick, has been killed or is stuck somewhere, she will always return for her nursing babies. If not reunited with her kitten, the mama will frantically look for her.
Intervening prematurely can be problematic. Without a nursing mama, the kitten will need to be bottle fed, which is quite labor intensive and not ideal compared to nursing naturally. Once bottle-fed and spayed/neutered, the kittens will need to be placed in homes as they will have been tamed by all the human handling. Alternatively, kittens who nurse their mothers and then wean naturally, can be humanely trapped, neutered/spayed and re-released (TNR) to be maintained in a feral colony provided certain conditions are met. According to Jane, "With so many adorable kittens being killed in shelters, I find no reason to bring more kittens into the system," Jane adds, "As long as the kittens are spayed/neutered, given food and water on a daily basis, and sufficient shelter from the elements, they will be perfectly happy living the life of a feral cat." I will discuss TNR and the maintenance of feral cat colonies in next week's post.
Here are some useful guidelines for caring for kittens and determining their age:
- The umbilical cord is still attached for the first 7 days or so following birth.
- Eyes open at 10 days
- Kittens are typically eating on their own at 5-6 weeks.
- At 5 weeks kittens will start to become feral (wild).
- Females can become pregnant at 5-6 months and males can begin impregnating others at around that same age. It's important to spay/neuter all kittens prior to this time.
- Spay/neuter can safely be done when kittens reach 2-3 pounds which is typically at about 3 months of age. Be sure to have the mama spayed as well.
Public shelters have limited time and resources for bottle feeding, so if bottle feeding is necessary, it's often best for an individual to do it with ongoing guidance from a shelter, cat rescue group or veterinarian. One caveat: Cow's milk is not appropriate for these nursing kitties. They require special formula.
If the idea of bottle feeding kittens sounds appealing, contact your local shelter or kitten rescue to volunteer for this much-needed assistance.
Dr. Pia Salk
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