Are they really abandoned?
Or is momma cat nearby?
Written by Rita Reimers, Multi Cat Behavior Expert
It happens every year… As a local rescue volunteer and well-known “cat lady” by the local shelters, I was contacted by a lady who had four tiny one-month-old orphaned kittens on her hands. She had taken them in when someone dumped a pregnant mom cat in her neighborhood, and she had been watching out for the mother cat and her kittens, borne shortly after her abandonment. Sadly, momma cat was eventually hit by a car, so these tiny ones were truly orphaned and alone.
This kind hearted and well-meaning rescuer truly had no idea what to do to ensure their survival, as I discovered when I arrived to pick them up and to take them to a foster home.
So just what DOES one do when tiny baby kittens are found abandoned? And how does one ensure they get everything they need to survive and thrive, both physically and behaviorally?
Assess if they are Really Abandoned
It is not wise to assume that a clutch of kittens hidden alone in the bushes has truly been abandoned by a mother cat. Momma cat may be off hunting for food, and tiny kittens are far better off being with their mother, both nutritionally and emotionally. Kittens separated from their mothers too young can have a number of behavioral and physical issues that may well stay with them for life.
You should keep and eye on the kittens and watch for momma cat to return, observing from a distance so she won’t stay away due to your presence. It may take several hours before she returns, and if she does then you can offer her food and shelter. It’s best for mom and kittens to stay where they are, unless they are in imminent danger of course. If you feel they need to be moved, contact local rescues for assistance and guidance in moving them to a safer place.
If momma cat does not return, then bring the kittens inside and prepare to become a surrogate cat mother.
In the case of the kittens I rescued, we knew their mom was deceased and that these kittens were truly orphaned.
For the first 4 weeks of life, they were with their cat mother, and the lady who found them was giving mom cat and the kittens food and offering them shelter. She was being careful not to disturb their nest or upset mom cat.
However, they were living in the parking lot of a trailer park and in my opinion that put them in imminent danger. I would have moved mom and kittens to a truly safe location; had this been done, mother cat would not have been hit but a car and the kittens would not have become orphaned.
Environment is Critical
Young kittens need a very warm environment, as they can lose body heat quickly. A heating pad set on low temperature with soft towels on top of it to make a nest will provide a good place for the kittens to roost. Until they are around 5 weeks of age, kittens should be in a place away from any drafts in a room that is no cooler than 80 degrees.
It is important to keep tiny kittens away from other animals during their first tender weeks of life, optimally in a quiet area of the house. This was one mistake the lady I picked up the kittens from was making. She had put the kittens in a cage that was in her kitchen area, with another cat in the same vicinity and 3 dogs who were constantly barking in an adjoining room. This is stress that wee ones do not need and cannot tolerate well in their first few weeks of life.
Proper Nutrition and Elimination
It is vitally important that tiny kittens are fed properly to ensure their nutritional needs are met for their rapidly developing bodies. Just like human babies, in the first weeks of life tiny kittens must eat every few hours. In fact until around the age of 4 weeks, kittens need to be bottle fed as they are too young to eat on their own. A “mothers milk” replacement for cats is essential to providing the nutrition their growing bodies need. You can find kitten formula at any pet supply store.
I would like to take this opportunity to dispel a popular belief that kittens need cow’s milk. They do NOT and in fact cows milk can cause diarrhea, which is serious in kittens as they can become severely dehydrated. Neither kittens or cats should be given cows milk, period. If you cannot find kitten formula, there are many recipes on the internet for kitten formula replacements that use goat’s milk and are nutritionally sound.
That was another mistake that was being made with the kittens I rescued last week; they were being fed baby cereal, for human babies, and canned cat food. At 4 weeks of age, that was not going to provide the essential nutrients that kittens need for growth.
While we are talking about what goes in, what comes out is equally important. Kittens under 4 weeks of age need help “going.” Mom cats lick their kittens’ back ends to stimulate elimination. You can mimic this action by gently wiping the kitten’s back ends with a warm wet cloth or cotton ball as you gently rub their tummies.
As the kittens grow, their nutritional needs will change. Refer to this article on Feeding Kittens 101 for guidance at various stages of kittenhood.
Vet Care is a Must Do
It is essential that you take your found kittens to the vet for an assessment immediately. Your vet can tell you how old they are, give you guidance on proper feeding and later weaning, and help with any fleas or eat mites the little ones may have. Ridding small kittens of fleas immediately is essential for their survival, and only a vet can do it safely on kittens who are too young for traditional flea medications.
As your kittens grow, your vet will advise you on testing the kittens for FIV and FELV, and also advice you about which vaccines are necessary and when they need to be done. These steps are necessary to prepare the kittens for their future adoption, and more importantly to safeguard them from disease.
Socialization and Adoption
As the kittens grow and begin to explore their world, socialization is essential to raising friendly kittens that everyone will want to adopt.
The first key to proper socialization is to let the kittens stay together until they are at least 12 weeks of age. All that roughhousing kittens do with one another is actually one way they are learning to be social with other cats. Kittens separated from siblings too young often become aggressive or have biting problems because they have not learned proper behavior through play with their siblings. They often have trouble bonding with other cats as adults as well. If you watch two kittens playing, one will often scold the other if he bites too hard or is too aggressive, thus teaching him how to behave.
Another key to raising happy good natured cats is to handle the kittens daily as they are growing up. It has been said that the tender ages of 2 to 8 weeks is optimal time for human handling to have an impact on how social they will be with their humans later on in life. Cats that are not handled young are often aloof and usually don’t become the “lap cats” that everyone wants. They might even become a “scardey cat” and hide away from most, if not all, humans. Of course there are exceptions, but the best thing to do is play with and pick up the kittens daily so they become used to it and actually seek out human contact as adults.
As you can see, raising young kittens is quite an undertaking, one that should not be taken lightly by any means. If you feel you are not up to the task, or that you need some help, call your local rescues and shelters for assistance. Many of them know people who specialize in bottle feeding and rearing kittens from birth until they are ready for adoption at 12 weeks. At the very least, they can offer you guidance and a helping hand as you navigate the complicated waters of being a surrogate kitten mom.