In the spring and summer, it is not unusual for well-meaning good Samaritans to discover litters of kittens outside. While our instincts tell us to help, the best thing we can do to ensure their health and safety is to leave the kittens alone.
It is highly unlikely that the mother cat abandoned her kittens.
A mother cat places her kittens in a safe spot so that she can hunt for food to keep herself and her babies fed. She returns within a few hours to that same safe place. It’s critical that the kittens remain where they are because mom's care offers their best chance for survival. If danger is posed to the kittens, such as a moving vehicle or a curious pet, move the kittens to a safe location nearby. Mom will find her babies.
When kittens are taken from their mother, someone has to take her place. A mother cat’s role is not an easy one to take on.
Until kittens are weaned around 5 weeks of age, they are dependent upon their mother's milk for nourishment. Much like human babies, without their mother's milk the kittens require nourishment from a specialized formula every 2 hours, around the clock, for up to 5 weeks.
In addition to numerous daily feedings, newborn kittens are unable to use the bathroom on their own. Their mother instinctually knows how to help, but humans lack a mother cat’s instincts. Failing to defecate properly puts the health of these fragile kittens in jeopardy and can prove fatal.
Benefits of Staying with Mom:
- She provides proper nourishment & antibodies to bolster their new immune systems.
- She is able to keep the kittens clean.
- She stimulates the kittens to use the bathroom and teaches them the beginning stages of using a litter box by showing them how to dig in the soil and cover up their feces.
Dangers of Separating Kittens from Mom:
- If the kittens are not hand-fed regularly using replacement formula every 2 hours, they will starve.
- Without their mother's milk, they will have a weakened immune system.
- The risk of getting sick is much higher for a kitten placed into a cramped shelter environment than staying in their current environment with mom.
- The kittens' socialization skills suffer as they are not able to model after their mother or their litter-mates.
The only time kittens should be moved is when they are in immediate danger or if you know the mother is injured and unable to return to her family.
How do you know if their mother isn't coming back?
Watch the kittens. If the mother cat does not return for 8+ hours and the kittens are still where they were first found, it is then appropriate to take action. If at all possible, the mother cat will return to her kittens within an 8-hour time period. If she doesn't, she may not be able to. Remember: the mother cat may not show herself if there are humans near her kittens.
One way to tell if she has returned is to surround the kittens’ hiding spot with a ring of flour. Mom will walk through it whenever she comes and goes, leaving her footprints behind.
The kittens are older, eating on their own, but mom could still have more litters.
To prevent the mother cat from having more litters of kittens, she should be brought in for a spay surgery available through various local Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return (TNVR) Programs. Older kittens that are not socialized and unfriendly with people are also candidates for this program to ensure that they never have kittens of their own.