Last Updated on July 22, 2021 by Julia Wilson
At a glance
- Wait and watch for several hours to see if the mother cat returns
- Cared for kittens should appear clear, content and well-fed
- Abandoned or orphaned kittens may look dirty, hungry, sickly and cry
- Don’t take abandoned or orphaned kittens to a shelter unless you know they can care for neonates (under four weeks)
- Kittens who have been abandoned or orphaned will need to be bottle-fed for the first five weeks when they start to wean
Spring is the start of kitten season, which sees an increase in kitten births for stray, feral as well as unspayed pet cats.
Stray and feral cats don’t have the luxury of a home to raise their kittens and will find a safe nest that will be home for the kittens until they are old enough to fend for themselves. During this time, kittens will remain out of sight in the nest, and when not nursing and caring for her kittens, the mother will leave the kittens in the nest to hunt for food.
Most mother cats will make their nest in a safe location, out of the elements and hidden from potential threats. Under shrubs, in abandoned buildings or barns, or even under a house all provide the cat and her kittens with the security they need.
How to determine the age of a kitten
- 0 – 3 days: The umbilical cord is still attached, and the eyes are sealed shut.
- 7 – 10 days. The eyes start to open.
- 2 – 3 weeks: The kitten begins to stand, and their eyes and ears open.
- 4 weeks: The kitten starts to play and explore the environment.
- 5 weeks: Most kittens are confident on their feet by this age.
- 6 + weeks: The kittens are extremely active.
Related: Kitten development
How to determine if a litter of kittens has been abandoned or dumped?
Most mother cats (queens) will not abandon her kittens. If you do find a litter of kittens and the mother doesn’t return, she may have been hurt or killed, or somebody has dumped the kittens.
Signs a litter has been dumped or abandoned:
- The kittens are in poor condition, dirty and crying
- They are in a box
- There is no sign of the mother after observation for 24 hours
Signs the litter has not been dumped:
- They are clean, content and sleeping
- They appear to be in good health and well-fed
- You have seen the mother
What to do if you find a litter of kittens
Unless the kittens are in immediate danger, and you cannot be sure if they have been dumped or abandoned, don’t do anything yet. Wait and watch from a safe distance to see if the mother cat returns. The best place for kittens is with their mother, who is best equipped to care for her family unless the kittens are in imminent danger or distress.
The best place for a litter of kittens is with their mother
Young kittens require around the clock feed, and the mother cat’s milk provides her kittens with antibodies that keep them safe from infectious disease until their immune system is mature. Kittens are also unable to regulate their temperature or go to the toilet on their own for the first few weeks of their life.
If the kittens are in immediate danger, move to a safer place. Keep the kittens close to where they have been found so that the mother can locate them.
Kittens who have a mother:
If you establish that the kittens are safe and cared for by their mother, leave her to do her job. If the cat appears friendly and unafraid of people, it may be possible to bring the mother and her kittens indoors, otherwise, leave her alone.
You can help by putting out food and fresh water for the mother, but make sure it is not too close to the nest to avoid attracting other cats too close to the nest.
Once you have watched for a few hours and are 100% sure the mother is not around, the kittens will need human intervention to survive.
Place the kittens in a clean, dry box and plenty of warm bedding. Kittens are not able to generate their own body heat and must have a source of heat to stay warm. If possible, swing by a pet shop or veterinary practice and purchase kitten milk replacer, bottles, and teats.
Where to get help
Do not take neonates (under 4 weeks) to an animal shelter unless you know they have the facilities to care for neonatal kittens (confirm with them first). Most animal shelters and veterinarians are not able to help neonatal kittens due to the level of care they need. This means you have two choices; hand raise the kittens yourself or find a rescue organisation or foster carer who can take the kittens.
How to find a rescue organisation:
Contact your local veterinarian or animal shelter who may know of local rescue organisations. There should also be local cat rescue groups on Facebook who will be able to step in or offer their knowledge and expertise if you decide to care for the kittens.
Orphaned or abandoned kittens may have been exposed to the cold or heat. The priority is to manage their temperature. Cold kittens will need to be warmed up before they are fed. Once the kittens are warm, you can then feed them.
Evaluate the kitten, feel the paws, ears and inside the mouth; if they’re cold, warm the kitten up by wrapping it in a towel, holding it close to you, and gently rubbing.
Feeding orphaned kittens
Unless you are part of a rescue organisation, most homes don’t have kitten milk replacer or bottles, in an emergency, you can make up the following:
- 90 ml condensed milk
- 90 ml water
- 120 ml plain (full fat) yoghurt
- 3 to 4 egg yolks
Mix all of the ingredients well and warm to 97-100 F (36.1 – 37.7 C).
Human baby formula can also be used at twice the concentration as recommended for human babies.
If you don’t have a bottle, use an eye-dropper or syringe (without the needle) until you can stock up on supplies.
Bottle feeding frequency:
- 0 – 1 week: Every 2 hours
- 1 – 2 weeks: Every 3 hours
- 2 – 3 weeks: Every 4 hours
- 3 weeks and over: Every 6 hours
Emergency formula is just that, and for short-term use only. Bottle-fed kittens need an appropriate formula that is available from most veterinarians or pet stores. You will also several bottles and teats.
After a kitten has had a meal, he or she will need to be stimulated to go to the toilet as they cannot do this on their own. The licks the anal/genital reason to stimulate the kitten.
When to see a veterinarian
- Eye or nasal discharge
- Failure to nurse
- If the kittens have been exposed to extreme heat or cold
- Diarrhea or vomiting
For great information on how to care for kittens, visit Kitten Lady.