Cats are most likely to become pregnant during early spring through fall, and their pregnancy period only lasts a couple months. Because of this, many people in the animal health industry lovingly call this time period “kitten season.”
Many cats are excellent mothers, but circumstances can arise that may result in the mother leaving one or more kittens alone. Here’s what to do if you find stray or orphaned kittens and how to care for them.
What to Do if You Find Abandoned Kittens
Make sure they are truly abandoned. Sometimes the mother is nearby but fear of humans is keeping her from returning to her baby kittens. Other times, the mother is hunting for food and will return later.
If the mother does not return within a few hours, or if the kittens are in an area that is dangerous for them (e.g., near a road or in muddy, unsanitary areas), rescuing them may be the best option.
The first step is to ensure that the kittens are warm and dry. If you cannot tell if the kittens are too cold, check their rectal temperatures. Very young kittens can die if their body temperature drops below 94°F. If the kittens are too cold, you can warm them up by:
Wrapping them in towels heated by a dryer
Wrapping warm water bottles in a towel for them to snuggle
Placing kittens on a heating pad that has been covered with several layers of bedding.
Do not place kittens directly onto a heating pad because their skin is sensitive and can burn easily
The warming process should be done slowly, over one to two hours, because kittens’ bodies cannot handle abrupt changes in temperature as well as adults can.
Where to Take a Stray Kitten
Call local shelters and veterinary offices to see if anyone has reported missing kittens or a pregnant cat. If the kittens are truly strays and you are unable to care for them, animal shelters, animal rescue groups, or your local animal control office should be able to take the kittens for you or offer you guidance on how to adopt the kittens out.
If you plan to foster or take care of the stray kittens yourself, your first step should be to take them to a veterinarian for a checkup.
How to Tell the Age of Kittens
Knowing a rough age for the kittens is important because it will help determine what to feed them and give you an idea of how much nursing care is necessary.
For the first six months of life or so, kittens will gain about four ounces a week, or roughly one pound of body weight per month of age. For example, four-week-old kittens should weigh about one pound, and eight-week-old kittens should weigh about two pounds, etc.
Other ways to determine age are based on body changes:
Less than one week old kittens will not have opened their eyes yet, and their ears will be flattened against their heads
Kittens open their eyes by two weeks of age
By two to three weeks of age, the ears will be open and erect
Teeth begin to come in around three to four weeks of age
Feeding Abandoned Baby Kittens
Kittens less than four weeks of age, kitten milk replacer or kitten formula is needed (e.g., KMR®). Very young kittens need to be bottle fed every two to three hours. Kittens need to drink about 22-26 ml of formula or milk replacer for every 3.5 ounces of body weight.
Kittens can start on solid food at about four weeks of age. Start by mixing the kitten milk replacer with a small amount of canned food to get the kittens used to the diet change. Over time, increase the amount of canned food and decrease the amount of formula given at each feeding.
Six week old kittens should be able to fully transition to solid food. If you want to switch them to hard kibble, either mix it with the canned food initially, or soften the kibble with water or kitten milk replacer until they can chew adequately. Make sure to feed kitten food rather than adult cat food.
Nursing and Supportive Care of Abandoned Kittens
Kittens need to be kept warm. They will need an external heat source (e.g., heating pad covered with bedding) for at least the first two weeks of life, although providing them with extra heat for up to six weeks may be needed.
Keep them in a small area like a cat carrier or small open box with high sides so they cannot climb out. Provide blankets or soft bedding for them to sleep on and clean soiled bedding quickly.
Kittens need to be stimulated to use the bathroom until about three weeks of age. This is normally the mother’s job, which she does by licking and grooming their genital and anal areas. Stimulation can be performed by gently rubbing a cotton swab, soft cloth, or tissue around and on the genitals as well as the anus. Always gently clean them after they use the bathroom.
At about four weeks old, kittens can be introduced to a litterbox. The sides need to be short enough that they can crawl in and out easily. You may not need much litter initially – too much litter can be distracting and may become messy. Enforce good litter box habits early so they have a good introduction.
How to Care for Abandoned Kittens as They Age
Kittens need to be vaccinated starting at six to eight weeks of age. Their final set of kitten shots should be given at around 14-16 weeks of age with at least vaccine boosters in between. Your veterinarian will help you determine the appropriate vaccination schedule and start them on a proper flea and deworming protocol.
Consider spaying or neutering kittens at six months of age. Provide regular interaction with other vaccinated animals and humans to let them socialize and experience normal household living so that they will grow up to be well-adjusted adult cats. Call your veterinarian with any concerns about bathroom changes, appetite changes, eye or nose discharge, or visible changes to their skin and hair coat (e.g., hair loss), and keep up with regular vet appointments for your growing cat.