Almost all animal shelters will humanely euthanize orphaned kittens less than 4 weeks old as they do not have the resources to feed the kittens around the clock and mortality rates of these kittens are very high.
Thankfully, most discoveries of newborn kittens do not call for human assistance, and in fact, no intervention is generally the best thing you can do.
It’s not unusual to discover a nest of unattended kittens or a single kitten seemingly abandoned by the mother. You want to help, right? Before jumping to the rescue, please consider these facts.
Remember that mom knows best. The goal is to keep the mother and kittens together to ensure the best chances for the kittens’ survival. In the first weeks of their lives, kittens need their mother’s care and antibodies from her milk. And as they grow, the mother will begin to give her kittens the critical training they will need to survive on their own.
Determine the age of the kittens:
Under 1 week: Eyes shut, ears flat to head, skin pinkish. Part of umbilical cord may be attached.
10-14 days: Eyes begin to open, ears flat. Smaller than your hand.
3 weeks: Eyes fully open – blue in color, ears erect, tooth buds visible. Walking, but wobbly.
4 weeks: Teeth erupt. Possible interest in canned food. Walking.
5-6 weeks: Eyes changing from blue to adult color. Playful – begin to pounce and leap.
8-9 weeks: Weigh about two pounds and really look like small cats.
Day 1 Week 1 Day 15
Day 30 Week 42 Day 62
(Pictures courtesy of Alley Cat Allies)
Quietly observe from a safe distance to determine if the mother is present. Though the mother stays continually with her litter for the first day or two after giving birth, she will need to leave them for short periods of time in order to find food for herself. If the kittens are clean and sleeping in a heap, mom is most likely out scouting for something to eat. Note that it is instinctual, and rather common, for a mother to move her kittens to a new "safer" location, especially in the first few weeks of their lives. Establishing a new nest is part of the cat’s instinctual behavior to safeguard her young by not remaining in one place too long.
Above all, do not interfere with the kittens or the space they are occupying. It is essential that you do not handle them, or try to create a shelter, or try to keep them warm, or try to feed them, as long as the mother is around. These interventions may stress the mother and cause her to abandon her family.
You can help the mother by providing food and water. Be sure to place dishes far enough away from the nest that you do not disturb mom and her kittens, or draw predators such as raccoons to the nest area. And of course, keep dogs and children far away.
Kittens with friendly mother
If you determine that the mother is friendly (socialized), the best approach is to take her and the kittens indoors until the kittens are old enough to be weaned, sterilized and adopted. The mother should then be spayed and either placed in an adoptive home or returned to her territory depending on space available at the shelter and her temperament. Please take a look at our resources for helping adopt out the cats.
Click here to learn how to safely handle cats and kittens until you know they are healthy. (This link of info is coming soon!)
Kittens with a feral mother
The mother needs to be trapped and spayed, but not now. Give us a call, and we will work with you to determine the best time to begin trapping the mother. Once the kittens are “weaned” (eating on their own - typically no earlier than 4 weeks), the kittens can be safely separated from the mother. You can then begin the socialization process in your home. Please take a look at our resources for helping adopt out the kittens.
How to find homes for the kittens? Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League offers affordable spay/neuter and vaccine services, but we cannot guarantee that we will have room at the League for the kittens you find. Here are some great ideas on getting the kittens adopted.
Once kittens have reached 10-12 weeks of age, the socialization process is much harder. You may have success socializing the kittens on your own, but at this point we recommend having the kittens spayed or neutered – contact the League's Community Cat TNR program (561) 472-8812 or email us.
Kittens without a mother
If kittens are very young (less than three weeks) and after four hours the mother has not returned, you may conclude she has abandoned her kittens. As tiny kittens easily become chilled and dehydrated, this would be the time we recommend human intervention. Call us at (561) 686-3663 or click here to email us.
If the kittens are older (eyes open and kittens moving around), the mom can stay away for quite some time. Please do not consider the kittens abandoned unless the mom has been gone for more than 10 hours.
If you discover that the mother is deceased or for any reason it appears that she is not coming back, then you can remove the kittens. Please note that animal shelters and veterinarians generally do not have the staff to feed and care for the kittens around the clock. If you want to help these kittens please be prepared to see this project through to weaning.
After reading this webpage, if you believe that you’ve found an orphan, see review the following resources:
How to Care for a Neonate Kitten
Kitten Care and Bottle-Feeding
How to transition kittens to gruel
Still have questions? E-mail us and describe what instructions/information you need, or call us at (561) 686-3663.