Finding a stray kitten curled up under your deck or meowing plaintively on the side of the road can feel as exciting as finding a $100 bill on the sidewalk. Those tiny triangle ears! The blue eyes! Stray kittens are undeniably cute, but finding one outside by itself brings up a long list of questions—not to mention potential problems you now need to solve. How you choose to move forward could be the difference between life and death for that innocent little kitten. Whether you want to make the little one part of your family or not, there are steps you need to take to help that kitten survive.
As cat lovers, we want to swoop in and save every precious stray we find. There is, however, a right and wrong way to go about the situation.
Watch and Wait
Before you put on your cape and jump in to save the day, remember that mama strays need to leave their litters in order to find themselves food. They can’t babysit every minute of every day. Just because you find a litter of kittens all on their own, that doesn’t mean they’ve been abandoned. There’s a good chance mom is somewhere nearby. Kittens have a much better chance at survival if they stay with their mom. Before you gather up the litter and take them inside, you need to find out if mama cat is still in the picture. And if she is, she needs to be part of your rescue plan.
Here are a few initial signs that mom is likely coming back:
- You find the kittens sleeping soundly. This likely means they’re used to mom being gone part of the day and aren’t worried or hungry.
- The kittens look plump, healthy, and aren’t meowing.
- If you return later to find a few kittens missing, mom is probably moving them since you found their location.
Mama strays are understandably nervous, so they’re not likely to come sauntering up to their litter if you’re there interfering. It’s best to back away and observe the kittens from a distance to see if mom comes back. If you can’t sit around all day to wait, check back with the kittens at different times of day. Be stealthy so you don’t spook mom.
If Mom Comes Back
If mom is still diligently caring for her litter, you have a few options. Kittens younger than eight weeks should not be separated from their mother, so keeping the family together should be your first priority. How you do this will depend on mom’s feelings toward humans.
In the best case scenario, mom is comfortable around humans and won’t mind if you care for both her and her kittens. In this case, you can gather the entire family and contact your local cat rescue. Those professionals will advise you on what to do—whether you want to surrender the family to the shelter or want to help by taking care of them yourself. This way, both mom and the kittens can be adopted.
In many cases, however, mama cats are wary of humans and would rather be left alone. Some are simply protective of their litters, but there’s also a chance you stumbled upon a feral cat that has never interacted with humans before. Adult feral cats are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. And most of them would be unhappy if they were forced to live with people. The kittens, however, have a chance at being adopted and living happily with a family.
Contact your local rescue just in case, but the best plan of action is usually to leave the kittens and the mother alone until the babies are old enough to be on their own. At that time, you can trap the kittens, help them get used to people, and hopefully find them loving homes. It’s also a good idea to trap mom so she can be spayed and then released back to her familiar territory.
If There’s No Mom in Sight
If you’ve kept your eye on the kitten(s), and there has been no sign of mom, it’s safe to assume that she’s no longer in the picture. She might have been killed or simply abandoned her litter for an unknown reason. If the kitten is older, it could also simply be that the baby no longer needs its mom and is bravely exploring on its own.
In these situations, it’s best to capture the kitten so you can provide necessary care. If the baby is still little, this is probably as easy as reaching down and scooping it up. Older kittens, however, are surprisingly fast and slippery. If they’re scared, you might need help from a humane trap. Many local shelters lend out traps for this purpose.
Call the Right People
With the kittens safely in your care, your first concern should be contacting the appropriate professionals. If you have no plans to adopt or foster the baby, call your local shelter to see how they can help. If you think you’d like to hold on to the baby, you at least need to schedule a vet appointment to ensure their health and get them started with vaccines and flea/tick prevention if they’re old enough.
Feeding a Stray Kitten
Whether you’re keeping the kitten or waiting until you can deliver it safely to a rescue, the baby needs food. If the kitten is at least four weeks old, there’s a chance it’s already weaned and eating solid foods. This makes your job easier, and you can head to the store for any kind of kitten food.
If the kitten is still too young for solid foods, you’ll need to start bottle feeding. Bottle feeding a young kitten is not a task to take lightly. Depending on age, a kitten needs to eat around every two hours. That means waking up multiple times at night and taking breaks from work. You can’t leave for vacation or be away from the kitten for too long. Its survival depends on getting the nutrients it needs on schedule.
For this reason, it’s often recommended to surrender young kittens to a shelter or experienced foster. Even if you’re determined to care for the kitten yourself, it’s a good idea to contact someone with experience to help you through the process. You’ll need kitten formula, bottles, rubber nipples, and the proper cleaning supplies. Best Friends has a good bottle feeding resource to get you started.
You’re most likely to stumble across a stray kitten during the warmer months (appropriately named Kitten Season). But it could also happen at any time of year. No matter where you are or what the situation looks like, you have a responsibility to ensure the safety of that innocent life. You can’t save every cat, but you can make a world of difference for the strays that cross your path.