Leave those kittens alone . . . at least for a while

Rescue organizations are overwhelmed with kittens at this time of year. These 12 came to APL from a single location. Rather than surrendering litter after litter to a shelter or rescue, get the adult cats fixed at APL’s low-cost spay/neuter clinic.

What is it about finding young kittens that makes people want to do something right away? Maybe it's because we know not to leave helpless, human babies alone. But kittens aren't humans, and their mothers, though absent when you spy the kittens, may be taking excellent care of them. Stepping in and scooping up the kittens and taking them to a shelter may do more harm than good. Take a deep breath, be patient and observant, and resist the urge to immediately intervene.

Warm-weather months find animal shelters overwhelmed with an influx of stray and unwanted cats and kittens. Many of them are very small kittens that well-intentioned people wrongly believe have been abandoned by their mothers. But a kitten's best chance of survival is with its mother. Kittens benefit from early nursing, with the first milk containing important antibodies that protect them from infection.

Although no mother cat is in sight when you spot those kittens, she may very well be close by, waiting for you to leave. In fact, given that cats typically have multiple kittens, there's a good chance that the single kitten you've stumbled upon just hasn't been moved yet to join its siblings in their new "nesting" place. The ASPCA recommends sprinkling flour around the nest or placing very light twigs over the kittens. If either are disturbed, you'll know mom has been back. Do not put food near the kittens as it may draw predators.

What should you do if you encounter young kittens? Watch and wait.

First, assess the kittens' health. Do any of the kittens look injured or sick? Are they crying or cold to the touch?  Kittens that are dirty, meowing or appear sick, underweight or dehydrated, may have been orphaned or abandoned. Take them in and keep them warm while you make a plan to care for them. Do not feed them cow's milk, as it does not provide proper nutrition and likely will cause life-threatening diarrhea.

If the kittens are warm and don't appear sick or in distress, their mom is likely nearby getting food or hiding from you. Mother cats may leave their kittens for several hours at a time to hunt or rest. Monitor the nest from a distance. If the kittens are in danger due to their location, move them to a safer spot nearby where mom can easily find them. 

If mom has not come back in 10 to 12 hours, the kittens are likely orphaned and will need someone to take care of them until they are old enough for adoption. Hopefully that's you!

If you cannot provide foster care or need additional support, contact Animal Protective League (APL) or another shelter or rescue for assistance. The website kittenlady.com offers a wealth of information on kitten care.

Kittens that are warm and plump are being cared for. Watch for mom's return and continue to monitor the kittens. Take time to handle the kittens. It will give them a head start on socialization, and contrary to popular belief, the mother will not reject them. The kittens will be old enough to separate from mom at six to eight weeks old. This is the ideal time to have the mother cat spayed and get the kittens into their new adoptive homes.  If mom is difficult to handle, borrow a trap from APL's spay/neuter clinic.

Are the kittens you've found old enough to be separated from their mother? Try to find them adoptive homes or see if an area shelter or rescue has space for them.  When they are eight weeks old and weigh two pounds, they're old enough to be spayed or neutered at APL's low-cost clinic.

Don't forget, where there are kittens, there are adult cats who are breeding. Contact APL right away to get them spayed or neutered so they don't continue to reproduce. Don't delay, as female cats can have as many as three litters each year.

Sarah Moore is manager of the Animal Protective League's low-cost spay/neuter clinic.

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