In the spring and summer, it is not unusual to discover a nest of unattended kittens or a single kitten seemingly abandoned by the mother. What should you do?
1. Wait and Watch
Before jumping to the rescue, most experts agree that you should wait and watch to determine if the mother is coming back for them or if they are truly orphaned. To do this, stand far away from the kittens — 35 feet or more. If you stand too close, the mom will not approach her kittens. You might need to go away completely before the mother cat will return to attend to the kittens. It might be several hours before the mother cat returns. Often, the momma cat is eating, searching for a new nesting spot or in the process of moving her babies. If the kittens are very young, with their eyes still closed, chances are Mom is close by. If you move the kittens, she won't be able to find them when she returns. It is important to remember that the mother cat offers her newborn and young kittens their best chance for survival, so wait and watch as long as you safely can for her to return before removing the kittens.
2. Evaluate the General Health of the Kittens
Are the kittens basically clean, alert (or sleeping contentedly) and nestled close together?
- This is an indication that Mom is in the middle of important business and that she'll be back soon enough. Healthy kittens can survive several hours without food as long as they are warm. Newborn kittens are much more at risk of hypothermia than they are of starvation. During spring and summer months, waiting a longer time to see if mom will come back is much safer than during frigid winter months. However, if you discover that mom has been hit by a car, or if for any reason it appears that she is not coming back, then you should remove the kittens.
Do the kittens look lethargic, unkempt and scrawny or smell like urine or feces? Are the kittens cold to the touch or look sickly (such as a runny nose or eyes)?
- This is an indication that something has happened to the Mom and you should probably take action.
Do dogs or predators in the area, cold or rainy weather or heavy foot or car traffic threaten the kittens?
- You should probably take action. Remove the kittens only if they are in immediate danger.
3. What to Do
If the momma cat returns and the area is relatively safe, leave the kittens alone with mom until they are weaned. You can offer a shelter and regular food to mom, but keep the food and shelter at a distance from each other. Mom will find the food but will not accept your shelter if the food is nearby, because she will not want to attract other cats to food located near her nest.
If you think the kittens are sick, it's best to call either a vet or Calaveras County Animal Services (209) 754-6509. If you've watched for several hours and Mom hasn't returned, it's possible that something has happened to her. Again, you can contact Animal Services or you can decide to try to take care of the kittens yourself. Caring for newborn kittens is a significant commitment, see our webpage Caring for Kittens for guidance.