Kitten season is officially here! And it’s starting off rather badly already. Welcome to the Abandoned Kitten Care Guide.
A very big part of Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is adopting out the kittens after socializing them to humans. Some TNR volunteers stick to trapping only and deliver young kittens to rescues. Some TNR folks (like me) do it all themselves, even though this greatly reduces numbers of cats fixed. Some do a little of both!
TNR is about stopping the feral cat population. Most of this is done through sterilization, but another large part of TNR is adoption!
Sometimes, those of us who TNR come across abandoned, sick or injured kittens while trapping feral cats to be sterilized. Or perhaps you weren’t trapping, but instead found a litter of kittens alone outside? Did you find a single kitten under your porch? Or any other crazy scenario? Don’t know what to do with the kittens?
Thousands of people show up at shelters with orphaned kittens in hand every single year. Thousands. That’s a lot of kitten litters! So let’s discuss what exactly you should do if you find kittens outside.
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STOP! Don’t Take Those Kittens!
First step: Determine if the kittens are actually abandoned. That means you must wait!
Most of the time, abandoned kittens are NOT abandoned! Do not steal babies from their mama. Don’t move or touch them until you can be sure Mama is not going to return.
Mother cats often leave their kittens in a safe spot while they go searching for food. They can be gone hours. They do this often. This means that thousands of people are innocently kit-napping kittens from a caring mama.
This is VERY bad for a couple of reasons:
- Orphaned kittens have a 15-40 percent mortality rate! In fact, they have a greater chance of surviving WITH their mama! Unless a kitten is injured or dying, NEVER take a kitten away from a mother cat.
- Many shelters and rescues do not have the resources OR space for more orphaned kittens! With people ‘saving’ abandoned kittens that don’t need saving, they are taking away valuable resources from kittens whose mothers have died or actually abandoned them. It may take days or even a couple WEEKS to find an experienced bottle feeder.
- The largest single group of cats euthanized in shelters are newborn (or neonatal) kittens.
- Kittens who grow up without a mama are often a little delayed and they don’t learn the necessary ‘cat skills’ from the mama. This can mean some behavioral problems and insecurities.
- Kittens who don’t nurse from their mother immediately after birth miss the important colostrum milk that contains antibodies against diseases.
- A mama cat whose litter of kittens dies or is stolen will immediately go back into heat, get pregnant and deliver another litter in just 9 weeks time, all without proper recovery period from the previous pregnancy. The second litter is much more dangerous for the mama cat AND the unborn kittens. Taking kittens away from a mama cat can cause untold suffering!
- Do you have a PLAN for what to do with the kittens once you have them? Do you know how to bottle-feed, keep them warm, and how to get them to go potty? Taking kittens who seemed to be abandoned by an inexperienced person who can’t take them to a shelter can lead to their deaths, simply from ignorance.
How to Properly Save Kittens
First, if the kittens seem healthy and warm, then leave them alone for a few hours. You can back away, go back inside and come out and check in a bit, or watch from a window. Mama may not return if you’re too close!
If mama comes back to her kittens, then you have a couple of choices.
- Do nothing.
- Do nothing until kittens are weaned. Then you should trap the mama cat and her kittens, so that you can get mama fixed and returned (if feral) and the kittens properly socialized to humans, fixed, and then adopted out.
- Call a shelter or rescue and ask if they are able to care for a mama cat and her litter of kittens. This is so they can all be fixed and possibly adopted. The mother may be returned outside if she is feral after getting spayed, however. This option may not be available as kitten season means shelters and rescues are FULL.
- Foster the mama cat and kittens yourself! By taking in both mama and the kittens, you serve two purposes. You are keeping them safe from the dangers outside and you are helping to socialize the kittens to humans younger than 5-6 weeks. After the kittens are weaned, the mama cat should be fixed. If she is friendly, she should be adopted to a loving home. If feral, she should be returned to where she came from. You also must get the kittens fixed in preparation for adopting them out.
Related Post: What’s a Feral Cat?
Under no circumstances should you ever ‘rescue’ a litter of kittens and then give them away, unfixed, to random strangers. That is NOT rescuing them. That is adding to the problem of cat overpopulation and suffering.
If mama does NOT return for her kittens or the kittens are cold or are in danger, you can choose:
- Do nothing.
- Call a shelter or rescue and ask if they have foster homes available for orphaned or critical kittens. The answer to this is usually “No.” Some municipal shelters (who HAVE to take every animal that is brought to them) can take neonatal kittens all the time. BUT they also have to euthanize by the end of the day if no one steps up to rescue or foster. Municipal shelters do not have staff 24 hours a day and neonatal kittens MUST have constant round the clock care. It’s much more humane to euthanize than to let them die of hypothermia or starvation.
- Foster and bottle-feed the kittens yourself! If you choose to attempt to bottle-feed neonatal kittens, call around to rescues and shelters and ask for advice. There are resources online, as well. Don’t just ‘wing it’. Even veterinarians who bottle-feed kittens can’t save them all. Some die for no apparent reason when their fosterer does everything right. The more knowledge you have, the better chance you have to save them!
What if You Can’t Take the Kittens?
If you cannot take those kittens into your home to raise until they are old enough to be fixed and adopted, then you have a couple of choices.
- Do nothing
- Call local rescues and no-kill shelters to see if they have space for neonatal kittens.
- Take them to your vet and hope someone there is willing to bottle-feed.
- Your local open-intake shelter HAS to take them, but if no foster can be found that day, they will be humanely euthanized.
- Ask around local Facebook groups for some stranger willing to bottle-feed kittens (not ideal)
You may not find a bottle feeder quickly if you can find one at all.
If you happen to locate a foster or rescue willing to take them, they may require you to take them back after weaning. They may require you to be responsible for their vaccinations and spay/neuter surgeries. Rescues don’t run on air, they need funds to save lives.
Supplies Needed for Fostering Neonatal Kittens
If you chose to foster them yourself, or donate items to the rescue who takes the kittens, these are the absolute minimum supplies you will need.
- Kitten Milk Replacement (KMR): I prefer Breeder’s Edge or KMR, a powered version.
- Nipples: I prefer the Miracle Nipples, by far. You can find them in Mini Size or Regular
- Bottles or Syringes: I prefer syringes so I can measure how much they are eating. But if you are new at bottle feeding, start with the bottle first!
- Unscented Baby Wipes: to clean the babies’ bottoms and faces! You can go natural or simply unscented, depending on the budget.
- Dish Soap: Flea baths! Natural dish soap or use Dawn.
- Tissues or Cotton Balls: to stimulate them to go potty! Kleenex or whatever cotton balls you can find.
- Heat Source: Heating pad or microwavable heating disks.
- Soft Bedding: This can be a plush blanket or anything else lying around your home.
- Wet Kitten Food: For mama or weaning kittens! Royal Canin or Fancy Feast, depending upon your budget.
- Dry Kitten Food: Mama and older kittens! Royal Canin or Purina One or whatever fits your budget.
There are a lot of other supplies you could use if you plan on fostering kittens regularly. Find more about foster kitten supplies here.
Abandoned Kitten Care Guide (The Basics)
If you choose to care for orphaned newborn kittens yourself, here are the basics to get you started.
1. Warmth is essential!
Kittens cannot regulate their temperature! Keeping kittens warms is the MOST important thing you will do. If they have a mama cat, this is usually not an issue. However, orphaned kittens need a heat source for at least the first 4 weeks of life.
You can use microwavable heating disks, a regular heating pad (on low heat) or whatever. Just be sure the entire bottom of the box or pen you are using for the kittens is NOT heated. You want to leave a section unheated so the kittens can move away from the heat source if they are too hot.
2. NEVER feed a cold kitten!
It is more important to keep a kitten warm than to feed them. A cold kitten is one who is dying. They cannot properly digest nutrients if they are cold.
3. Determine a kitten’s age!
You should always determine a kitten’s age so you can set a proper feeding schedule. Without knowing how old they are, you won’t know if you should feed every 2 hours or every 5 hours!
Read more about determining a kitten’s age.
4. Kittens up to 4 weeks old MUST be bottle-fed!
They cannot eat dry food. They cannot eat wet food. After 4 weeks, you can start to wean them. Although I often bottle-feed until the kitten is ready to stop, which can be up to 6-7 weeks!
Read more about bottle feeding kittens!
5. Feeding must be done every 2-5 hours, depending upon the age of the kittens. This includes the middle of the night!
Yes, you absolutely have to get up in the middle of the night to feed the kittens. Yes, you absolutely must take the kittens with you to work or have someone bottle feeding them at home while you are at work. The younger they are, the more often you must feed.
There is a handy feeding chart available here.
6. Never bottle-feed a kitten on his or her back! Always feed kittens in a NATURAL position, which is on their stomachs.
Just look at pictures of kittens nursing from their mamas. That is how you should feed them. A kitten getting fed on his or her back (if they don’t wiggle around), can cause the kitten to aspirate the kitten formula. This means they will get formula in their lungs. This can lead to pneumonia and death!
7. Use Kitten Milk Replacement, NOT cow’s milk, goat’s milk, puppy milk replacer, or human formula!
Kitten Milk Replacement (KMR) is the cat version of baby formula. It has all the necessary nutrients and vitamins kittens need to grow and thrive. It is specifically formulated FOR a kitten’s nutritional requirements! The other types of milk and formulas will have too much or too little of a kitten’s specific needs.
IF you cannot get kitten milk immediately, such as finding an orphaned kitten in the middle of the night, you can use goat’s milk temporarily until you can get some. This should only be temporary, though.
You can often find KMR at your vet, the local grocery store or even Amazon. There are many, many brands to choose from.
8. Weigh the kittens daily to be sure they are gaining weight.
You can use a digital food scale (set in grams) to keep track of their progress. A kitten who doesn’t gain weight is one who is not thriving. The kitten could be sick or have a congenital defect or have parasites or a million other possibilities.
Read more about weighing kittens.
9. Kittens younger than 2-3 weeks must be stimulated to urinate or defecate!
After every single feeding, kittens need to be stimulated to go potty. Mama cat usually does this with her tongue as she grooms her babies.
After 3 weeks, they can start to use a small litter tray, such as a cookie sheet or short cardboard box.
Read more about stimulating neonates to go potty!
10. Keep the kittens clean.
Mama cats usually keep their kittens immaculate! They clean their kittens with their rough tongue often.
Orphaned neonatal kittens don’t have a mama to do that, so we have to do it!
Occasionally bathing the kitten in mild dish soap can be useful, although care has to be taken to rinse all soap off of the kitten and be sure they don’t get a deadly chill while they dry! You also should not bathe the kitten too often.
After meals and going potty, it is best to use unscented baby wipes to clean their faces and bottoms.
For More Kitten Rescue Information
For kitten fostering and bottle feeding resources, please visit the Kitten Lady’s website, or follow her YouTube channel. She’s pretty much the authority on neonatal kittens.
If you decide to foster kittens regularly, I do recommend the Kitten Lady’s Tiny but Mighty book. It’s an excellent resource to have on hand. I prefer the hardback and own it myself. But it is available in Kindle and Audible version.
Other Important Pages:
Fostering Kittens with Mama
If you were able to get the mother cat, kudos to you! You now have it relatively easy.
Let mama do all the hard work!
1. Keep mama and the kittens in a quiet area.
You can use a playpen, animal crate, or a small bathroom with a plastic storage container (without the lid) if necessary. Try not to disturb them as much as you can, even if the mother is friendly. Even the sweetest cat can turn into a tiger when she feels her young are in danger!
2. Monitor the mama and kittens carefully.
Mother cats will sometimes reject a kitten or an entire litter and refuse to let them nurse. Some mother cats just don’t know what to do, especially if they are basically just kittens themselves! And sometimes, a mama cat can become dangerous to her kittens.
Always remove kittens from the mama if they are not being fed or being harmed. You will need to bottle-feed at this point. Please visit the above advice for orphaned kittens if this happens.
3. Weigh kittens daily.
This should be done at least once a day to be sure they are getting enough milk from their mama. If they are not gaining weight properly, you will need to provide supplemental bottle feeding.
Read more about weighing kittens.
4. Provide Mama with enough nutrients!
I highly recommend doing more than just feeding mama cat kibble. She should be fed kitten food or supplemented with Kitten Milk Replacement (KRM). Preferably both! Nursing so many babies is hard on mama cats and they need all the nutrients they can get!
I feed my current nursing mama kitten kibble and wet kitten food, as well as adding some KMR.
As with orphaned kittens, you should always deworm and get rid of any fleas. Make sure to deworm and apply flea meds to Mama as well.
Related Post: What is the Best Flea Treatment for Cats?
Kitten Rescue Responsibility
If you decide to attempt to bottle-feed the kittens, you are taking responsibility for those kittens and their lives.
It is a HUGE pet peeve of cat rescuers for someone to rescue a not-really-abandoned litter of kittens that they give away at 4 or 5 weeks old, unfixed, to just anyone free on Facebook.
If you cannot take responsibility for the orphaned kittens, do nothing! I know it sounds cruel, but it’s better for all cats if kittens aren’t ‘rescued’ only to continue contributing to the cat population problem. Chances are, they aren’t abandoned or orphaned anyway.
Pity does not save lives.
If you truly care what happens to the kittens, you HAVE to see it through by ensuring they do not continue reproducing. You have to ensure proper homes to the best of your ability. You will need to provide for their needs and veterinary care while you have them. Rescue means responsibility.
- Provide basic care such as deworming, flea treatment, etc.
- All kittens saved should be altered BEFORE being adopted out to loving homes.
- Vaccinations, combo tests, microchips are a huge bonus, but fixing is most important, especially if funds are limited. Kittens can be safely spayed or neutered at 8 weeks old and 2 pounds!
- Vet all potential adopters by requiring a veterinary reference, stalk their social media profile, interviews, and require a small fee. Or any combination of this.
- Don’t adopt out kittens younger than 8 weeks old
- Don’t adopt out kittens unaltered! MOST people who get an unfixed cat or dog do NOT fix them before they have their first litter. Do not contribute to the problem of cat overpopulation!
- Don’t give them away for free to just anyone who responds. The goal is not to ‘get rid of them’. The goal is to ensure their safety and happiness by finding them the best home!
Kitten Season = Kittens Suffering
Every year, kitten fosters see horrible illnesses, injuries and lose kittens for no apparent reason at all. Fostering kittens can be heartbreaking. You can do everything right and still lose every single kitten in a litter.
People who foster kittens full time are my heroes. They take in critical kittens who may end up dying and wake up the next day to do it again.
NO ONE should take bottle feeding lightly. NEVER take kittens away from their mothers, even if they are outside. You could be killing them.
Kittens are adorable, but kitten season is NOT. Kitten season is kittens suffering. Spay and neuter is the ONLY solution to this suffering. If you do not fix your pets or fix the community cats you feed, YOU are the problem.
This year, please, make an effort to spay and neuter and Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) the cats in your life or neighborhood.
Rescue kittens responsibly!
8 thoughts on “Abandoned Kitten Care Guide”
I had no idea that there was this much to know when taking in a kitten and especially an orphan kitten. It makes perfect sense when you talk about not separating the kitten from its mother. I did want to ask what feral means? My guess is neutering it but maybe that only relates to male cats. Thank you for the great information.
Hi! Feral means a cat who is ‘wild’. You can find out more on my post: “What’s a Feral Cat?”
Thanks for visiting!
This is the kind of stuff I like to read during this crazy virus stuff. We found a mother and her kittens in our crawl space last month. The mother was meowing very loud at night. We live in western PA so she probably needed help keeping her babies warm. We managed to get them out of the crawl space and kept them in a warm spot by the furnace in our basement and called around to find them a safe place. One of my wife’s coworkers agreed to take them. They live in a barn now on a farm and she says they are doing quite well. The nice thing is that the cats will help eliminate their new home of rats and mice this spring. Thanks for sharing this.
Kittens are just like human babies. You have to feed them, bathe them, make sure they get their vaccinations in order, and looking after their health in general. It’s a great responsibility and not to be taken lightly.
I love cats, but I didn’t know anything about rescuing them. Your post was an eye-opener.
I didn’t know that female cats go back into heat if they lose their kittens.
Thank you for sharing. I look forward to your next post.
Thank you! Glad it was educational for you!
Well rescuing abandoned kittens is more than a full time job. It’s a lifestyle change that can be a very challenging time for both rescuer, kittens and the mother cat. There are so many steps in caring for young kittens to keep them healthy and thriving. My best friend does and has the patience of a saint. This is an interesting article and thank you for sharing. Kitten and mother cat caring is certainly no joke.
It definitely isn’t a joke. It’s hard work and it’s heartbreaking sometimes. But definitely worth it!