It can break your heart to find a litter of abandoned kittens in your neighborhood. What should you do if you come across them?
The first thing is to determine if they truly have been abandoned by their mother, orphaned, or cruelly dumped by someone who couldn't bother to take them to a shelter or human society.
How much you are able to help save the lives of these little ones depends on the what type of situation you have stumbled across.
To determine whether or not they are abandoned, you will want to ask yourself a series of questions:
If they are, then this tells you they have been abandoned or orphaned for awhile.
If they appear healthy, their mother is likely around. If you have the opportunity, hang around and see if the mother comes back.
Be discreet, however--if she knows you're there, she probably won't come back until you leave. This could be a problem for the kittens if they need her soon for warmth and food.
If the kittens are beyond weaning age (5 weeks old or so) they may be "out of the nest" and abandoned, and mama might not come back for them especially if she is a loner.*
*Feral cats that live in communities with other cats have a slightly better situation in life than lone animals; A community of cats help raise each others' offspring, who themselves oftentimes remain lifelong members of that community. (See "More Info on Feral Cats" toward the bottom of this article.)
The critical learning phase for kittens lasts until they are at least 12 weeks old. Even though they are weaned at 4 to 5 weeks old, they continue to learn social skills and "cat manners."
In contrast to feral cat communities, a single mother cat does not have the luxury to invest her time and energy into kittens beyond nursing age, and abandons them since she is likely to go into another heat before they reach 12 weeks old.
If the abandoned kittens are very tiny, less than 5 weeks, it is best not to move them from their location until you are sure mama isn't coming back for them.
If you're not sure how to tell the age of the kittens, see this kitten growth and development article to help you.
Ultimately, newborn kittens, even outdoor "wild" ones who have their mother stand a better chance at life than if they were taken away from her. This brings us to our next question:
Newborn abandoned kittens left exposed to the elements definitely need immediate attention.
If left unattended for too long, then you know that mama cat must have run into some trouble that's keeping her from returning to her litter, or abandoned them for some unknown reason.
In this case, the newborns need urgent attention as soon as possible.
Just to prepare you, the mortality rate for newborn to days-old kittens is very high.
If you are fortunate to live in an area that has a good shelter or humane society, take the abandoned babies there where they have experienced volunteers to nurse and care for the abandoned kittens around the clock.
If there is more than one kitten, this could indicate an accident or death of the mother, or (possibly even worse) someone neglected to spay his or her female cat, and then abandoned the unwelcome resultant litter off somewhere after they were born.
If there is just one, it could indicate the same thing, but it is likely that it strayed away from its littermates, or mama rejected this one kitten in particular for one reason or another.
Abandoned kittens, if they have spent any time around people, may still be somewhat approachable.
If they let you get close, then they are likely not feral. The good news is, it will be easier to gather them up and take them to a shelter where they can be treated and cared for.
If you find an older kitten on its own that you think has been abandoned and he is friendly (or even just moderately scared) he may just be lost and it would be a good idea to knock on neighbor's doors or put up fliers to find out if someone is missing the kitten.
The best situation you can come across is to find a single older abandoned kitten (beyond 5 or 6 weeks old) that is friendly with people; He may be hungry and have parasites, but has a much better chance of a happy life than feral abandoned kittens.
If no owner can be found, or if the kittens have not been attended to by their mother, you can reasonably assume they are on their own.
It is critical that the kittens get warmed up first before being fed. Once ready to eat, start them on a homemade kitten formula until you have the opportunity to get a commercial milk replacer.
Visit Feeding Orphaned Kittens for more detailed information.
Once past this feeding emergency, then as soon as you can, get some kitten formula.
KMR Kitten Formula is as close to mother's milk as you can get, and will give tiny kittens the best chance of survival.
If you decide to take the abandoned kittens to a nearby shelter, they will be given a chance at a happy life, especially if they aren't afraid of people.
If, however, you want to take care of them yourself, you must first take the abandoned kittens to a local veterinarian.
You want to be sure to get them their necessary shots since they will be staying with you and you want to make sure they are currently healthy.
This is the best way to ensure all health problems are taken care of early on and fix any worming issues, if present.
You should also consider having the abandoned kittens spayed or neutered as early as your veterinarian recommends--many will perform the surgery as early as 10 weeks old, while others are more comfortable waiting until around 16 weeks.
If you have other pets at home, do NOT introduce the abandoned kittens to them until after they have been cared for by the vet--they could get your other pets sick!
Once they are given a clean bill of health, you may decide to adopt them all for your own (if you can handle them!), or, find homes for them yourself.
If you opt for the latter, you should know that it is never a good idea to advertise kittens for free.
Charging at least a nominal amount is fair (to recompense you for the veterinary costs) and will weed out potential "weirdos."
A feral cat refers to a cat that has lived out in the wild its entire life. The term is different from wild--feral means its ancestors at one point were domestic, therefore no "housecats" (felis domesticus) are truly wild.
The distinction in nomenclature though has little bearing on the nature of feral cats. For all intents and purposes, these cats (at least the adults) are "wild" in temperament and very unlikely to be domesticated or make good pets.
If you have determined that the "abandoned" kittens are actually part of a feral community, it is a sort of double-edged sword:
If they are too young, their survival rate drops when taken away, but by the time they are weaned they are even less likely to become human-friendly.
The best option may be to trap them, take to the vet to be spayed and neutered, and then return them to where you found them.
Yes, the feral kittens will be be going back out into the wild, but it is where they are comfortable and at least they cannot increase the feral population.
Now that you know how to distinguish an abandoned kitten from a feral one, you can help the abandoned kittens find a chance of good lives in good homes.
Even if all you do is take them to a shelter to be readied for adoption, you will feel good knowing you likely saved some lives and prevented the birth of future homeless kittens.
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