While kittens are born year-round, you’re most likely to spot them from late spring to autumn. It’s not uncommon for a feral cat to tuck them away in someone’s shed or even on a trusted person’s porch, and you may need to act fast when this happens.
Identifying kitten conditions and responding accordingly is the most important thing. Keep reading to learn what to look out for and how to respond. We even touch on bottle-feeding abandoned kittens and let you know how to recruit help if you find yourself with unexpected additions to your home.
Assess Kitten Condition
Your first (and potentially last) goal when finding newborn kittens is to assess their condition.
Healthy kittens are usually quiet with fat, full bellies. They aren’t covered in fleas and have eyes clear of gunk or crustiness. In these situations, the mama cat has usually wandered off (as stray cats do) and believes her kittens are safely tucked away.
Noisy kittens are usually under some form of distress (usually cold or hunger). If they’re just getting started meowing but look okay, you may want to watch from a distance.
Kittens that are cold, skinny, sick, or injured need your help. While leaving them with Mom is best in most situations, waiting for her to return could prove deadly in these situations.
In the next sections, we explore the ideal responses depending on the kittens’ condition.
If Kittens Are Healthy and Warm
A kitten’s best chance at life is with its mom, so kittens that are otherwise healthy and warm should be left alone. Chances are she’s somewhere close and will return soon to nurse them, potty them, and cuddle up.
Instead of standing dutiful watch, just make a note to check in after a few hours. Your presence may cause her to avoid the area.
Even if you don’t see her, you can usually tell she came around by the kitten’s full belly and mellow behavior. Sprinkling flour in a circle around them may also capture her footprints.
Keep in mind that this doesn’t end the need for intervention. This may be someone’s escaped house cat, or it could be a stray in need of your help.
You should create a plan to get the mother and her kittens spayed and neutered (and maybe even find homes). Otherwise, you’re likely to end up with even more pregnant cats in a few months.
If mom doesn’t return or the conditions change (such as weather or sudden predators in the area), you should be prepared to take the kittens in or have someone willing to do so.
If Kittens Are in Distress
It doesn’t take long for a kitten to grow cold or hungry, and even the best feline mother may make a mistake. Unfortunately, this mistake can be fatal.
Cold is a bigger danger than starvation to newborn kittens, and you may need to act fast to get them warm again. If the kittens are crying ceaselessly, skinny, injured, or sick, the immediate goal is stabilization.
Bring the kittens inside and warm them up gradually using a blanket or other soft cloth. You can set them up in a cage or a box with a heating pad underneath once they’re warm, and then decide how you want to move forward.
The mother cat may come back later, so it’s a good idea to keep an eye out or even return them to the location (briefly if it’s safe). Otherwise, you will need to bottle-feed the kittens or hand them off to someone else who can.
A Brief Overview of Bottlefeeding Kittens
Bottle-feeding kittens takes a lot of care and consideration. It’s a straightforward process, but hiccups are difficult to overcome (especially for those new to it).
Only feed a kitten once it's warm, and only feed suitable kitten milk replacement. Milk should be warmed up to body temperature (about 98° to 102°F) to make sure you don’t drop their temperature.
The nipples of bottles available at commercial stores may be too large for newborn kittens. If you can, get a hold of a nipple designed for small animals (like squirrels or rodents). If this isn’t an option, order one and use a dropper in the meantime.
Kittens should be on their stomach when nursing to prevent the milk from entering their lungs. Ideally, the kitten will latch onto the bottle and nurse at their own pace. For those that don’t, try stoking their fur like their mother would. Contact a vet if they still refuse.
Afterward, you need to burp the kitten and stimulate potty behavior. Do this by gently rubbing their genitals with a soft cloth. They should eliminate before or after every feeding (once every 3 hours).
Help for Kitten Care
Taking care of newborn kittens is a hard business, especially on your own. We recommend contacting your local shelter or feral cat coalition for instruction. They may be able to take the kittens in, provide materials, or even help you locate the mom and reunite her with her babies.
In a pinch, posting on social media may connect you with experienced individuals or those with a nursing cat willing to take in more kittens. This can also set you up for finding homes for the kittens in the future.
While strenuous, taking the time to look after and care for newborn kittens is a rewarding experience. Whether you’re just keeping an eye on them until mom returns or taking on her role, you’re shining a bit brighter in the world.