Animal shelters and rescue organizations countrywide are continually inundated with “motherless kittens” brought in by good Samaritans. The question is, were these kittens truly orphaned?
If you come across what appears to be a helpless kitten or a litter of kittens, your first instinct is to jump into action and help. However, learning the best ways you can help and when it is appropriate to intervene can actually save lives.
The absolute best chance for a kitten’s survival is with his or her mother. Mama cat provides warmth, nurturing, milk, and—specific to newborn kittens— colostrum (fluid filled with nutrients and antibodies). Neonatal kittens are delicate and vulnerable, particularly the youngest, who are unable to care for themselves and are reliant on their mother for survival.
So what do you do if you spot kittens? First, observe. Do the kittens appear clean, well cared for, and quiet? This likely indicates that they have a committed mama, who may be hunting or searching for a safer shelter for her kittens. The key is to wait patiently and quietly for a several hours, watching from a significant distance. A mother cat who sees, hears, or otherwise senses humans may be too afraid to return to her babies. It is critical that you do not become a deterrent to the mother returning. Once mama cat has found nourishment or located a more secure shelter, she will return to her babies and may possibly begin moving them. Understand that she will relocate them one by one—so, again, be patient.
However, if you find kittens that appear to have dirty or greasy coats, are unkempt, and who vocalize loudly (suggesting they are hungry), these could be indications that they are truly orphaned. In this situation, your intervention is warranted and likely necessary for their survival.
If you find kittens that appear to have dirty or greasy coats, are unkempt, and who vocalize loudly (suggesting they are hungry), these could be indications that they are truly orphaned.
The first thing to remember is to keep them warm. Neonatal kittens cannot regulate their body temperatures without the warmth of their mother (or a comparable heating source). Fill a bottle with very warm water or heat rice in a large sock. Wrap the chosen heating source in soft layered fleece blankets or towels to create a comfortable nest for the kittens. Always check with your own hand to ensure the space is warm but not hot. Never feed a kitten until its body temperature has risen to normal. Feeding kittens when they are cold can be dangerous and even fatal.
Your next step is to determine the age of the litter. Estimating the kittens’ ages helps you identify the appropriate method of feeding and care. Several resources online can help you estimate a kitten’s age. If the kittens appear to be younger than four to five weeks, they are likely unweaned (still nursing from mom) and will require bottle feeding. Always feed unweaned kittens only warmed kitten milk replacement formula—never cow’s milk. Kittens must always be fed in a natural belly-down posture to avoid aspiration, so be sure to look at detailed visuals outlining proper body positioning and handling before you begin to feed. Neonatal kittens also require stimulation of the genital and anal region with a soft tissue, cotton ball, or gauze pad to learn to eliminate.
While bottle feeding and neonatal kitten care can seem intimidating, your local animal shelters and/or rescue organizations are more than happy to assist in the training process. Signing up as a foster parent, which means providing temporary care and housing for an animal in need, ensures the best chance for these kittens to survive. It is an extremely fulfilling experience to foster an animal in need and see them thrive under your care.
The Palm Springs Animal Shelter (PSAS) is incredibly grateful to have an exceptional team of foster parents who step in to care for kittens and other animals until they are ready to find their forever families. PSAS provides the supplies, training, and medical care; the foster parent provides the love. To learn about ways you can get involved and help, please visit the PSAS website at psanimalshelter.org. Each person’s actions and contributions toward animal welfare are incredibly valuable. Whether you promote public education, sign up to volunteer, become a foster parent, donate to a local animal shelter/rescue organization, or all of the above— every single action contributes to saving a precious life.