It happened just recently. As a local animal rescue volunteer and well-known “cat lady” at shelters in the Carolinas, I was contacted by a lady who had four tiny, 1-month-old orphaned kittens on her hands. She had taken them in when someone dumped a pregnant mom cat in her neighborhood, and she had been watching out for the mother cat and her kittens, born shortly after her abandonment. Sadly, a car eventually hit the mother cat, so these tiny ones were truly orphaned and alone.
This kind-hearted and well-meaning rescuer truly had no idea what to do with them to ensure their survival, as I discovered when I arrived to pick them up and take them to a foster home. So just what DO you do if you find tiny baby kittens abandoned? And how do you ensure they get everything they need to survive and thrive, both physically and behaviorally?
1. Assess If The Kittens Are Really Abandoned
It is not wise to assume that a clutch of kittens hidden alone in the bushes has truly been abandoned by a mother cat. Momma cat may be off hunting for food to return later, and tiny kittens are far better off being with their mother, both nutritionally and emotionally. Kittens separated from their mother at too young an age can have a number of behavioral and physical issues that may well stay with them for life.
Keep an eye on the kittens and watch for the momma cat to return, observing from a distance so she won’t stay away due to your presence. It may take several hours before she returns. If she does, then you can offer her food and shelter. It’s best for the mother and kittens to stay where they are, unless they are in imminent danger. If you believe they need to be moved, contact local animal rescues for assistance and guidance in moving them to a safer place.
If the mother cat does not return, then bring the kittens inside and prepare to become a surrogate cat mother. In the case of the kittens I rescued, we knew their mom was deceased and that these kittens were truly orphaned. For the first four weeks of life, they were with their cat mother, and the lady who found them was giving the mother and kittens food and offering them shelter. She was being careful not to disturb their nest or upset the mother cat. However, they were living in the parking lot of a trailer park, which in my opinion put them in imminent danger. I would have moved the mother and kittens to a truly safe location.
2. Environment Is Critical
Young kittens need a very warm environment, as they can lose body heat quickly. A heating pad set on the lowest temperature, with soft towels on top of it to make a nest, will provide a good place for the kittens to roost. Until they are around 5 weeks of age, kittens should be in a place away from any drafts, in a room that is no cooler than 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
It is important to keep tiny kittens away from other animals during their first tender weeks of life, optimally in a quiet area of the house. It might seem OK to place kittens in a cage in the kitchen area, with another cat in the same vicinity and dogs constantly barking in an adjoining room, but a situation like that creates stress that wee ones do not need and cannot tolerate well in their first few weeks of life.
3. Proper Nutrition And Elimination
It is vitally important that tiny kittens are fed properly to ensure their nutritional needs are met for their rapidly developing bodies. In the first weeks of life, kittens must eat every few hours. In fact, until around the age of 4 weeks, kittens must be bottle-fed, as they are too young to eat on their own. A “mother’s milk” replacement for cats is essential to providing the nutrition their growing bodies need. You can find kitten formula at most pet supply retailers.
I would like to take this opportunity to dispel a popular belief that kittens need cow’s milk. They do NOT. In fact, cow’s milk can cause diarrhea, which is serious in kittens as they can become severely dehydrated. I believe that neither kittens nor cats should be given cow’s milk, period. If you cannot find kitten formula, consult your veterinarian and check the Internet for kitten formula replacement recipes that use goat’s milk and are nutritionally sound.
Another common mistake people who rescue kittens make is feeding baby cereal, for human babies, instead of canned cat food to weaned kittens. At 4 weeks of age, cereal for humans is not going to provide the essential nutrients that kittens need for growth.
While we are talking about what goes in, what comes out is equally important. Kittens less than 4 weeks of age need help “going.” Their mother licks their back ends to stimulate elimination. You can mimic this action by gently wiping the kittens’ back end with a warm wet cloth or cotton ball as you gently rub the tummy.
As the kittens grow, their nutritional needs change. We’ve got information about what to feed for the various lifestages of kittenhood.
4. Vet Care Is A Must-Do
It is essential that you take your found kittens to a veterinarian for an assessment immediately. Your vet can tell you how old they are, give you guidance on proper feeding and later weaning, and help with any fleas or ear mites the little ones may have. Ridding small kittens of fleas immediately is essential for their survival, and only a vet can do it safely on kittens that are too young for traditional flea medications.
As your kittens grow, your vet will advise you on testing the kittens for FIV and FeLV, and also advise you about which vaccines are necessary and when they need to be done. These steps are necessary to prepare the kittens for their future adoption and, more importantly, to safeguard them from disease.
5. Socialization And Adoption
As the kittens grow and begin to explore their world, socialization is essential to raising friendly kittens that everyone will want to adopt.
The first key to proper socialization is to let the kittens stay together until they are at least 12 weeks of age. All the roughhousing kittens do with one another is actually one way they learn to be social with other cats. Kittens separated from siblings too young often become aggressive or have biting problems because they have not learned proper behavior through play with their siblings. They often have trouble bonding with other cats as adults as well. If you watch two kittens playing, one will often scold the other if she bites too hard or is too aggressive, thus teaching her how to behave.
Another key to raising happy, good-natured cats is to handle the kittens daily as they are growing up. It has been said that the tender age of 2 to 8 weeks is optimal time for human handling to have an impact on how social kittens will be with humans later on in life. Cats that are not handled young are often aloof and usually don’t become the “lap cats” that everyone wants. They might even become “scaredy cats” and hide away from most, if not all, humans. Of course there are exceptions, but the best thing to do is play with and pick up the kittens daily so they become used to it and actually seek out human contact as adults.
Help Is Out There
As you can see, raising young kittens is quite an undertaking — one that should not be taken lightly by any means. If you believe you are not up to the task, or that you need some help, call your local animal rescues and shelters for assistance. Many of them know people who specialize in bottle-feeding and rearing kittens from birth until they are ready for adoption at 12 weeks. At the very least, they can offer you guidance and a helping hand as you navigate the complicated waters of being a surrogate mom to kittens.