You may find kittens outside and decide you want to help them. If this is the case, please make sure the kittens are truly orphaned before moving them. No one will be a better caregiver for kittens than the mama cat, so make sure that you’re giving them a chance to stay with their mom.
Wait and Observe
A mother cat will periodically leave her nest to search for food. If you see young kittens without their mother, it is likely she will return. It’s not unusual for the mother to be gone for several hours. She may also be in the process of moving them – this is often the case when people find small, single kittens outside. Mom may even be watching you from a safe distance, waiting to return to her litter until she no longer detects your presence – especially if she is scared or not socialized to human contact. The mother should return to the nest within a few hours if you watch quietly from a distance (at least 35 feet). An easy way to see if mom is still around (without having to sit and watch for several hours) is to sprinkle flour or baby powder around the nest of kittens. You can then check back a couple of times throughout the day to see if there are paw prints or disturbances indicating that mom has returned. Do NOT place food near the kittens to lure mom. Mom almost always purposely hides her litter away from food sources as she knows that food will attract other cats and even bigger predators! Place food & water in general area but not near kittens. Mom will eat and be able to safely return to her babies.
It is important that you do not take pre-weaned kittens away from their mother. Pre-weaned kittens (under 4 weeks) without a mother are very difficult to care for and have a high mortality rate. They require frequent feedings of kitten milk replacer formula day and night, and many simply “fail to thrive” without the care of their mother. If the kittens appear healthy and comfortable, you can safely wait 4 hours for a mom to return if the kittens are 4-weeks and under. If kittens appear to be over 4-weeks, they can be left alone for 8-10 hours.
Assess the Kittens’ Apparent Health
While you are observing from a safe distance, pay attention to the kittens’ appearance and their surroundings. If the kittens appear healthy, and in a relatively safe location, they can survive without mom longer than if they are sickly, and in the middle of a muddy yard. Does their fur look healthy, full and fluffy? OR Are they dirty? Sickly? Eyes crusty? Are they sleeping quietly? In a heap? OR Are they crying? Squalling? Are they dry? OR Are they wet/soaked? Assess the environment. Are the kittens in IMMEDIATE danger from: Heavy rain? Standing water/flooding? Wild animals? Dogs? Traffic – pedestrian foot traffic? Bicycles or cars? If the kittens appear healthy, but are not in a safe location, try placing them in a box or similar shelter in a safe spot as close to where you found them as possible, and continue to observe for mom. Know that healthy kittens can survive several hours without food as long as they are warm. Neonatal kittens are much more at risk of hypothermia than they are of starvation. During typical ‘kitten season’ (during the late spring and summer months), waiting a longer time to see if mom will come back is usually very safe.
Remove the kittens only if they are in immediate danger OR if they appear very sickly and ill. The Mom Cat offers her kittens the absolute best chance for survival, so WAIT and WATCH as long as you can. The best food for kittens is their mother’s milk. She will provide them not only with properly balanced nutrition but also much-needed antibodies and immune system support! The older a kitten is, the longer they can maintain without their mother.