There are lots of feral and semi-feral cats living in our midst. Some were pets at one time, but having lived outside for a while, they have lost their trust of humans. Some were never social with humans and do heir best to avoid us at all costs. Many of these “community cats” have not been spayed or neutered, so from mid-spring to late fall, litters of kittens are born and raised right in our back yards…. Literally!
When caring animal-lovers see kittens outside, we want to help. Surely the best thing is to catch them and find them homes, right? Not so fast! It’s way more complicated than you think!
Here are some issues to consider:
How old are the kittens?
• If they’re under 4 weeks old, they should stay with their mother.
• If they’re between 4 and 8 weeks old, they could be captured and socialized, but only if you or someone has the commitment to fully socialize the kittens and find them homes. Also, please join us in our efforts to end the cycle of overpopulation by making sure kittens are fixed before you give them away.
• If they are over 8 weeks old, they will require much more time for socialization (hours per day), and a much greater commitment to their future as a house cat, because there’s no turning back! Once they are taken from their outdoor home, they will have lost their connection to their colony as well as their mother, who was in the process of teaching them how to live an outdoor life. Kittens older than 8 weeks old should not be taken to a shelter because they are too feral for most shelters’ socialization programs. It’s in the best interest of older kittens to let them stay with their mother and live outside.
Where is the mother raising the kittens?
Mom cats usually do a great job of tucking their litters away in a safe place, and keeping them there until they are older; usually at least four or five weeks old. If you see kittens, your inclination might be to look for where they are being raised. This very often causes a mother cat to worry about their safety and move them. Their next location may not be as safe as her original choice, and, it’s more likely that you will not see them again. Instead of looking for their nest, take photos or good mental notes from a distance, and try to determine how old they are. Once you determine their age, you can form a plan that is in their best interest. Here’s a chart that can help you age a kitten: http://www.alleycat.org/kittenprogression. Animal DREAMS can help you form a plan based on what age the kittens are.
If I find very young kittens, how do I know if the mother cat is taking care of them?
If you KNOW that a mother cat is out of the picture (has been taken or killed) then call a shelter to see if they can take the kittens and help them survive. Otherwise, it’s better to assume that the mother left the nest while you were there because she’s afraid of you. If that happens, she will come back when there are no people around. You could dust flour near the area to be able to check for footprints later, but you will run the risk of spooking the mother cat, causing her to move her kittens.
The mother cat is friendly, and the kittens are the right age for socializing; If I want to take them in, how would I go about that, and know I’ve gotten all of the kittens?
That can be very tricky. Young kittens who’ve had no human contact can be good at hiding. If you’re going to take in the whole family, make sure no one is left behind because young kittens will not likely survive outside without their mother. Traps may be of help in this scenario, but kittens can be too small to trip the plate, and can be dangerous for them if not used is a specific way. Alley Cat Allies has written a great article on this issue: www.alleycat.org, “How to Use Kittens to Trap a Mother Cat, and Vice Versa”. Animal DREAMS can also offer advice.
Isn’t it cruel to leave kittens outside?
If feral kittens are 8 weeks or older, they are by now resolute that they don’t want to be around people. Their mothers are in the process of teaching them how to live an outside life; where to hide and be safe, how to find food. They are developing into a strong family unit. Well-fed, healthy cat colonies can lead happy lives. Caretakers tell us how much enjoyment they get seeing the kittens they care for playing in their yard. The best thing you can do for them is to provide food, water and shelter (though they may have already found their own preferred housing). Then, so the population doesn’t continue to grow, find a way to have them all spayed and neutered through a TNR program (trap, neuter, return). They can be spayed or neutered by the age of 9 weeks (as long as they are 2 pounds). They can receive a rabies vaccine after they are 12 weeks old. They can reproduce as early as 5 months old.
If you see kittens, the best first step is to determine how old they are, from afar. Then get the help of experts on the best course of action.
An excellent resource on all issues related to cats living outside is Alley Cat Allies, a national TNR organization. Their website, www.alleycat.org.
Animal DREAMS is a Berkshire County resource to help with TNR, or advice about “Community Cats”; cats who live outside. Our phone number is 413-997-2287.