It’s not as easy to take in and care for a lost kitten (or kittens) that you’ve found as it is to care for puppies. If you find a puppy roaming around, it’s safe to assume that there is a distraught family looking for her. That is not always the case with a lost kitten. They could, of course, have been separated from human families. However, they could also belong to a stray mother or feral mother, which makes catching and caring for them complicated.
The first thing you need to do when you spot a kitten (or kittens) alone outdoors is nothing. Well, not exactly nothing, but you need to leave the immediate vicinity and wait. There are a lot of reasons why kittens are on their own:
- Their mom may be off hunting food and will return shortly
- Mom may be moving the family to safer shelter and is still in the process of transporting kits
- Their mom may be hiding because she doesn’t like having you around
- Kitty may have been abandoned
- Kitty may have accidentally hitched a ride in a car’s engine – it happens – and is now very far from home
So wait a couple of hours and see if mom appears.
If she does turn up then you need to determine if she is feral or stray. Stray cats come from homes and may be easier to approach, touch and trap than feral cats. If they have been strays for a long time, however, or escaped from a less than ideal home, then they may be suspicious and distrusting. Feral cats are much more difficult to catch because they have never lived in homes. They don’t know people and are naturally skittish. They are also likely to put up a fight if you do trap them.
You can tell if mom is a stray or feral by her willingness to approach and accept food from you. However, bear in mind that this could still take some time while she decides whether you’re to be trusted.
If mom is feral, you should call the local animal authorities or an animal shelter and report the cat. They will do a TNR – trap-neuter-return – so mom goes back to where she feels safe and comfortable and won’t have any more kittens.
If mom’s feral and the kittens are still very young (less than 8 weeks old), it’s best to leave the family where it is. You can bring some blankets and food and water, and do what you can to make the shelter cosy. Just don’t interfere with the kittens or put mom under any pressure to interact with you.
You should also report the cat and kittens to law enforcement. In some states it is illegal to abandon or dump animals and if the owners are found they may be fined (about $1000) or sentenced to a year in prison.
If you can catch mom and kittens, take them to a veterinarian for a full check up. They may need vaccinations, deworming, defleaing and treatment for mange, etc. Mom should be scanned for a microchip, to try find her family.
Mom doesn’t appear
If mom doesn’t show up within a few hours, you can bring the lost kitten or kittens home with you. It’s a good idea to swing by the spot where you found them once or twice a day for a few days to see if mom’s there, looking for her babies.
However, if the kittens are older (more than 4 months old), they’ve already adapted to living free and are feral. You need to call animal control or a shelter so they can do their TNR thing.
Remember, that caring for kittens, especially very young kittens, requires a lot of time and dedication. If you have any doubt that you can cope, take them to a shelter.
Kittens also need a lot of equipment, including food and water bowls, milk bottles and special kitten milk formula. Don’t forget litter trays shallow enough for them to climb in and out, non-clumping litter, toys and oodles of your time.
Up for the lost kitten challenge
If you decide that you’re up for the challenge, you should still contact your local animal shelter to let them know you have a lost kitten or litter of kittens (and perhaps mom too). Let them know that you will foster the kittens until they are rehomed. The shelter will provide support and may help by providing kitten milk formula or solid food. It will also help you find homes for the kittens if you need it. Furthermore, the shelter may sterilize the kittens at a lower cost when they are old enough.
Take the kittens to a veterinarian for a proper physical examination. Very young kittens are protected by passive immunity – immunities passed from the mother. However, if their mom abandoned them or something happened to her, chances are their immune systems are compromised and they’ll need medical intervention. The veterinarian can provide advice regarding physical kitten care and might offer discounts for vaccinations, worming and other essential treatment.
Behavioural veterinarians can advise you about the importance of social interaction and human contact to prepare kittens for life with humans. Kittens who don’t get a lot of positive interaction with people may develop feral-like characteristics and could always dislike touch and handling.
Provide a safe, comfortable place for the kittens and their mom (if she’s there). It should be in a quiet place in your home, out of the way of usual traffic. You’ll have to keep the kittens warm; heating pads, bean bag warmers and hot water bottles wrapped in a towel or blanket are great. Kittens can’t regulate their own body temperature, so ensure they have room to get away from heat sources if necessary.
Very young kittens (under 4 weeks old) can’t eliminate on their own. If mom is around, she will lick them to stimulate elimination. If not, you will have to use a warm, damp cotton ball to stimulate elimination; gently wipe around the anal area and clean the kittens with a moist cloth afterwards.
If you have to bottle feed kittens, you will have to burp them as you would burp a human infant. Be very gentle, as kittens are very delicate.
Advertise Advertise Advertise
It’s a fair assumption that kittens found under a bush are abandoned. Nevertheless, you should still do your civic duty and advertise them. Standard procedure for advertising missing pets applies. Take pictures, make flyers and put them up in public places, including community centers, library and supermarket bulletin boards, trees, etc. You can also advertise on lost and found pet websites.
A word of caution: Be aware that people try to falsely claim kittens, either because they think they’re cute or because they have less favorable intentions. Use your nous to separate the opportunists from the real deal.
If no one claims the kittens by the time they’re 8 – 10 weeks old, you can start looking for homes. You’re welcome to keep a kitten or mom, or mom and a kitten, but it’s not advisable to keep the entire litter. Networking amongst your friends is great, because you know and trust them to take good care of the kitties.
Animal shelters and rescue organizations can also help you find homes, and you can revisit all those public bulletin boards and change the flyer from ‘kittens found’ to ‘kittens looking for good homes’. Make sure you don’t just let the kittens go but that you visit prospective homes, essentially doing a home check, which is what shelters would do to make sure the home is suitable and safe.
Don’t be afraid to say no if you don’t like the look of the place.
You can ask new parents to keep in touch, even if it’s just by sending a photo or two via their smartphones, but don’t hound them. Many people will agree to keep you updated on the kitty’s progress but don’t end up doing it after all. It doesn’t mean they’re bad parents; life often just gets in the way. And then some people will be more than happy to inundate you with photos. Take what you can get and remind yourself that you found the best possible homes for your kittens and resign yourself to the fact that they are happy and comfortable without you.
If you keep a kitten (or mom), you need to accept full responsibility of their health and wellbeing for the rest of their lives. Giving them love is easy, but keeping them mentally stimulated and healthy can be expensive. Kitten insurance is the easiest way to manage costs, especially as your kitten heads towards old age and illness becomes more common. Insurance covers the cost of hospital stays, tests and complementary treatment, to help your kitty can live a long and happy life.