Kitten Kare Krash Kourse
March 4, 2010 1:27 PM   Subscribe

Last night we agreed to foster a mother cat and her four kittens. They will be arriving tonight.The kittens are six days old. We only have experience with cats older than two months. Advice needed.

What is the current consensus on care and feeding, handling, and socializing, for both mother and kittens? I'm reading conflicting data on the handling part, especially, and I want to make sure these little guys are prime adoption candidates in a couple months. What should we know? What should we be on the lookout for? What are the most likely ways they will accidentally die and how can we prevent them?
posted by Optimus Chyme to Pets & Animals (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Here are funny pictures for reading this far. Mom cat. Baby cats.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:34 PM on March 4, 2010

I imagine the people who are fostering them out to you would have some kind of advice, no? At least in terms of the bare basics.

Above and beyond that, it could be that the conflicting information is because of a play-it-by-ear kind of thing (socializing them by doing a-b-c only works if the mother is easygoing, but it won't work if she's nervous because then x-y-z will happen, etc.).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:41 PM on March 4, 2010

Response by poster: I imagine the people who are fostering them out to you would have some kind of advice, no? At least in terms of the bare basics.

Without getting into the details, no; this isn't the ASPCA.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:47 PM on March 4, 2010

Best answer: Assuming that the kittens are healthy, you can socialize them fairly easily by being present and touching them as much as the mother allows it. If they hear and smell you around, they'll be more used to people. Once they're a bit older they will hang around you more, which you should encourage. If you follow the mother cat's lead you will be all right, too: she's likely to be a bit more cautious at first, and more accepting of you after a weekish. Just make sure they hear human sounds.

Kittens seem really tiny and fragile, and they are -- don't step on them! -- but unless you abuse the cats, you're likely to have perfectly sweet little kittens no matter what you do.

At this age, you shouldn't be feeding them, the mother should. If you need to buy food, buy babycat food for all of them, a mix of dry an wet is often most appealing. If they get sick, if they stop eating/drinking, or if the mother stops feeding them before they are 2 months old, call the foster program immediately about what to do. Fleas are particularly dangerous for kittens.
posted by jeather at 1:50 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, small kittens eat lots and lots.

Here is the Babycat food I was thinking of.
posted by jeather at 1:51 PM on March 4, 2010

I've had two different cats that gave birth to litters of kittens, and both times the mother pretty much took care of the feeding end of things on her own. Neither of them seemed to mind us handling the kittens (although she was familiar with us...she may be warier of you at first), and the socialization part also pretty much took care of itself; as soon as they were able, the kittens were up and about, running around, playing with us, etc. All, I am happy to report, grew up into happy young cats who were given to good homes.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:54 PM on March 4, 2010

You probably want to have a safe, semi-confined space assigned for them to spend most of their time in the first few days. Boxes seem to be a good choice, which also helps with cleanup.
posted by holgate at 1:56 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Make a pretty secluded place for mama kitty and her babies, away from any other pets you might have, and let mama cat de-stress for a few days. If you find a corner of a quiet room and place in it a cut-down box full of clean fluffy towels, etc., that will make a great nest for a mother with new babies. Food and water should be next to the box, the litter box should be a few feet away.

She's probably going to be freaked that she and her babies have been transported, and so she's likely to move them around a few times before finding a good place to keep them. Just let her do her thing; if she gets interfered with too much before she knows that you're good people, she might abandon the kittens or even kill them herself. Mother cats frequently kill kittens if the nest is disturbed, especially if she's confined and can't move the kittens to a different part of the house. So, don't cramp her style if you can avoid it, but do keep tabs on her and make sure she and the kittens are adjusting to their new home comfortably.

If mama kitty settles in nicely, she'll take care of grooming the babies and helping them to eliminate properly. The kittens will be pretty fragile for the first couple weeks and susceptible to diseases; I've always heard to not handle kittens until they're 14 days old, except in cases where the mother abandons the kittens.

Common kitten diseases include worms, upper respiratory tract infections, and eye infections. If the kittens get snotty noses, runny eyes, or diarrhea, they need to IMMEDIATELY go to the vet. If they get sick before the age of 3 weeks or so, don't be surprised if you lose at least one. Especially the young ones are incredibly fragile and dehydrate/die really easily.

The mother should be fed kitten chow, because it's richer and will help her produce adequate milk. The babies should be offered food at 3-4 weeks of age (kitten food, wet, semi-moist, or moistened dry food); mother cats usually start weaning their young at 4 weeks.

I would let the mother and babies settle into their new environment for a few days to a week before trying to handle any of them. Start off slowly and non-threateningly by just coming into the room where the nest is, sitting there reading a book for a few minutes, then leaving. Gradually work your way up to stroking the mother and the babies (it usually works best to have dried fish or some other amazing treat for the mother cat, to prove that you're Awesomest Human Ever).

Memail me if you need questions/advice; I haven't transported a mother cat that's already given birth, but I've successfully orphan-raised kittens as young as 2 weeks.
posted by kataclysm at 1:58 PM on March 4, 2010 [6 favorites]

Without getting into the details, no; this isn't the ASPCA.

Ahhhh, gotcha.

Unfortunately, the only things I can think of were gleaned from watching ANIMAL COPS now and then, but one thing I heard the vets get a little nervous about was when it looked like one kitten in particular in one litter wasn't gaining weight for some reason -- it was a sign that its littermates were keeping it from getting enough to eat. But that was a way bigger litter than it looks like you've got.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:59 PM on March 4, 2010

OMG -- I'm so jealous. I recently fostered a mom and kittens (ok, it was a year ago... sigh), and it was so much fun. Heartbreaking, too.

Basically, for the first month, you need to back off and let mommy cat handle things. Watch them to make sure everybody is eating and seems fine, but mommy cats have been doing this for thousands of years, and in most cases are just fine on their own. Obviously, make sure mommy cat is fed with a litter box close by, and be on the lookout for problems, but you need to take a backseat role as long as things are going according to plan.

Speaking of the litter box -- I'm sure you will be given appropriate litter, but just in case, NO CLUMPING LITTER. Bad things can happen if the kittens eat it or it gets in their teeny tiny noses.

Once the kittens are up and moving and exploring their spaces, it's fun time! Socialization is good, with as many people as possible. Short bursts though -- 15 minutes at a time at most when they're young. Don't be afraid to make normal household noises -- vacuum cleaners, washing machines, people yelling, doors slamming, etc. You want to make sure they're not scaredy cats -- you want them used to this stuff :) But they're soooo cute when they're just learning how to use their legs. At 4-8 weeks, they're just so cute and adorable and it is soo freaking much fun.

Don't push weaning -- mommy cat will usually happily feed the babies until they're 10-12 weeks old. That being said, if you insist on adopting them out at 8 weeks (personally I think 10-12 is a better age), start no earlier than 6 weeks with kitten kibble soaked in warm water for at least 15 minutes. And don't be surprised if mommy cat eats it all instead. Nursing cats eat TONS.

My experience was actually quite tragic -- of the 7 kittens born, I lost 4. There was nothing I could have done anything about the first two, as it in the first week, but the others diet at 6 weeks, and it was heartbreaking. Do not be afraid to call the vet -- for anything. They love babies too :). And with the really little ones, they go downhill fast. Mine died of the calici virus, as it turns out mommy cat was a carrier. But know that even if you do everything in your power, sometimes bad stuff happens, and IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. This is mother nature, and the reason why litter sizes are what they are. Even with my survivors, one of mine was really sick -- she was deaf as a kitten, almost lost an eye to infection, and had to have supplemental feedings because she was *so* tiny. She's now a year old and the most awesome cat ever (she regained her her hearing after a course of antibiotics, and the eye finally healed)

I could ramble on, and I know I'm missing a lot of what I learned last year... feel free to memail me if you have any questions. I don't claim to be an expert, but I've definitely been through it -- it's a very rewarding experience, and I'm going to do it again as soon as I can (I'm short on room now, having adopted mommy cat and two of the kittens...)
posted by cgg at 2:00 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

My first kitten-fostering experience was with a mom and her 4 6-day-old kittens, and they remain my favorites several years later!

Do you have a small crate, or would you be able to acquire one? I got a medium dog crate and covered it with an old sheet, and it was a lifesaver for me. It gave the cat family a cozy area as home base and prevented the mother cat from deciding that under my bed would make a better nest, and I never had to play "where did you take your fucking kittens this time you lunatic oh my god WHY ARE THEY IN A PILE BEHIND THE TOILET?!" after the first day. Another bonus to using a crate is that you can attach a water dish to the metal bars, which prevents it from being upended multiple times a day by flailing kittens.

I'd recommend Feline Pine or something similar for litter, since you can't use the clumping stuff.

Much like everyone has already noted, she'll likely take care of the bulk of what you'd normally have to do for slightly older kittens. She'll feed them, clean them, and keep them corralled, so your job is mostly to make sure that her nutritional needs are being met. She's likely to be voracious and exhausted, so try to keep her on a steady eating schedule.

Of course, she may also be an incompetent/unwilling mother like the mama cat I fostered, who had a preference for kicking her children and biting their heads and treating them like prey items on occasion. In those instances the kittens got taken out of the crate for a bit of human interaction time, and mama cat was left to collect herself for ten minutes or so. Eventually I made a little shelf in the crate that the kittens couldn't access, and the mama cat would hoist herself up onto it when she needed a few minutes' break from nursing.

As others upthread have noted, sometimes tiny tiny kittens just die and there's nothing you could have done about it. Particularly when they're this young, there are fewer ways for you to tell if something's wrong. Once they're older, you'll notice if they're not eating or if they're more lethargic than usual. I recommend having a vet you trust and a network of other cat foster-types available to take panicked phone calls from during the first few weeks.

Feel free to memail me!
posted by ausdemfenster at 2:30 PM on March 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

All of the above is grand advice. I am adding to be on the lookout for fleas (though, thankfully, not really the season for them, at least where I am) because babies can die from flea infection pretty quickly. If you see that the babies are over-run, talk to your vet about flea control. With my last foster batch, we were limited to minimal bathing and then comb-comb-combing the buggers out, which was not a lot of fun, but they were too little for insecticide. Good luck and enjoy them! Kittens have been one of my life's greatest joys.
posted by thebrokedown at 3:41 PM on March 4, 2010

Response by poster: This cat handoff was literally the least professional thing I have ever seen in my adult life. It literally could not have been worse if they had just scooped them in a fucking Happy Meal box and said "here you go, asshole."

Jesus Christ. So where can I find a big cat cage tomorrow in Brooklyn?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 4:53 PM on March 4, 2010

Do you have a scale at home? I'd try to weigh them at least once a day (at the same time) to ensure they are gaining weight. When they are so itty bitty you could probably use a dry food scale, but something that can read things under 300grams is ideal. If they seem to be taking to feedings,it's probably not a big deal though.

I'd have some supplemental milk on hand, 'Just Born' or 'KMR' (kitten milk replacement) is the best and a few small syringes 1-3ccs just in case. You never know what state of health or stress mom-cat is in, so the more prepared you are to take on feedings, the better.

Good luck! It's really fun and enriching to see them grow from this teeny beany stage.
posted by darlingmagpie at 4:59 PM on March 4, 2010

Aww! Welcome to the fun of looking after baby kittens! My advice would be to find a quiet spot for the mom wher the kittens can't wander too far, then put her and the kittens there and leave them for a bit. Make sure there is plenty of food, water and a litter tray nearby (but not too close; litter can be dangerous for young kittens). Give them mom cat time to adjust and get comfortable, and then talk and pet her (if she allows) to let her know you are okay.

At that age, the kittens will be completely dependent on the mother, so make sure she is well fed. You can give her kitten food; she will eat a lot to keep the babies fed.

You should make sure that the kittens are all eating. Weigh them daily, and any that are not growing should get supplemental feeding, even if they don't want it. That's a whole other post: memail me if you need help. If they are putting on weight, let mom cat do her thing and feed them. Kittens are usually weaned at six to eight weeks, so you've got plenty of suckling time ahead. But having some KMR to hand is a good idea.

Socializing kittens is a case of getting them used to human contact. Each kitten should get plenty of touching time (but be careful; queen cats are incredibly protective of their kittens). Hold them, pet them, tickle their little bellies and talk to them. As they grow up, they will then be used to human contact and will like people. As they grow, play with them and they will grow into healthy, well adjusted cats who like people.

Also; prepare yourself for heartbreak. Kittens are fragile, and some may not make it. That happens sometimes no matter how healthy they are, so be prepared for that. It's heard, but it happens. But if you keep them warm and well fed, they'll get the best chance they can.
posted by baggers at 5:47 PM on March 4, 2010

Response by poster: Update: they are in a warm room with the fuckin wack-ass Happy Meal box they came in turned on its side, three large pillows, blankets, etc, Wellness food dry and wet as well as water for queen. Picking up a large cage tomorrow.

The hardest part is that queen is extremely fearful and stressed out and I worry that she's going to flip out and eat someone. :(
posted by Optimus Chyme at 5:56 PM on March 4, 2010

Let her chill out for a bit. Imagine what she's just been through. Give her some space, then tomorrow go in and talk to her, or just sit there and read a book. DO NOT try and pick the kittens up if she seems uncomfortable. She may strike at you if she feels threatened. Give her some space and she'll relax.
posted by baggers at 6:04 PM on March 4, 2010

Are you sure those are kittens and not zhuzhu pets :)

Just make sure there are no small spaces that they or mom can get stuck in. If you live in an old house with wonky baseboards or anything, plug up holes. Other than that TAKE LOTS OF PICTURES :)
posted by radioamy at 6:08 PM on March 4, 2010

I realise I was unclear. Kittens are not *socially* fragile: if you bring them up in a household full of people who are kind to them and like them, they will be fine with people. They do, unfortunately, die, especially if the mother stops feeding them. (The mothers often stop feeding sick kittens, then start again once they're healthy.)

Even if you did not get these cats from a shelter proper, the people at a shelter will probably be able to help you out if you have questions.

If you need, for any reason, to wash the kittens it is of supreme importance to warm them up when you are done. A warm -- not hot, so they cannot burn themselves -- water bottle is also nice. (Not electric, for many reasons.)
posted by jeather at 6:36 PM on March 4, 2010

So where can I find a big cat cage tomorrow in Brooklyn?

I can loan you Zach's cat carrier if you like; it may be a tight fit, but it's in Brooklyn. (I won't be home till late, though.) Or, maybe you can ask at the vet on Myrtle and Washington about borrowing one.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:39 PM on March 4, 2010

OC- there's a great pet store on Vanderbilt- am on iPhone so can't get you a link but check online, it's right down the street from you. Last time I was there they had all sorts of sizes of cage, and the guy who runs it is a serious Cat Expert and might be able to give you good advice too.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 10:32 PM on March 4, 2010

Sorry to hear that the handoff was so weird/unprofessional -- I was kind of surprised that someone would transport a queen after birthing but before weaning, but there you go :-/

Definitely talk to Serious Cat Expert, stock up on some KMR and a kitten feeding bottle just in case she abandons her litter due to stress, and let the mother chill. Just poke your head in there every hour or so to make sure that nobody's getting eaten or shoved under a baseboard, don't mess with the kittens if you can avoid it, and she'll calm down in a day or two. Once she realizes that you don't have a sinister interest in her or the kittens, she'll probably calm down a bit. Then you can start trying to interact with her -- when interacting with fearful and stressed cats, it helps if you stay low to the ground and relatively immobile, avoid eye contact with her, let her come over and investigate on her own terms, and bribe her with treats. Start off really slow and easy with everything and chances are she'll be fine.
posted by kataclysm at 10:49 AM on March 5, 2010

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