Aargh, Kittens!
October 24, 2010 3:39 AM   Subscribe

I just popped out to my shed, and found a hissing emaciated cat. I chased it away (I like the birds in my yard), and as it shot off over the fence and up the road, I found kittens.

I'm very much not a cat person, I've never owned a cat, and I have no idea what to do.

The kittens are barely walking, and trying to hide in my garden tools.

Really no idea what to do. Will the mother come back or not? Is this likely to be someone's cat, or is it feral? Should I go and get some food and put out some water to tide them over until I call the RSPCA tomorrow? What sort of food?

Please help!
posted by Ahab to Pets & Animals (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: They start to walk at 3 weeks and that is really too early to seperate kittens from the mom and expect them to live. Walking smoothly is pretty much the baseline way to estimate that they are old enough to be without their mother.

Unless the mother is really sick, she will come back. I'd put out food and water and let her raise them. If she is feral, they usually suggest taking the kittens at 4 weeks, which sounds close to where you are.

Pretty good web guide to kitten rescue
posted by Lame_username at 3:51 AM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks Lame_username. I've put out water, and I'm off to buy food.
posted by Ahab at 4:00 AM on October 24, 2010

Best answer: http://www.alleycat.org/NetCommunity/Page.aspx?pid=191
Alley Cat Allies can help you deal with the situation. If the mother cat is caring for the kittens, give them time to wean, If you are calling someone try to find a no-kill shelter. The mother can be trapped and spayed once the kittens are weaned. Check to see if Alley Cat Allies or similar organization has a group in your area. The guide to kitten rescue and that group in LA sounds good too. It is good to see someone caring for cats in need. The mother cat will come back and if you feed her her condition will improve.
posted by mermayd at 4:12 AM on October 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Be careful about laws in your neighborhood, you may become considered the owner of a cat that you feed. It happened to my in-laws. Call around to animal rescues in your area and see about whether you can get help with the kittens (a no-kill shelter may be able to have someone come out to take them and get them adopted) and getting the mother cat spayed and re-released.
posted by graymouser at 4:15 AM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's very likely that mom will eat the cat food, but it's just as likely that she'll move the kittens.

So don't freak out if you go back to the shed with a bag of cat food and the kittens are gone. She doesn't have any cat reason to trust you. On the other hand she may be so tired she doesn't have energy to find another spot for the babes.

So, put the food out and be prepared to deal with helping to trap the mother and at least get her spayed and maybe the kittens adopted (or fixed). Feral cats have a pretty tough life, which you'll find in all the cat rescue literature.
posted by bilabial at 4:21 AM on October 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Fantastic, thank you everyone. There's food and water out there now. The kittens are still there and they seem to have found a defensible position in a roll of plastic trellis. The mother has been back. And I've found a local trap and neuter focused rescue group online. I'll call them in the morning if the kittens are still there. :)
posted by Ahab at 4:39 AM on October 24, 2010 [16 favorites]

Pics please :)
posted by amro at 6:56 AM on October 24, 2010 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Sure thing, amro! I'll give it a go in the morning when I put some more food out. I don't want to disturb them any more than I already have tonight (it's 10pm my time). :)
posted by Ahab at 7:03 AM on October 24, 2010

Best answer: FYI, the local shelter in my area says that any kittens that are brought to them which weigh less than 2 lbs (0.90718474 kilograms) will be immediately put to sleep. So you might let them get a bit more weight on them before you do anything with them. Also, I've always heard that the proper age for weaning/separation from the mother is 6-8 weeks, not 4 weeks. And that's been my experience when bottle feeding - they're not much interested in regular cat food until then.

Also, if you continue feeding them, since the mother's so emaciated you might consider putting out a bowl of kitten replacement formula, (also called kitten replacement milk) - not for the kittens, but for the mother to drink. It has a high calorie content, etc.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:13 AM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Thanks for feeding them! That'll give them (and mom) a much better start in life. In terms of identifying their age, Alley Cat Allies (which mermayd has posted above) has a helpful guide here. They also have a great guide to trapping here.

Mama cat may be feral or might just be a stray. I've been surprised before when I thought I was dealing with a feral, and as soon as the cat was brought inside and let out of the trap, she wanted to sit on my lap!

The kittens will benefit from being indoors as soon as possible (as long as they're with mom) because the sooner they're socialized to humans, the easier it'll be. Before 8 weeks or so is the best. If you trap mom first and you have two traps (or a cat carrier), you can put mom outside in a trap or carrier next to the kitten trap to help motivate the kittens to go in the trap.
posted by jocelmeow at 7:46 AM on October 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks MexicanYenta, I've found two local non-euthanasia groups now. Both recommend trying to find an owner through doorknocks, letterbox drops and local vets before asking them to come and trap/rescue the cat. So they may be here a little while, and knowing what to feed them up on is going to come in handy.

(It's "Whiskas Meat with Duck and Liver Casserole" for tonight.)

Thanks also jocelmeow, I'm guessing between three and four weeks. Just from the two fairly brief looks I had, one of the kittens is reasonably steady on its back legs when tottering around, the other still walks with bent back legs. That seems to fit the time line on alleycat as well as what Lame_username said above.
posted by Ahab at 8:08 AM on October 24, 2010

Best answer: Just wanted to say thanks for helping them even though you're not a cat person. :)
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:37 AM on October 24, 2010 [32 favorites]

Best answer: Just wanted to say thanks for helping them even though you're not a cat person.


Unless you can find someone to care for the whole family, your best bet is to leave them be, and maybe provide food that the mother can "hunt for". IE, you are not teaching them to be dependent. If the mom cat is used to living on her own, she will soon start teaching the kittens how to hunt. It's kind of neat to watch. That's when it is time to start finding them places to live as individuals.
posted by gjc at 8:48 AM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Thank you for helping the cat. I had this happen to me. Please continue to give them food and water. When the kittens are about 6-weeks old you can trap them and bring them and mother to the humane society. I know about the "teaching them to be dependent" idea, but unless you want to add more misery to the world, feed the cat and her kittens.

Where I live there is a feral cat program. You "adopt" a colony, the humane society neuters all the cats for free, you feed the cats, but the cats are not your pets. We even have an organization that provides food if the colony caretaker cannot afford it (some people take care of hundreds of feral cats). They pretty much are still feral, but they are managed. Of course, some of the cats will become friendly, but this is much better than leaving intact cats out in the wild to continue to breed or bringing them to an overcrowded animal shelter. If you don't have a feral cat program, you may be able to have them neutered (perhaps for free or low cost) and release them (trap and release).

Or you could just adopt them all and keep them outside. Cats are good vermin hunters and having a cat colony on your property lessen the likelihood that another pregnant cat will move in.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 12:53 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You have brightened my day by helping kitties! Kindness is rare and it is so good to see it in action. One of my sons rescued an orphan kitten who was so young she had to be bottle fed, and she grew to be a healthy and loving pet. Keep feeding them and watching them, you will be blessed by seeing them grow.
posted by mermayd at 1:10 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: MexicanYenta: It's 6-8 weeks for "normal" kittens, but 4 weeks for feral ones. The idea is that if you wait until 6-8 weeks with feral kittens, they will never be completely tame. And if you want to try to get people to adopt them, they are better off being friendly with people than having the extra couple of weeks of mother's milk.
posted by lollusc at 3:20 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for all the wonderful advice, suggestions and support. They're still here, but have moved behind the shed. The mother is hanging around but shot off again when I went out this morning.

The food from last night was eaten, and they've been fed and watered again this morning ("Whiskas salmon and chicken in jelly").

I've called one of the rescue groups. Their firm position is that I must check for a local owner before they'll step in and help. I haven't called the other group yet, but I suspect they'll feel the same. So they will be here for a week or so while I try to find the original owner. My guess is that the kittens will be at around four weeks of age by then.

I do appreciate the notion that I should be feeding them wild food if they're feral, but I don't think I could do it. Also, there's a little pile of feathers around where they were last night, so I think the mother might have that in hand. I've got nothing rare or important nesting on my block this year, and I can live with a few less turtle doves. But I also figure that feeding them will take a bit of pressure off her to hunt, and if it's only for a week it won't disrupt the kittens' learning too much.

Here are some pics. Sorry about the quality - poor light, old camera, unskilled photographer. :)

Next step for me is to call the local vets, print up some flyers and go and knock on some doors.

(And I'm in Perth, Western Australia, if anyone is nearby and looking for kittens!)

Thanks again!
posted by Ahab at 7:19 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Cute kitties!

If the mother ends up being very feral, I would definitely look into a TNR (trap, neuter, return) program as wandering_not_lost mentioned above. Some strays adapt pretty easily to humans, but some are just too feral to enjoy being a pet, so TNR is a happy medium that lets them be their kitteh selves and be semi-attended to, but they can't make any more babies.
posted by radioamy at 8:17 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sometimes in the course of my job, I run across animal cruelty, so this warms my heart. One of the first things I did this morning was check this post to see how the kittens were doing! Thanks for helping them.
posted by analog at 3:46 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just another little update. I've doorknocked and letterboxed and had a chat to a whole lot of people, and will do some more later this evening or tomorrow. There's apparently a cat lady a couple of streets over, so the mother might have come from there (maybe the mother was scared of the other cats?), but I haven't managed to talk to her directly yet.

The mother has moved the kittens up the garden a little bit. She's less scared of me than she was last night and this morning (though she still runs if I get closer than a meter or so). I've put up some more photos of the kittens in the flickr set linked to above.

If they stick around, and I can't find the owner, my plan is now quite firmly trap neuter rehoming/release for the mother and adoption for the kittens.

Thanks again!
posted by Ahab at 4:02 AM on October 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

Aww, nice work and very cute kitties.
posted by amro at 9:47 AM on October 25, 2010

Response by poster: Just thought I'd drop a kinda long update in here. Almost all of it good news, but some not so good.

First, the unequivocally good news. Both of the kittens are inside and have homes for now. The mother hasn't yet been trapped or neutered, but I saw her rather boldly walking past my house a couple of hours ago, and she's looking strong and healthy. She looks a million percent better than she did.

During the week after I posted this question, I letterboxed and doorknocked my way through most of my neighborhood. That was kind of fun in itself, and involved meeting a whole lot more of my neighbors than I'd ever thought I might. The results were kind of mixed. I found out that the kittens were born a street over (but not at the cat lady's house), about three weeks before they came here. But I didn't find an owner. Also on the not good, kinda sad, front I found out that there were originally four kittens and that two of them seem to have disappeared before or during the move here.

A week after posting the question, the mother took the gray and black kitten and left the tortoiseshell one here. I left her outside that night, and some of the next day before deciding that the mother wasn't coming back, that the kitten wasn't going to make it through another night, and that the time was right to bring her in. Some panicky vet visiting ensued, but I'd gotten to know my two local vets while trying to find an owner for the mum (they both run lost and found registers), and they were happy to help. I got free feeding bottles and sample packs of kitten formula and kitten kibble from each of them. :)

The kitten took to a bottle almost immediately. She got washed and wormed (and she's due for another pill today). She spent the first couple of days living on an old jumper in a box, then moved out and has been increasingly happy running around my house demolishing things, and demanding to sleep on my bed at night. She's on a mix of wet and dry food and yesterday was the first day she didn't demand any milk/formula at all. She now weighs about 800g (she was about 500g when she came in) and I'm told that's great. As I write this, she's asleep on my lap (pic, and also a couple after she woke up for the photos).

I'm turning out to be a bit allergic to her, so I'll be finding her a new home in a week or three. But for now I'm happy taking antihistamines, and she's healthy, happy and safe. Her temporary name is Feist, because there are times when she will fight you.

Towards the end of the week after the mother moved two doors north, she moved again, one house further. They have a dog at the first place she stopped, so I guess she didn't feel safe. But she ended up in a good place. The owners of the house three doors up the road are cat people and were happy to have her and the other kitten behind their shed (she likes sheds, this cat). They've been leaving food out for her and I've continued to do the same here. I've only seen her eat it once, but it is disappearing shortly after going out early each evening, and that's the time she was eating while here, so I do think it's her taking it.

One of the benefits of the letterbox drop was that the neighbors got in touch with me after finding her, and we got to share ideas and notes about how best to deal with things. On the strength of advice from this thread, I suggested bringing the other kitten in immediately but after a chat with their vet they decided to leave the gray and black kitten out with the mother until six weeks. She got brought in yesterday. She's a bit less happy with that than mine has been, but they seem confident that she'll settle down.

The goal for the mother is still trap and neuter. My neighbors will now be taking the lead on that, possibly calling in the organization I found to help (this one). I'm not absolutely certain what the plan is then, but what we've discussed are the twin notions that either she's a stray who can be rehomed, or that she may be a well established largely harmless neighborhood feral cat. If the latter is the case, we're thinking she should do okay if released back into this area as long as she's getting a bit of feeding from everyone who knows about her. In that scenario, we're also hoping neutering leads to her settling down a bit and sticking with one or two homes.

But the eventual outcome depends a lot on being able to trap her, just how wild she is, whether she checks out as not belonging to anyone (ie she doesn't have a chip) and whether she's healthy. It's now my neighbors who'll be trying to trap her, doing the legwork, and paying for treatment, so all of that stuff is up to them and their vet.

If she ends up getting released around here (or she can't be caught), she will continue to be fed. I'm happy to be part of that. I'm also told it's the best option for keeping my birds. ;)

Once again, thanks to everyone for much need advice and help, and the many kind and supportive memails.
posted by Ahab at 12:46 AM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the update and pics! It's so nice to hear about someone showing these creatures such kindness!
posted by analog at 5:49 PM on November 16, 2010

Aww, what a cute kitten. Nice work.
posted by amro at 5:54 PM on November 16, 2010

Response by poster: My apologies for not following up immediately.

Letting go of the kitten I was caring for turned out to be just a wee bit more heartbreaking than I expected.

I found her a home a couple of weeks before Christmas. Nice young bloke with kids. Their cat had recently died.

The neighbors up the road found a home for the other kitten around the same time.

The mother stopped taking food from here just after Christmas. I'm hoping she found somewhere she wanted to stay.
posted by Ahab at 9:30 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

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