April showers bring May flowers – and the first litters of 2011 kittens too. Often in places you’d never expect to find them. Since pet cats are often fixed at an early age, most new kittens are born to the outdoor stray and feral cats that live as wildlife. These cats colonize around a food supply – in urban areas, the contents of (and the rodents attracted to) dumpsters at residential and commercial developments – in suburban areas, rodents and the food put out for them by residents – and in rural areas, rodents attracted to feed put out for farm animals. Simply said, outdoor cats are everywhere.
Like other wildlife, these outdoor cats are crepuscular – most active at dusk and dawn. Fearing people, they keep a low daytime profile. They may live in your yard without you even knowing it – at least until their kittens are born. Kittens are immobile and mew a lot– and mom has to stay close by them – increasing the odds of your seeing them. When you do, it’s important to carefully evaluate the situation before acting.
If you find kittens without their mother, don’t disturb them but keep a close eye on them. It’s possible they’ve been permanently separated -- but more likely – the mother is simply taking a “mommy break” or moving the litter one at a time. As long as it’s reasonably warm out and the kittens are in a protected area, they are okay alone – but only for a few hours – after that, if the mother doesn’t return, the kittens may need you to intercede for their survival.
But most of the time you’ll find kittens with their mother. If the kittens are under 4 weeks old and in a relatively safe spot, leave them where they are – the mother can care for them better than you can. Observe them from a distance, but don’t disturb them – if the mother senses you may approach, she’ll quickly hide them.
To help Mom with nutrition you can put out kitten food (dry and/or wet) for her to eat, but don’t leave it out all the time. Meal feed her at the same time(s) and place each day – removing any uneaten food after 15-20 minutes. Be consistent to train her when to come for food. When her kittens are mobile and can eat cat food (4-5 weeks of age) she’ll start bringing them around too. You can observe the Mom and her kittens eating, but do so quietly and at a safe distance so not to scare them. If she senses any danger she may stop bringing them out for food.
Once the kittens are coming regularly to eat, you can safely live trap them to separate from their mother by bringing them indoors. You can move them in your home or that of a friend who enjoys kittens –all they need is a place to receive love, attention and security while they learn to enjoy both human and kitten companionship. It takes only a few weeks and while the kittens are learning to be house cats, you can typically network with friends, relatives and co-workers to find them permanent homes. No special education or skills are needed – just a big heart and a small room to foster them in.
With the kittens safely indoors, you can now live trap the mother to get her spayed. Female cats can get pregnant while they’re nursing so it’s important to act quickly. Once Mom is fixed return her to the outdoors where you found her. If you want her to stay in your yard continue providing her with daily food and she probably will stay. She’ll not only be a nice neighbor but will also help keep rodents at bay. If you’d prefer she move on, wean her off the food you’ve been providing and she may relocate. But even if doesn't, you’ll have the comfort of knowing her kittens are safe and she won’t be dropping any more litters for you to worry about.
For more complete information on caring for outdoor cats, see our handout: Managing A Feral Cat Colony.