When we find a kitten, or a litter of kittens, our first impulse is to want to help them. But many kittens do not need us… or at least, not quite yet. The goal of the “Don’t Kitnap Kittens” initiative is to keep kittens with their mom as long as possible, instead of artificially creating orphan kittens. We have come to recognize the harm that early removal of kittens from their mother can cause. Where possible, try to leave the kittens where they are until they are starting to eat solid food on their own. Learn why the best place for tiny kittens is with their mother.
Kittens are one of the most fragile and vulnerable of the animal populations that Better Together Animal Alliance serve. It takes a village to help support these little lives and ensure proper population control.
A shelter, no matter how well-run, is not the best place for unweaned kittens. They are prone to upset stomachs from kitten formula and are vulnerable to infections. Kittens that are separated from their mother too early, particularly if they are on their own, often develop behavior problems that become lifelong issues.
What you should do when you find a kitten:
If kittens are healthy and doing well with mom, they should be left where they are until they can be socialized and adopted. Some kittens do need our help. If the kittens are cold, dirty, wet, or injured, or if the mom is unable to care for them, they need us, and fast. To find out if the kittens you have found need help, click here.
Kittens start to eat some soft food from about 3 weeks of age and gradually transition to harder food when their back teeth start to come in. By 6 weeks, they should be confidently eating hard food such as kibble. A kitten that can eat solid food on its own is at a good age for socialization in a foster home. If the mom is friendly and enjoys petting, though, the family can be moved indoors immediately.
If you are not able to observe if the kittens are eating solid food, use this guide to decide how old they are, based on physical appearance, activity, and interactions with each other.
If the kittens are alone when you find them, that does not mean they have been abandoned. If the kittens are healthy, that means their mother has been taking care of them. So long as they are in a safe location, we recommend you wait a minimum of 3 hours to see if the mom comes back. If you cannot watch for her, you can sprinkle flour on the ground nearby and look for paw prints later. If you do see the mom nearby, see SECTION 5: Do the kittens enjoy petting? to find out if the mom is friendly and should be brought into a foster home if her owner cannot be found.
The “Don’t Kitnap Kittens” initiative in animal sheltering recognizes that tiny kittens belong with mom, and that removing them too young has negative impacts on their health and welfare. So long as the kittens are healthy, we recommend you wait to see if the mother will return. The best place for tiny kittens is with their mother.
• The best food for unweaned kittens is their mother’s milk. Kitten formula is lifesaving, but it does not contain antibodies that newborn kittens desperately need to fight disease. It can also cause diarrhea or constipation in many kittens.
• Kittens need to suckle. Almost 40% of orphaned unweaned kittens suckle on other kittens, often on the genitals. This can lead to serious medical problems and often requires separation of kittens from their siblings, who are now their only source of comfort.
• The best company for unweaned kittens is their mother and siblings. They learn normal behaviors from their family. Kittens that are removed from their mother very young often have abnormal behaviors that can become permanent problems.
• Shelters are dangerous places for kittens. Despite everything we do to prevent illness, kittens remain the most vulnerable population in the shelter and are prone to diseases like upper respiratory viral infection, pneumonia, and diarrhea. Sometimes these diseases are fatal. The younger they are, the more vulnerable they are.
• Even foster homes can be dangerous. If caregivers foster many kittens, resistant bugs can remain in the home and cause serious illness. These resistant infections include panleukopenia, calicivirus, Giardia and coccidiosis.
How about the mom? There are multiple consequences to removing kittens from a nursing mom.
• Mother cats are famously devoted to their kittens. Removing young kittens is distressing for mother cats.
• Sudden removal of kittens can cause mastitis (teat infection). Mastitis is painful at best and can cause serious illness and even death in severe cases.
• Cats cycle again very quickly after kittens are removed. That means… more kittens! If a cat cannot be trapped and spayed, taking her kittens away just leads to more litters. Population control is the cornerstone of reducing shelter intake and euthanasia. Multiple litters in a season also drain the cat’s physical reserves and make her weaker and more susceptible to infection.
It is quite easy to assess if kittens enjoy petting – but first, some safety tips. Try to approach the kittens when the mom is not nearby, because mother cats can be very aggressive in defense of their babies, and serious injuries can result.
When you are sure the mom is not a threat, take a few minutes to allow the kittens to get used to your presence. Place some tasty kitten food near them and see if they eat it. Then, if they are still calm, hold out your hand and speak softly to them. Socialized kittens will usually be relaxed, or just slightly tense, and allow you to touch them. Unsocialized kittens will flatten their ears, puff up their fur, hiss or run away. If kittens show these behaviors, do not try to touch them. Once they are mobile, they can bite or scratch if they feel threatened.
If you do see the mom nearby, stay where you are, or back away quietly if you are anywhere near the kittens. Sit quietly at a safe distance and see if she stays where she is or approaches you.
If she approaches in a friendly way (ears pricked, tail up, meowing, rubbing her head on nearby objects), hold out your hand and let her come to you. If she is friendly and wants to be petted, think about bringing her and the kittens into your home and taking care of them until they can be adopted. Contact us about support we can provide while you are fostering them. Do not forget to first talk to your neighbors in case one of them has lost their cat.
If the mother cat stays put, with a tense body, swishes her tail, flattens her ears, hisses, or puffs up her fur, move away quietly and quickly. She is letting you know she feels threatened and will defend her kittens from you.
If you are sure the mom is not returning, these kittens will need help right away. See our kitten care information page for immediate care information for emergency formula instructions.
There are three options for finders of kittens without a mom:
1. TAKE CARE OF THEM ON YOUR OWN
2. BECOME A BTAA FOSTER
3. BRING THEM TO BTAA
Please visit these other kitten care resources: