The following guidelines provided by Feral Cat FOCUS and Alley Cat Allies.
We understand your reservations about interfering with nursing mothers and their kittens, but the best thing you can do for the whole family in every situation is to Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate and Return them as soon as it is safe to do so.
Where you place the kittens after trapping—either in adoptive homes or back with their colony—depends on many factors, including your own time and resources. No two situations are exactly alike, so be prepared to use your judgment.
In order to do what’s best for kittens, you MUST know how old they are. Refer to Kitten-Progression Photos for help in determining kittens’ age.
The best place for kittens younger than eight weeks old is with their mother, if at all possible. The ideal window for socializing kittens is about between five weeks and nine weeks. Older kittens can be trapped, neutered, and returned.
HERE ARE SOME COMMON SCENARIOS YOU MIGHT ENCOUNTER AND HOW TO DEAL WITH THEM
If you find kittens that are alone, determine if the mother has abandoned them or if she is just off looking for food. The only way to find this out is to wait. Often times, she will return within a few hours. Observe from a distance or a hidden spot to be sure she is not returning before moving the kittens. Use common sense and be patient.
- If the mother cat doesn’t come back after several hours, and you think she has abandoned the kittens or they are in danger, you can choose to raise them yourself. Do not take this decision lightly. You will need to determine if the kittens require neonatal kitten care (one- to four-weeks-old), if the kittens are young enough to be socialized, fostered or adopted (five to nine weeks old), or if they are at the age to be trapped, neutered, and returned. It is very hard to socialize kittens that are ten weeks of age or older. They are better off staying with their colony than removing them in a failed socializing attempt.
- If the mother cat does return for her kittens, you have multiple options:
- If the mother is feral and the kittens are too young to be separated from her, the best thing for the family is to leave them where they are for now as long as the location is safe. (Use your judgment and common sense—if you think the location is safe enough for the mother to survive, leave the kittens with her; if not, see next bullet point.) Remember, the mother is best able to care for her kittens. Provide food, water, and shelter. Monitor the family daily and make the environment as safe for them as you can. If you have decided you don’t have the time or the resources to foster, socialize, and adopt out the kittens, then you can trap, neuter, and return the whole family when the kittens are 8-weeks-old or two pounds. If you can foster, socialize, and adopt out the kittens, the ideal window is when the kitten are between five weeks and nine weeks old. The best thing for the mother cat is to be trapped, spayed, and returned to her outdoor home.
- If the kittens are too young to be separated, and you believe it is safer for the whole family to come indoors—you can trap the mom, trap or scoop up the kittens depending on their age, and bring the whole family inside to a quiet, small room like a bathroom, where they can live until the kittens are weaned and it is safe to get them all spayed or neutered. It is very important to get the kittens first. If the mom cat thinks her kittens are in danger she will start moving them and it will be VERY hard (if not impossible) to find them.
- If the mother is feral and the kittens are old enough to be separated from her, you have a decision to make: commit to foster, socialize, and adopt out the kittens, or trap, neuter, and return the kittens when they are 8 weeks or two pounds.
- If you trap a cat and discover at the clinic that she is a nursing mother, get her spayed immediately and return her to the area where you trapped her as soon as she is clear-eyed that evening, with approval from the veterinarian. (You may also choose to go looking for the kittens.)
Nursing mother cats continue to produce milk after being spayed, and can continue to nurse their kittens. It may seem counterintuitive to separate her from her kittens, but it’s difficult to trap her again— this may be your only real chance to spay her and prevent further litters.Many times, you only learn she is a nursing mother after she is at the clinic. Make sure the clinic knows your plans for returning nursing mothers as soon as possible as they may have an anesthesia protocol that will enable her to wake up from surgery more quickly.
Try to find the kittens before releasing the mom or follow the mother after you return her so that you can trap the kittens and neuter them when they are old enough.
If you discover at the clinic that you have brought in a pregnant cat, have her spayed by an experienced veterinarian who has performed this surgery before. It may be necessary to allow an extra day for recovery and extended observation. For many people, this is a difficult aspect of Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return, but as with nursing mothers or any cat in a trap, it may be difficult to trap her again—this is your opportunity to protect her from the health risks and ongoing stresses of mating and pregnancy.
HOW TO USE KITTENS TO TRAP A MOTHER CAT, AND VICE VERSA
These instructions are for moms with kittens that are old enough to walk. Younger kittens can be scooped up and used to attract mom, but not vice versa.
On your first attempt at trapping a cat family, always set out at least one baited trap for every cat and kitten in the family (see kitten safety tips below). Several kittens will often run into a trap together. DO NOT try and separate them on your own.
If you don’t trap mom in the first round, she will soon hear, see, and smell her kittens in the trap and want to get close to them, providing the perfect incentive for her to enter a trap herself.
- Once you have a kitten trapped, immediately set up a second trap of similar size end-to-end against the one holding the kitten, so that mom will have to walk into the open trap to reach her baby. Do not open the trap holding the kitten. The short ends of the traps should be touching and the two traps together should form a long rectangle.
- To make sure mom goes inside the trap and not around the back or sides, cover the trap holding the kitten on three sides so that the kitten is only visible from the entrance of the open trap. Cover the area where the traps meet, so mom can’t see the partition as easily. To her, it will appear as though the kitten is inside a tunnel.
If you trap the mother cat first, or if you are trapping other cats and you trap her by accident, keep her in the trap and set a second trap. Follow the same instructions outlined above with the traps used end-to-end, with one important addition: once you have trapped one kitten, you will have to set up a new trap for the next kitten. Kittens can also be used to trap their siblings in a similar fashion.
TRAPPING TIPS: KITTEN SAFETY
We suggest that you prop open the trap door with a water bottle or other similarly sized object (like a stick) attached to a string, so you can spring the trap manually when all kittens are safely clear of the door. Once the kitten is fully inside the trap and clear of the door, pull the string hard and fast to remove the water bottle.
The Safeguard traps that Feral Cat FOCUS recommends and uses have a way to set a light trigger (for kittens or smaller cats) and a heavy trigger (for adult cats). Be sure to ask our trap loan volunteer to show you each way to set the trigger.
HOW TO CARE FOR A FERAL MOM AND HER KITTENS INDOORS
Please visit FERAL CAT SET-UP FOR LONG-TERM FOSTERS.