Kitten season is a thing. In Texas, it’s typically spring through fall and it can be overwhelming for animal shelters. That’s why, in most cases, Best Friends Animal Society recommends that if you really want to help, keep kittens out of shelters as much as possible.
“Data actually shows that two cats for every one dog in Texas shelters are killed. So in 2020, nearly 347,000 dogs and cats were killed in America’s animal shelters, of which nearly 70% of those were cats and kittens,” Best Friends Texas communications strategist Kerry McKeel said.
So what do you instead?
Step 1: Just observe
“So the best thing to do for healthy kittens is to leave them with their mother, who is often nearby and planning to return. She really is their best source of nourishment and can give them better care than even the most attentive human,” McKeel said.
Best Friends recommends giving the mother as long as 12 hours to return to the kitten nest. If you have a wildlife camera, you can check in that way. If not, try sprinkling a ring of flour around the kitten nest and returning later to look for paw prints. If the kittens are clean, that’s also a sign that the mother has been taking care of them.
Step 2: Deciding to intervene
“If they appear to be in harm’s way, for example, if they’re in a road median or something like that, where they could easily stumble out into the street, then we do advise that you scoop the litter up and move them to a safer spot nearby and the mom will find them,” McKeel said.
McKeel says, unlike baby birds, kittens won’t be rejected by their mother if they have some human scent on them.
A more long-term intervention might be necessary if the mother cat does not return after 12 hours or if the kittens look injured or cold to the touch. In that case, McKeel says it’s worth calling a local rescue organization.
“And they can help you determine if the kittens are at risk and if you should intervene,” McKeel said.
Step 3: Keep rescued kittens out of a shelter
Even if a rescue organization recommends intervention, McKeel says kittens will do better in a home environment than at a shelter – especially if they are very young.
“Young kittens really are at high risk of dying in shelters since newborns need to be bottle fed every 2 to 4 hours. And they are also extremely fragile and susceptible to illness because quite often the kittens that are coming into our shelters are not even old enough yet to receive vaccines,” McKeel said.
She says it becomes safer for kittens to enter the shelter between 8 and 10 weeks old because that is when they are able to be vaccinated. Best Friends says kittens can be spayed or neutered at two to three months old. Many organizations will humanely trap and then spay or neuter and vaccinate cats before releasing them back into the environment where they were found.
How to foster rescued kittens
McKeel says bottle-fed newborns will require a bit of work on your part but a local shelter should be able to provide you with the information and resources you need to care for them.
“Typically the medical care for the kitten while they’re in your home is covered by the organization that you’re fostering with, and supplies can be provided as well,” McKeel said.
Once kittens are about 4 weeks old, they can eat food. At that point, she says, they are pretty self-sufficient.
“Really, kittens do not take up a lot of space,” McKeel said. “I always have a rotating door of foster kittens coming in my home this time of year. And, you know, if you have an extra bathroom, that’s all they really need. In fact, I just have a kennel set up in my office and they play in the kennel and I put their food and their litter box and things [inside].”
You also don’t have to find lost kittens in order to provide a foster home. You can sign up with Best Friends to connect with a network of a local shelters that are looking for temporary homes – or just reach out to a shelter near you.
“If you can open your home for a few weeks for the kitten to start to grow and thrive so they can be adopted, that can be their lifesaving link,” McKeel said. “It is easy and it’s fun.”