What to Do if You Find a Stray Kitten

When winter turns to spring, you start to see stray kittens. Here's what to do. neekoh.fi/Flickr

This time of year doesn’t just mean warm weather and longer days — it also means kittens. And lots of them. With the number of feral cats in the U.S. estimated to be in the tens of millions, the Humane Society estimates that thousands of kittens are born each day.

If you come across one of these adorable bundles of fur, your first instinct might be to scoop it up and take it home, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals cautions that this isn’t always in the best interest of the kitten.

Before you rescue any kittens, wait to see if their mother returns. She could be hunting nearby, and taking the kittens away puts them in a critical situation, one that requires time-consuming care to keep them alive.

A feral cat nursing kittens
A feral cat nurses her kittens. Flower_Garden/Shutterstock

If she returns and seems friendly, Alley Cat Allies, a national advocacy organization for cats, recommends taking her and the kittens indoors until the kittens are old enough to be weaned.

If she's feral, provide food and water, but leave the animals alone. Contact your local Humane Society or feral cat rescue group to learn how you can safely trap the entire family to have them spayed and neutered. Alley Cat Allies offers tips for trapping a mother and her kittens in a variety of scenarios.

However, if the mother cat doesn’t return, borrow a live-animal trap from a shelter or rescue group to capture the kittens, or simply pick them up and place them in a cat carrier.

If you’re considering caring for the kittens yourself, keep in mind that you’re committing to providing around-the-clock care for several weeks. If the animals are neonatal, they’ll require even more specialized care. If you don’t have experience caring for kittens, it's best to contact a vet, animal shelter or animal care group.

If you must care for the tiny critters yourself, the first step is to determine their age. Observing physical signs, such as how open their eyes are, will help, but it’s best to call a veterinarian. A vet can give a better idea of the kittens’ age and help you develop a plan to feed and care for the animals.

Caring for kittens

Hand-feeding a cute orphaned baby white kitten with milk replacer in a syringe
An orphaned kitten gets a leg up from a rescuer. Apple Kullathida/Shutterstock
  • Place the kittens in a small box lined with blankets or towels and keep them in a room separate from other pets. Kittens can easily become chilled, so place a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel or a heating pad on low temperature in the box. Make sure there’s enough room in the box for the kittens to move away from it if they get too warm.
  • Change the bedding as needed. If a kitten needs cleaning, use a moist cloth to wipe them clean and dry them with a towel. Never place a kitten in water.
  • Kittens should be fed only kitten formula, which can be purchased at a pet supply store. Never feed them anything else without consulting a veterinarian first.
  • Only bottle feed kittens when they’re on their stomachs. Test the liquid on your wrist to ensure that it’s warm but not hot. Do not feed chilled kittens.
  • After feeding, burp the kittens by placing them on your shoulder or on their stomachs and patting them gently.
  • Kittens under 4 weeks of age must be stimulated to go to the bathroom after each feeding. Mother cats lick the kittens, but you can simulate this by using a warm, moist cotton balls and gently rubbing the kittens’ anal area.
  • At three to four weeks of age, supply the animals with a shallow litter pan and place a used cotton ball in it to begin litter training.
  • If a kitten has trouble breathing or eating, or if it has fleas, a discharge or any other unusual signs, take the animal to see a veterinarian.