(ABC4) – Do you know what to do if you find a kitten that appears to be orphaned or abandoned?

Although the idea of taking a kitten to a shelter seems like a great idea — it’s actually not, says the Best Friends Animal Society of Utah. A shelter should be the last resort and not a first step.

Imagine yourself on a walk, and you hear kitten cries coming from a distance. You spot the baby feline under a bush, scoop it up and rush it to a shelter — bad idea.

Removing the kitten from where you found them can do more harm than good by putting them in even greater danger. Best Friends Animal Society says most orphaned kittens aren’t orphaned at all, so the best thing to do for a healthy kitten is to leave them with their mother.

The mother is often nearby, planning to return and care for her babies. Best Friends says the mother is the kitten’s best source of nourishment and can give them better care than even the most attentive human foster.

“Kitten season” is generally spring through fall, when un-spayed female cats have the majority of their litters, and shelters across the country are inundated with kittens, some of whom need round-the-clock care.

Most shelters don’t have the resources, space, staff, or volunteers to provide newborn kittens with the critical care they need.

According to Best Friends, young kittens are at a high risk of dying or being killed in shelters since newborns need to be bottle-fed every two to four hours. Kittens are also extremely fragile and susceptible to illness.

Data from Best Friends shows that two cats are killed for every one dog.

In 2020, nearly 347,000 dogs and cats were killed in America’s animal shelters, of which nearly 70% were cats and kittens.  

To give newborn kittens the best chance of survival, ask yourself these questions: 

  1. How long ago did you first notice the litter? If it has only been a short time, leave the kittens alone and try to figure out if their mom is still around. Observe them from a distance every couple of hours. It’s okay to wait up to 10 to 12 hours to see if mom returns for them. If the kittens seem content and are not fussing, there’s a good chance their mom is coming back.
  2. Haven’t seen the mom cat recently? Sprinkle a ring of flour around the kittens so you can go away but check periodically for paw prints from a returning mother cat. If you have a wildlife camera, that’s also an excellent way to monitor the nest from a safe distance.
  3. Are the kittens in any danger? If the kittens are in danger due to their location, move them to a safer spot nearby so the mom can easily find them when she returns.
  4. Do any of the kittens look injured or sick, or are they crying or cold to the touch? If the kittens are dirty, meowing or appear sick, underweight or dehydrated, this could be a sign that the mom hasn’t been around in some time. Contact a local rescue organization or a trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) or community cat program. They can help you determine if the kittens are at risk and if you should intervene.
  5. Is their nest clean or messy? Mom cats are very fastidious about keeping their babies clean, so chances are, if they are in a tidy location, she’s been around recently.
  6. How old do you think the kittens may be? This flyer can help you determine the kittens’ age and identify key milestones (are their eyes open, are they walking, etc.). The younger the kittens, the more likely they will need human intervention if the mom doesn’t show up soon.
  7. Did you spot the mom? If the mom is nearby, leave the kittens alone and let her be the one to care for them. She’s their best chance of survival.
  8. Are the kittens old enough to be spayed or neutered? When the kittens have been eating on their own for about four weeks or are big enough for surgery (typically when they’re between two and three months old), humanely trap the whole family and have them spayed or neutered. A local TNVR program may be able to help you with the trapping process. TNVR is the most humane, safe and effective method of preventing cats and kittens from entering the shelter system while reducing the overall stray cat population.
  9. Did the mom not return after 12 hours or so? If mom doesn’t return, and the kittens otherwise appear healthy, it’s time to step in and be their hero. You can care for the kittens yourself, right from the comfort of your home. While caring for newborn kittens is incredibly rewarding, and by keeping them out of the shelter, you are giving them a better chance to survive and thrive. Here are resources to help you take care of very young kittens if their mom doesn’t return and you are able to foster them. Many shelters even offer resources and supply kits to support those who can foster found kittens in their homes and can help with spaying/neutering when the kittens are old enough.