“Kitten season” in Contra Costa County is from March through October because of our warmer climate. CC4C typically receives the most calls about kittens from April through September– when people start to find them during “high season.” It is not unusual to discover a nest of unattended kittens or a single kitten seemingly abandoned by the mother. But what do you do? You want to help, but before rescuing them, consider these recommendations.
Please note, this page is about baby kittens that are not eating solid food and need bottle-feeding (i.e. under 5 weeks old). Estimate their age based on this list of attributes:
- Under one week: (3-8 oz) Eyes are shut, ears are folded down, and kittens are unable to walk. They can purr and make tiny noises. The umbilical cord may still be visible.
- One-two weeks: (8-11 oz) Eyes start to open (they are blue) and focus. Ears begin to open and movement is improved to crawling, snuggling, and kneading.
- Three weeks: (7.5-14.5 oz) Eyes fully open and ears are open and standing up. The kitten will start to respond to noises and movement. The first wobbly steps are taken and baby teeth start to come in.
- Four-five weeks: (8-16.75 oz) Running, playing, digging, and pouncing occur often. Kittens will start to wean and will be able to lap up formula, eat soft food, and use the litter box by themselves. Eyes are starting to change color and should fully change from blue to their adult color around 6-8 weeks.
- Eight weeks: (2 lbs) Kittens look like little versions of full-grown cats. Eyes have fully changed color.
First, Wait & Watch
Wait and watch to verify that mama has actually abandoned them and isn’t just off searching for food or in the process of moving them to a different location. Do not approach them, do not touch them, do not disturb them. Your actions could cause the wary mama to abandon them!
Instead, stand far away from the kittens — 35′ or more. If you stand too close, mama will not approach her kittens. You may need to go away completely before mama will return to her kittens. It might be several hours before the mother cat returns — until she no longer senses the presence of humans near her litter.
If you need to leave before mama returns, evaluate whether the kittens are in immediate danger: Is it raining? Are dogs, raccoons or people nearby that might harm the kittens? Are the kittens located in an area with heavy foot or car traffic?
Mama may take several hours to return and healthy kittens can survive this period of time without food as long as they are warm. Mama has an instinct about how long she can safely leave them on their own. However, neonatal kittens are much more at risk of hypothermia (cold) than they are of starvation. During spring and summer months, waiting a longer time to see if mama returns is much safer than during winter months– however we often have mild winters in Contra Costa County and babies are not usually born during these months although it does happen.
Please remember that mama is the best caretaker for her kittens! Wait and watch as long as you can. The best food for the kittens is their mother’s milk. Remove the kittens only if they are in immediate, grave danger. ** Warning: Never use a kitten / kittens as bait for the mama, unless they are put in a crate or carrier together, otherwise, the mama cat will pick up the kitten and take it away to safety.
If the mother cat returns…
If mama returns and the area is relatively safe, leave the kittens alone with mama until they are about 6 weeks old or weaned. You can offer a shelter and regular food to mama to keep her in this location so that you rescue them all when they are older. Keep the food and shelter at a distance from each other. Mama will find the food but will not accept your shelter if the food is nearby, because she will not want to attract other cats to food located near her nest.
Six weeks is the optimal age to take the kittens from mama for socialization and to prepare them for adoption when they are over 8 weeks old and 2 lbs in weight. Female cats can become pregnant with a new litter even while they are still nursing, so trap mama at the same time you take the kittens. Otherwise, she may split and have more babies right away that you’ll have to rescue– you need to break this cycle by trapping and fixing mama right away. Do not wait because you feel overwhelmed with the kittens or don’t have space. The extra work now will greatly pay off for you in the long run!
If the mother cat does not return…
If you determine that mama is not returning or she was hit by a car, then you should rescue the kittens. This is crucial to the kittens’ survival. Be prepared to see this project through to weaning and adoption if you decide to intervene! CC4C can help you by loaning traps and coaching you on how to use them, sponsoring you
If you take the kittens in, it is unlikely that you will find an organization with available volunteers to take on bottle-feeding or fostering. CC4C does not have a shelter facility or any staff, so we rely on the rescuers to foster the kittens. CC4C may be able to help with medical and finding them homes if you or someone you know can foster. Occasionally, a few people do volunteer who have experience with bottle-feeding, but moving kittens to them would depend on their availability (i.e. if they are not already bottle-feeding a litter of kittens or have vacations planned). If we do find someone to bottle-feed, you may still be responsible for taking the kittens back to foster when they no longer require bottle-feeding so that we do not tie-up an experienced bottle-feeder that may be needed for other orphaned kittens.
Please note that the Shelter does not have the resources to care for baby kittens, nor will most veterinarian offices, because they do not have the staff to feed and stimulate them for elimination around-the-clock.
When Rescuing the Kittens…
- Prepare for bottle-feeding and proper care before you take the kittens off the street.
- If you feel you must take the kittens in, wrap the carrier or container you will transport them in in a towel for warmth, but make sure you leave air holes uncovered so the kittens won’t suffocate.
- Never use kittens as bait to get the mama, unless they are in a crate. Put them first in a crate or carrier, cover it, then wait to trap the mama cat when she comes to the kittens.
- Check to see if the kittens are warm. This is more important than feeding. Never feed a cold kitten! If the kittens are cold, you will need to warm them up slowly. You can tell a kitten is cold if the pads of his feet and/or ears feel cool or cold. Put your finger in the kitten’s mouth. If it feels cold, then the kitten’s temperature is too low. This is life-threatening and must be dealt with immediately. Warm up the kitten slowly over 1–2 hours by wrapping him in a polar fleece towel, holding him close to your body, and continually rubbing him with your warm hands.
- Bottle-feeding: For more information, please see our Bottle-Babies Page and our Fostering Program.