Few things tug more at our heart strings than a mother cat trying to care for her kittens in the “wild.” Whether or not you should intervene, though, “depends on the relationship between the person and the stray queen,” says Dr. Leni Kaplan, Lecturer in the Community Practice Service at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “Do not handle a cat that you are not familiar with. As rabies vaccination status for stray cats is unknown, the person must first and foremost protect themselves from scratches or bites from these cats.”
Feral cats are the least trusting of humans, but exercise caution even if you think you know the cat and have interacted with her before. “Lactating queens are often very protective of their kittens and will not hesitate to protect them at all costs,” says Dr. Kaplan. “Consequently, people should not attempt to touch kittens or a feral stray queen in order to prevent injury as well as stress on the queen and kittens.”
Helping from Afar
Often the best way to help a stray queen is to provide food, water, and/or shelter that she can access easily on her own terms. Dr. Kaplan advises, “Cats prefer to feel safe and in control of their environment, so a queen may prefer to spend time in someone’s garage with access to the outside versus being inside a home.” Other options for shelter include an open but covered crate, a dog house, or a barn door left open. Water should be replenished on a regular basis to keep it fresh and clean.
Leaving food out does come with a risk of attracting other cats and wildlife. Considerable debate surrounds the long-term implications of feeding feral cat colonies and other wild animals.
Knowing When Something’s Wrong
Most queens do just fine on their own and do not require human intervention for basic care. Things to look for that suggest something is wrong include:
-queen appears skinny
-discharge from eyes and/or nose
-not grooming and caring for the kittens.
If you’re concerned about the health of the mother and/or kittens, Dr. Kaplan recommends contacting your local rescue or Humane Society immediately. They will be able to assess the situation and will have the resources to safely trap mother and kittens if needed.
Trapping a lactating queen can be risky if the location of the kittens is unknown. By removing the mother cat from the area, the kittens could be left behind without protection or a caretaker.
It is normal for unweaned feral kittens to be left alone for short periods of time. Queens hunt or forage for food and sometimes relocate their litters to new locations (this takes several trips as she carries each kitten). Monitor the litter from a distance for several hours or even a day or two to see if the queen returns.
If you’re certain the kittens no longer have their mother caring for them, they will need help. Kittens under three weeks old need to be bottle fed every two or three hours with kitten milk replacement and stimulated to urinate and defecate (they cannot eliminate waste on their own). Older kittens that are eating solid food can be started on a quality kitten food. Be smart and take the litter to your veterinarian for advice on the age of the kittens and any health problems or concerns present at that time. A local shelter or rescue group also will have experience in this area.
Catching Stray Kittens
“If someone is planning to rescue and socialize the kittens, they should attempt to bring them in between the ages of 5 and 8 weeks old,” advises Dr. Kaplan. “Once the kittens are 10 weeks old or older, it is difficult to tame them to be a pet.”
Some feral or semi-feral cats may still adjust to an indoor life, but the process is easier for young kittens. However, you need to be certain that the kittens are old enough to be separated from the mother. If this is done too early, it can be detrimental to their health and development. It is a balancing act, and the ideal time of separation can vary depending on the situation in which the litter is living and the condition of both kittens and queen.
Kittens (and adult cats) that are caught as strays should be kept away from other cats until they have been seen by a veterinarian, even if you intend to keep one or more. Your veterinarian will do a full exam and can test for contagious diseases such as feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus. Upper respiratory infections are common in cats living in stressful situations and are highly contagious. The most common symptoms of an upper respiratory infection are discharge from the eyes and/or nose, possibly accompanied by oral ulcers or a cough, depending on the virus and how sick the kitten is.
An ill kitten should be kept away from other cats until he or she is healthy to prevent the spread of disease. If a kitten tests positive for feline leukemia or feline immunodeficiency virus, do not despair. Cats with these diseases can lead normal, healthy lives for long periods of time if given proper care, but they do pose a threat to other unvaccinated cats.
Cats and the Environment
Stray cats hunt and kill large numbers of wild birds and small mammals (1.3 to 4 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals per year in the United States, according to a 2013 study published by Nature Communications), promote the spread of parasites and diseases, and can be a nuisance. Living in the wild is not always sunshine and roses either, as these cats do not have the benefits of veterinary care or guaranteed sources of food and shelter.
Trap-neuter-return programs have been suggested as a solution to the stray cat problem, but the jury is still out on whether they are effective. These programs leave cats living in potentially poor conditions and do not address all of the health hazards presented by cats not receiving regular veterinary care.
The ideal solution would be for stray cats to be placed in sanctuaries where they can receive care and be prevented from harming wildlife. Due to the number and elusiveness of feral cats, this is a difficult goal, but cat lovers and scientists continue to try to find a way to help as many animals as possible.
Neuter or Not?
Cats are not native to North America, so strays are ultimately our responsibility because we brought them here. If you are trying to decide whether to have your cat spayed or castrated, consider your and your cat’s lifestyles and the potential impacts of either choice.
A free-roaming intact cat is likely to reproduce, increasing the total cat population and increasing the stray cat population if the kittens grow up feral. This makes spaying and neutering the best choice for cats who have access to the outdoors.
Intact cats can exhibit unpleasant behaviors, such as urine spraying, scratching to mark territory, calling to attract mates, and roaming. The intensity of the behavior varies from cat to cat. Consider whether you have a plan for managing these behaviors and for preventing your intact cat from roaming. Intact cats are also at increased risk of certain diseases, such as mammary adenocarcinoma in intact female cats.
If your cat produces a litter, those kittens are your responsibility, especially if you intentionally bred the litter or allowed it to happen. Homes often can be found for kittens, but not always. If you cannot afford to provide quality care, including food, water, litter, vaccinations, and other medical treatments as needed for multiple cats, spay/neuter is the best choice to keep your household cat population at a level you can manage.