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What to do if you find an abandoned litter of kittens

Your child or your dog comes running and leads you to a surprise in your yard or a nearby park: a litter of tiny kittens. Your first instinct may be to scoop them up and take them home or to the shelter.

Would you be surprised to learn that experts say in most cases it’s best to leave them where they are? Often, the kittens aren’t abandoned but stashed by their mother while she goes out to hunt for food. Here’s how to determine their status and what to do if they really are on their own.

▪ Watch from a distance to see if the mother cat returns. Be patient. She could be gone for several hours. And she may be unwilling to approach if she sees you near the kittens. If it’s necessary and you can do so without disturbing them, provide shelter.

▪ If the mother doesn’t return to care for the kittens, the next step is to determine how old they are. Kittens 8 weeks or older can be trapped, spayed or neutered and returned to the area where you found them.

▪ Younger kittens can be identified by their appearance and size. At less than a week, their eyes are shut and their ears folded down. At 1 to 2 weeks, the eyes and ears start to open, and the kittens can crawl. At 3 weeks, eyes and ears are fully open and kittens are starting to walk. At 4 weeks and up, kittens are running and playing and can start eating solid food. Kittens up to 7 weeks of age are the best candidates for socialization and adoption. After that, it’s difficult to acclimate them to human touch and presence.

▪ Before you take kittens into your home for fostering, check them for fleas. An infestation of the nasty bloodsuckers can quickly kill a kitten. Ask your veterinarian or the kitten expert at your local shelter for the best way to safely rid the kittens of fleas.

▪ Keep kittens warm. They can’t regulate their own body temperature, so don’t let them get too hot or too cold. If the kittens are cold when you get them, warm them gradually by holding them in your hands and letting your body temperature do the work. You can also put them in a box lined with towels fresh from the dryer. For a constant source of appropriate warmth, hang a 60-watt light bulb above the box. Avoid heating pads, which can short out or become too hot.

▪ Wait to feed kittens until they are warm. Cold kittens won’t be able to digest food. Plan on feeding them every four to six hours, round the clock.

▪ Make sure kittens stay hydrated by adding extra water to kitten formula (never give a kitten cow’s milk, which can cause diarrhea). Gently wipe the kittens’ bottoms with a warm, damp tissue or cotton ball 15 to 30 minutes after each meal to stimulate urine flow and bowel movements.

▪ Weigh young kittens daily to make sure they are putting on weight.

▪ Watch for eye discharge and sneezing, which can indicate infection. Sick kittens need immediate veterinary care to have a good chance of survival. Call your local shelter or veterinarian for further advice and help. They may be able to provide you with the equipment and support you need to foster the kittens until they can be adopted. Other good resources include Alley Cat Allies (alleycat.org) and Maddie’s Fund (maddiesfund.org). Fostering young kittens is a lot of work, but it can be highly rewarding.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com. Dr. Becker can also be found at facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.

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