In several recent articles, I’ve discussed the process for trapping adult strays and feral cats. But one issue that I have not discussed is trapping feral kittens and the mother. So today, I’ll discuss some of the issues associated with trapping a feral cat mother and her kittens, along with information on the potential complications and concerns.
Without proper care, approximately 50 percent of feral kittens will not reach the age of 1 year (which, sadly, for an untended feral, is middle age. A feral without a caretaker will live, on average, for 2 years, according to many statistics, including those cited by Alley Cat Allies and organizations such as the ASPCA.)
Feral kittens may die from a wide range of issues, including exposure to cold, predation and illness. Illness can be especially problematic in a feral cat colony that’s affected by FIV — the feline version of HIV/AIDS. Many healthy kittens are born to FIV+ mothers, but like a human baby, the kittens can get FIV from the mother cat’s breast milk. When a cat is initially infected with FIV, they often get very, very sick for a period of 1 to 2 weeks, before the virus goes into a latency phase. Many kittens don’t survive because the illness causes them to stop eating and without any sort of reserves, the kitten’s fragile body succumbs. So rescuing kittens sooner rather than later will maximize chances of survival, it will increase their chances of living FIV-free and the younger the cat, the easier he/she is to tame! (Also, please note that FIV-free kittens may come up with a false positive on an FIV test until 6 months of age, because they retain the mother’s FIV antibodies!)
In my feral colony (yes, I have my own strays and a feral colony. Doesn’t everyone?), I always trap the mother and kittens simultaneously. Typically, I’ll trap mom using a humane trap and then, I’ll catch the babies who are usually fairly easy to catch due to their small size and their curiosity. Kittens haven’t developed “street smarts” yet, so they tend to be easy to lure into a trap or kennel.
With the last batch, I trapped mom and then, I placed the trap (with mom still in there!) inside a large dog kennel. Within a few minutes, the kittens wandered into the kennel. I simply shut the door once everyone was inside. I had attached a rope to the kennel door, so I could close it from a distance. Once everyone was calm, I opened the trap and released the mom from the trap (and into the kennel). I waited a few minutes for everyone to calm, and then, I removed the trap and added a litter box, food and water.
Another easy way to trap feral cat kittens involves throwing a large sheet or blanket over one of the babies. Ideally, the kitten should end up near the center of the sheet or blanket. This creates momentary confusion and disorientation — just enough time for you to scoop up the kitten (wrapped in the blanket) and place him inside a kennel. Leave the blanket inside the kennel as bedding or remove it once the kitten is calm.
If I’m unable to catch the mother and all of the kittens within an hour or two, I will release everyone and try again in a day or two (assuming all the kittens appear healthy and strong. If anyone appears sick or unwell, I will keep that kitten.) Alternatively, if you’ve captured the mother and all but two of the kittens, you must release the mother cat. This is vital, as kittens should never be left to their own devices. As long as there are at least two kittens, they should not have any problems surviving for a day or two, as long as mama cat is on-hand to care for them.
I will never attempt to do any trapping until I’m positive that I know how many kittens are in the litter. If you trap mom and the rest of the litter, the remaining lone kitten will likely die from hunger, dehydration, predation and/or exposure. So if you are trapping the mother and the kittens, you must capture all kittens simultaneously. If you plan to leave the mother free, and you only plan to capture the kittens, you can trap the babies in pairs. Just ensure there is never a lone kitten — there must always be at least two, especially in cold weather, so they can cuddle and keep each other warm when mama cat leaves to go to the bathroom or hunt.
It’s also possible to follow the mother cat back to her lair so you can check to ensure that you have all of the kittens. I’ve found that it’s essential to follow from a significant distance because if the mother views you as a threat, she won’t go to her “home” (this is an instinctual behavior — mama cat doesn’t want to lead a predator to her vulnerable kittens!) In the case of young kittens — 4 weeks old and younger — just one or two may follow mom when she goes out to hunt or eat at a caretaker’s feeding station, whereas other kittens may stay at “home.” Once the kittens reach the age of five or six weeks, they all tend to follow mom when she leaves “home” (this is when they start learning life skills such as hunting.) So the younger the kittens, the more likely it is that there are additional kittens back at mama cat’s home base.
Some feral colony caretakers will not capture the mother cat — just the kittens. Personally, I always prefer to catch the mother cat in addition to the kittens, as the distress she experiences without her kittens appears to be worse than the distress that she experiences while living in captivity. Plus, if the kittens are not yet weaned, trapping the mother will nurse, which will save you from hand-feeding kitten formula (and the mother will also pass along her antibodies and immunities via her milk, resulting in kittens with stronger immune systems.)
Also, in my experience, feral cat mothers tend to be easier to tame, in my experience. But, it can take years to fully tame a feral cat, so it’s a personal decision. Plus, trapping the mother with the kittens may result in complications, so that’s an important consideration. If the mother stops eating and/or drinking due to stress, this can endanger her health (especially if she’s losing fluids due to nursing — she will get dangerously dehydrated within a matter of hours.) Some mothers get extremely aggressive and protective of her kittens, which will interfere with their care. In these cases, it’s best to release the mother (and keep the kittens.) Fortunately, in my experience, I’ve had a pretty good relationship with the mother cats before the kittens arrived, so the mothers have trusted me to handle and care for her kittens. Whenever I observe a pregnant female, I will make a concerted effort to gain her trust (the topic of an entirely different article!) before the kittens arrive.
Another consideration is the mother’s FIV status. Within the first 24 hours of catching a feral cat and her kittens, I will take them to the veterinary clinic for an examination and FIV testing. If the mother cat is FIV-positive, it’s generally best to release the mother and keep the kittens, even if one or more of the babies tests positive for FIV. Kittens retain the mother’s FIV antibodies for up to 6 months, resulting in a false-positive test result. In my own feral colony, I’ve had a 100% false-positive rate among all 11 kittens who have tested positive (two of whom are pictured!) All 11 kittens (from 5 different litters) tested negative (multiple times) when they were re-tested at 6 months of age and older. In any event, separating an FIV-positive mother from the kittens will significantly decrease their chances of acquiring FIV.
Generally speaking, the sooner you catch the kittens, the better. Feral kittens can and will die. Many feral colony caretakers feel immense guilt when they delay capture and then find the remains of a deceased kitten. The sooner a kitten is tamed, the easier this process will be. In my experience, once the kittens are weaned — between 4 and 6 weeks of age — taming becomes exponentially more difficult. But, patience and love is the key. I’ve tamed feral adults, along with a 9-month-old kitten and more than two dozen kittens, so it’s always possible! I’ll discuss handling and taming process for feral kittens (and mama cat!) in one of next week’s articles.
In the interim, check out a few related articles, with information on trapping a feral cat or stray for a TNR program, along with info on how to transfer a feral cat from a trap to a kennel if you’re keeping the animal for more than 12 hours. I’ve also written an article with information on how to transfer a feral cat from a kennel to a pet carrier in preparation for transport to a veterinary clinic.
Photo Source: Mia Carter Photo
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