Heavy Petting

Wild Kittens

Tips for well-meaning animal lovers to respond to kitten season

It’s about that time again. As the weather starts to warm up, more and more kittens will be born all over Santa Fe County. While this sounds like a super cute phenomenon, it actually creates a significant challenge for animal shelters and the communities they support.

Every year, we are inundated with litters of kittens that people have assumed been abandoned by their momma. Most often, this isn’t actually the case. Usually momma kitty is somewhere nearby hunting for food to keep her strength up while she nurses. It’s a completely natural process for most animal species—but for some reason, when people see kittens left alone, the knee jerk reaction is to believe they have been abandoned.

So inevitably, well-meaning animal lovers will scoop them up and take them to the nearby shelter for care and support.

Here’s the problem with that though: Most shelters (ours included) are not set up to provide care 24 hours a day. Unweaned kittens under 8 weeks old need bottle feeding every few hours around the clock. Since we can’t do that in the shelter setting, we have to rely on fosters to take over care until they are old enough to be spayed/neutered, vaccinated and placed for adoption.

In a perfect world, we’d always have more than enough fosters to care for them—but alas, this isn’t a perfect world. Under normal circumstances, it’s actually rather difficult to recruit and retain willing fosters for kittens. If we can’t find willing fosters to support during this busy season, then the only other alternative is humane euthanasia. I think we can all agree that is not a reasonable outcome.

We need to make sure that our shelters can support and care for the animals who actually need to be helped.

It’s true that there are more rare cases where kittens have been left without a mother because she was either captured by a predator, or run over by a car. But this is usually more the exception than the rule. In those cases, it’s absolutely the right decision to intervene and let your local shelter help.

Either way, we’re here for you. If you find a litter of kittens you fear may have been abandoned, here are some do’s and don’ts to consider:

DO monitor the situation. Watch the kittens, but don’t move them or touch them. The mother cat is probably nearby, but if she hasn’t returned by the end of day (or 8-12 hours) they may need assistance. If they are there overnight and still stable in the morning, it is likely momma is coming and going without you seeing her. She’s sneaky, that one!

DON’T bring the kittens indoors. Unless they’re in danger, it’s best to leave kittens outside so the mother cat can care for them. Remember, if stealthy momma is doing a good job, you may never see her! If you must do something, you can place the kittens in a crate. Don’t change the location of the kittens, so the mother cat can be sure to find them.

DO be careful when handling kittens. You may inadvertently give them disease, and that’s no bueno. Older kittens may not be friendly and may scratch or bite you if startled or scared.

DON’T foster-parent all on your own. If the kittens are truly orphaned and you decide to care for them, SFAS can help. We got you, boo! We can provide resources to make your experience successful and will spay/neuter the kittens before you return them to their outdoor home or put them up for adoption.

DO keep the kittens separated from your pets to prevent fights and minimize the transmission of disease and parasites. Be sure your pet cats are up to date on their vaccines.

DON’T let the cycle continue. To help break the cat-overpopulation cycle, spay or neuter. SFAS has a trap-neuter-return (aka TNR) program. Once kittens are old enough to be spayed/neutered and vaccinated, you want to also trap momma and bring her in so we can spay and vaccinate her as well. If you need to borrow a trap, give us a call.

If you’d like to help us out, or if you need help with a litter of kittens you’ve found, please email us at newhope@sfhumanesociety.org. We’ll give you all the tools you need to be a successful foster parent to kittens in need.

Jack Hagerman is the CEO of Santa Fe Animal Shelter and Humane Society.

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