Fostering Orphan Kittens

When my phone rings before 7am, it usually means one thing. . . an animal emergency.  On Monday, the manager of the General Store called about some kittens.  A customer noticed four small kittens behind the store and was afraid for their safety in the busy parking lot.  Thank goodness, the staff of the General Store rounded them up before any injuries occurred. 

The kittens belong to a feral cat that lives in the commercial complex on the corner of Pinnacle Peak and Pima Roads.  Over the years, this queen has had several litters of kittens.  In fact, I think my cat Kalani is one of hers.  Last summer, one of her kittens got stuck in a roof drain.  I found a home for him with another veterinarian.  On Friday, the mother cat was finally caught and spayed.  Unfortunately, she was not returned to the area.  These poor kittens had been without food for three days.  I drove to the store with a heavy heart, fearing the worst.

In the back room of the store, the manager showed me the little orphans.  Two black kittens cuddled together in a corner.  They were terrified.  A brown tabby tried to climb out when he saw us.  On the other side of the box, a large buff colored kitten lay motionless.  When the manager offered the kittens milk, he refused it.  She was most concerned about him.   

Dehydration and hypoglycemia are common problems in babies of any species.  To counteract them, I fed each kitten three cc’s of water mixed with honey.  As you can see from the picture, these are young kittens, probably around four weeks old.  I estimated their age from their teeth.  Deciduous incisors and canine teeth erupt between three and four weeks of age followed by the pre-molars at five to six weeks.  The incisors and canine teeth were partially erupted in all of these kittens.

About fifteen minutes later, it was time for a real meal.  One by one, I wrapped each kitten in a towel and fed it kitten milk replacer out of a small syringe.  Although they did not like the feeling of the hard plastic, they suckled with vigor.  Milk spilled from the corners of their mouths and ran down their chins.  When they finished, I washed their faces in warm water.  Lastly, I stimulated them to urinate by rubbing their perineal areas with a wet cotton ball.  With all of their needs fulfilled, I tucked them in for a long, well deserved nap.


This story  highlights a problem faced by trap-neuter-release groups across the world.  When should you spay a feral cat to prevent a situation like this?  Ideally, I would try to catch feral queens outside of kitten season or before they have a litter.  Although a queen may have kittens at anytime, the majority give birth between March and August in the US.  It is best to catch them during the breeding season of December, January and February.  What if you catch a cat and only then realize she is nursing kittens?  First, try to find the kittens, hand raise them and place them as pets.  If you can’t find them within a reasonable period of time, consider re-releasing the queen back into the area as soon as possible.  Provide food and water to help her recuperate from surgery.  This will also keep her milk production up during this stressful time.   

So far the kittens are doing well.  I don’t know how they survived three days without their mom in the extreme summer heat of Arizona.  Please remember these little ones in your thoughts and prayers.  I will keep you posted on their progress.


Published by kristennelsondvm

Dr. Kristen Nelson grew up on a farm in Watertown, Minn., where she developed a deep love for animals of all kinds. She received a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine. Kris then completed a small-animal internship at the prestigious Animal Medical Center in New York City. In addition to writing and speaking, she cares for small and exotic animals in Scottsdale, Az. Dr. Nelson is widely quoted in the media. Her credits include Ladies’ Home Journal, USA TODAY, the Los Angeles Times and numerous radio and television interviews. Dr. Nelson has written two books, Coated With Fur: A Vet’s Life and Coated With Fur: A Blind Cat’s Love. Kris and her husband Steve share their home with rescued cats, birds and a dog.