How and When to Care for and Socialize Feral Kittens

When you come across outdoor kittens, you may feel the need to immediately pick them up and bring them home with you, but that might not be the best thing for the kittens–or for you. Here are some guidelines on how to decide if kittens in a colony should be removed and socialized for adoption, and how to care for them should you choose to remove them and raise or socialize them yourself. You can find more in-depth information by ordering kitten care products from our online marketplace. These guidelines are just that, and they should not be used as a substitute for veterinary care.

In addition to the information below, consider looking into Feral Friends in your area. These are local individuals, organizations, and veterinarians or clinics that may be able to help with hands-on advice, information about borrowing equipment, and veterinarians or clinics that can spay and neuter feral cats. Request a list of Feral Friends in your area.

1. First Steps When You Find Kittens Outdoors

You’ve got a decision to make. Your first instinct when you see kittens may be to swoop them up and take them home with you, but that is not always in the best interest of the kittens—or you. Socializing and caring for feral kittens is a time-consuming process which requires devotion, patience, and attention. The decision to bring feral kittens into your home should not be taken lightly.

Some kittens may need intervention if they are not doing well. Remember that early weaning of kittens who seem to be doing well may lead to increased mortality or failure to thrive. Although kittens begin weaning prior to eight weeks of age, if it's safe they should remain with their mother until then to learn proper behavior and socialization.

Ultimately, you have to use your own judgment depending on the kitten’s circumstances and your time and resources. The best way to help all of the cats in the colony is to perform Trap-Neuter-Return and not spend all your time socializing kittens. Read our How to Conduct Trap-Neuter-Return guide for help.

Before you move forward, consider:

  1. Time: Do you have the time it takes to socialize kittens? You will have to commit to caring for them one-on-one for at least a couple of hours each day, for a period of a few weeks to a month or longer. If the kittens are neonatal, they will require even more specialized care, including round-the clock bottle-feeding. Make sure you know ahead of time what this entails. Sadly, people often bring feral kittens into their home and then do not take the time to work with them. Weeks, or months, later, they realize that they cannot touch the cat—they have feral cats in their home that cannot be adopted.
  2. Adoption Expertise and Connections: After socializing the kittens, they will need adoptive homes. Do you have the network—friends, acquaintances, organizations—to help you find those homes? Finding and screening homes for kittens takes work. Consider the paperwork required—adoption fees, forms, and contracts—as well as your ability to get the kittens neutered before adoption when deciding whether to socialize them or not.
    *Note: Alley Cat Allies recommends early-age spay/neuter. A kitten can be neutered as long as it weighs two pounds. Learn more.
  3. Kitten Age: Healthy kittens four months of age or older can stay in their colony, and Alley Cat Allies does not recommend attempting to socialize kittens older than this. These kittens should be neutered, vaccinated, and returned to their outdoor home. 
    • How to Determine Kitten Age 
      See photos of kitten progression week-by-week »
      See photos of kitten progression at-a-glance »
      Under one week: (3-8 oz) Eyes are shut, ears are folded down, and kittens are unable to walk. They can purr and make tiny noises. The umbilical cord may still be visible. 
      One-two weeks: (8-11 oz) Eyes start to open (they are blue) and focus. Ears begin to open and movement is improved to crawling, snuggling, and kneading. 
      Three weeks: (7.5-14.5 oz) Eyes fully open and ears are open and standing up. The kitten will start to respond to noises and movement. The first wobbly steps are taken and baby teeth start to come in. 
      Four-five weeks: (8-16.75 oz) Running, playing, digging, and pouncing occur often. Kittens will start to wean and will be able to lap up formula, eat soft food, and use the litter box by themselves. Eyes have fully changed from blue to their adult color. 
      Eight weeks: (2 lbs) Kittens look like little versions of full grown cats. 

2. Kitten and Mom Scenarios and How to Trap

As national Trap-Neuter-Return experts with more than 20 years of experience, we often receive calls from caregivers wondering how to trap a mother cat and her kittens and what to do with them once they’ve been trapped.

In this section, you’ll learn:

In order to do what’s best for kittens, you MUST know how old they are. Throughout this guide, refer to our kitten progression photos for help determining kittens’ age. Here are a few guidelines to remember:

  • The best place for kittens younger than eight weeks old is with their mother, if at all possible.
  • The ideal window for socializing kittens is about between 6 weeks and 16 weeks. Older kittens can be trapped, neutered, and returned.

Here are some common scenarios you might encounter and how to deal with them:

  • If you find kittens who are alone, determine if the mother has abandoned them or if she is just off looking for food. The only way to find this out is to wait. Often times, she will return within a few hours. Observe from a distance or a hidden spot to be sure she is not returning before moving the kittens. Use common sense and be patient.

  • If the mother cat doesn’t come back after several hours, and you think she has abandoned the kittens or they are in danger, you can choose to raise them yourself. Do not take this decision lightly. You will need to determine if the kittens require neonatal kitten care (one- to four-weeks-old), if the kittens are young enough to be socialized, fostered or adopted (six- to 16-weeks-old), or if they are at the age to be trapped, neutered, and returned (four months or older).

  • If the mother cat does return for her kittens, you have multiple options to consider:
    • If the mother is feral and the kittens are too young to be separated from her, the best thing for the family is to leave them where they are for now as long as the location is safe. (Use your judgment and common sense—if you think the location is safe enough for the mother to survive, leave the kittens with her; if not, see next bullet point.) Remember, the mother is best able to care for her kittens. Provide food, water, and shelter. Monitor the family daily and make the environment as safe for them as you can. If you have decided you don't have the time or the resources to foster, socialize, and adopt out the kittens, then you can trap, neuter, and return the whole family when the kittens are 8-weeks-old or two pounds. If you can foster, socialize, and adopt out the kittens, the ideal window is when the kitten are between six weeks and 12 weeks old. The best thing for the mother cat is to be trapped, spayed, and returned to her outdoor home.

    • If the kittens are too young to be separated, and you believe it is safer for the whole family to come indoors—you can trap the mom, trap or scoop up the kittens depending on their age, and bring the whole family inside to a quiet, small room like a bathroom, where they can live until the kittens are weaned and it is safe to get them all neutered. Learn more about how to care for an outdoor cat family indoors in the sidebar at left. From there you can decide what is best for the kittens and either return mom outside if she is feral or find her an adoptive home if she is fully socialized. Learn how to tell the difference between socialized (stray) cats and feral cats.

    • If the mother is feral and the kittens are old enough to be separated from her, you have a decision to make: commit to foster, socialize, and adopt out the kittens, or trap, neuter, and return the kittens when they are 8 weeks or two pounds.

  • If you trap a cat and discover at the clinic that she is a nursing mother, get her spayed immediately and return her to the area where you trapped her as soon as she is clear-eyed that evening, with approval from the veterinarian. Many times, you only learn this after she is at the clinic—make sure the clinic knows your plans for returning nursing mothers as soon as possible; they may have an anesthesia protocol that will enable her to wake up from surgery more quickly. It may seem counterintuitive to separate her from her kittens, but it’s difficult to trap her again—this may be your only real chance to spay her and prevent further litters. Try to find the kittens (following the mother after you return her) so that you can trap and neuter them when they are old enough. Note: Nursing mother cats continue to produce milk after being spayed, and can continue to nurse their kittens.

  • If you discover at the clinic that you have brought in a pregnant cat, have her spayed by an experienced veterinarian who has performed this surgery before. It may be necessary to allow an extra day for recovery and extended observation. For many people, this is a difficult aspect of Trap-Neuter-Return, but as with nursing mothers or any cat in a trap, it may be difficult to trap her again—this is your opportunity to protect her from the health risks and ongoing stresses of mating and pregnancy.

Once you have a plan and understand the different scenarios you may encounter, you are ready to start trapping.

How to Use Kittens to Trap a Mother Cat, and Vice Versa

For general information on how to trap cats, see our How to Conduct Trap-Neuter-Return Guide. Use this baseline information to inform the more complex process of trapping a mom and kittens.

On your first attempt at trapping a cat family, always set out at least one baited trap for every cat and kitten in the family (see our kitten safety tips below). Note: These instructions are for moms with kittens who are old enough to walk. Younger kittens can be scooped up and used to attract mom, but not vice versa.

If you don’t trap mom in the first round, she will soon hear, see, and smell her kittens in the trap and want to get close to them, providing the perfect incentive for her to enter a trap herself.

  1. Once you have a kitten trapped, immediately set up a second trap of similar size end-to-end against the one holding the kitten, so that mom will have to walk into the open trap to reach her baby. Do not open the trap holding the kitten. The short ends of the traps should be touching and the two traps together should form a long rectangle. (See photo.)

  2. To make sure mom goes inside the trap and not around the back or sides, cover the trap holding the kitten on three sides so that the kitten is only visible from the entrance of the open trap. Cover the area where the traps meet, so mom can’t see the partition as easily. To her, it will appear as though the kitten is inside a tunnel.

If you trap the mother cat first, or if you are trapping other cats and you trap her by accident, keep her in the trap and set a second trap, following the same instructions outlined above with the traps used end-to-end, with one important addition: once you have trapped one kitten, you will have to set up a new trap for the next kitten. Kittens can also be used to trap their siblings in a similar fashion.

Trapping Tips: Kitten Safety

  • When trapping kittens, make sure you are using an appropriately sized trap, like a Tru-Catch 24 or Tomahawk 104 trap, or any trap made specifically for kittens. Larger traps, like those used for raccoons or tomcats, are too powerful for kittens, can put them at risk, and kittens sometimes are not heavy enough to trip the plate.

  • We suggest that you prop open the trap door with a water bottle or other similarly sized object (like a stick) attached to a string, so you can spring the trap manually when all kittens are safely clear of the door. Once the kitten is fully inside the trap and clear of the door, pull the string hard and fast to remove the water bottle.

  • Make sure to set out at least one trap per kitten, to discourage kittens from following each other into the same trap. (They may still do this, but springing the trap manually will make sure no one gets caught in the trap door.) If you do catch two kittens in one trap, either use an isolator to transfer one into another trap, or bring an extra trap to the clinic and the clinic will separate the cats after surgery.

As cat experts, we understand your reservations about interfering with nursing mothers and their kittens, but the best thing you can do for the whole family in every situation is to trap and neuter them as soon as it is safe to do so. Where you place the kittens after trapping—either in adoptive homes or back with their colony—depends on many factors, including your own time and resources. No two situations are exactly alike, so be prepared to use your judgment.

3. How to Care for Neonatal Kittens

Here are some important tips to keep in mind if you do end up having to care for a neonatal kitten (one- to four-weeks old). Be aware that sometimes, no matter what you do, some neonatal kittens do not survive and can fade very fast. You can only try to be the best surrogate guardian possible, and hope for the best.

  • Ask for Help: Contact local veterinary clinics and no-kill shelters to ask if they have a nursing mother cat or experienced volunteers available to bottle-feed the kittens. People have had a lot of success having mother cats “adopt” more kittens. 

  • Heat and Bedding: Kittens can easily become chilled and can actually die from chilling within a short timeframe. Be sure that from the moment you find them, the kittens are kept constantly warm. Continually keep an eye out for signs of chilling (i.e., kittens are listless and feel cool to the touch). If you have nothing else on hand, use your own body heat to warm up a cold kitten, and rub gently to aid circulation. It is important to note that kittens cannot control their own body temperature until they are at least three weeks old. Do not bottle feed until kittens have warmed up completely.

    At home, provide kittens with a soft nest (like a box or kitty bed) with a heating pad or other warming device. Completely cover it with a blanket or towel, and make sure that kittens can move away from the heat if they want. Change the bedding daily or as needed when accidents occur.

    Chilling can occur after a kitten becomes wet. Never submerge kittens in water. If you need to wash them, wash only certain parts or use a moist wash cloth. Be sure to always fully dry them with a hair dryer (on low) and towel.

  • Food: Never feed kittens cow’s milk—this causes diarrhea. Feed only kitten formula, such as KMR, which can be purchased at most pet supply stores. Use kitten bottles to feed, as they are designed specifically with a kitten in mind. If you have an option for nipples, the elongated nipples are easier to use. Follow the directions of the bottle manufacturer for bottle preparation. You may have to make your own holes in the nipple with a sterilized pin or razor; be sure you do this correctly so that the kitten replacement milk drips out slowly when the bottle is turned upside down. Sterilize the bottles before using. Wash your hands before and after each feeding.

    If you find yourself with a kitten and no store is open, this emergency kitten formula can be made at home. It should only be used in emergencies, and should not replace kitten formula.
    • 8 oz. can evaporated milk
    • 1 beaten egg yolk
    • 2 TB Karo syrup
      Mix all ingredients well and strain. Warm before serving. Keep refrigerated.
      From Feline Neonatal Care DVD from the Loudoun SPCA.
  • Feeding: Hold or place kittens on their stomachs and arch the bottle so less air gets in (do not feed kittens on their backs). Always warm the kitten replacement milk and test it on your wrist to be sure it is warm but not hot. Remember, do not feed chilled kittens.

    For kittens 10 days old or younger, feeding should occur every 2 hours around the clock. From age 11 days to 2½ weeks reduce feeding to every 3–4 hours. From 2½ to 4 weeks, feed every 5–6 hours. For kittens 4 weeks and older, feed 2–3 times daily with a wet food/formula mixture. Follow the guidelines on the formula label for how much to feed. Kittens will usually stop nursing when full. Weaning occurs around four to five weeks of age. Mix formula with wet food so kittens can begin to lap it up, or put the mixture in a bottle. Then mix with dry food and begin providing water.

    If you are having trouble getting a kitten to “latch” onto the bottle, try pulling on the nipple when they start to suck, this will encourage her to suck harder and latch on. You can also try moving the nipple back and forth in the kitten’s mouth. If your kitten is too ill to suck on a bottle, you may have to use other methods such as tube feeding. Consult a veterinarian before attempting this yourself.
  • After feeding: As long as kittens are eating formula, you must burp them. Put them on your shoulder or on their stomachs and pat them gently until you feel them burp. Kitten formula is sticky, so be sure to clean kittens after feeding with a warm, damp washcloth.

  • Elimination: Kittens under four weeks must be stimulated in order to go to the bathroom after each feeding. Usually a mother cat would lick her kittens, but you can use a warm, moist cotton ball to gently rub the kittens’ anal area to stimulate urination and defecation. Completely solid feces usually will not form while kittens are drinking formula.

    Start litter training at four weeks. Kittens may start looking for a place to go as young as 2½ weeks of age. You may supply them with a small, shallow litter pan with non-clumping litter. Do not use paper or fabric; while this is soft, it can teach bad habits they may carry into adulthood! Show kittens the litter box and put in a used cotton ball, and this should do the trick.

  • Health Concerns:
    Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) – Though this is common in kittens, you should not ignore it. If heavy yellow discharge develops or the kitten has trouble breathing or eating, see a veterinarian immediately. A mild URI can be cleared up by simply wiping away discharge with a warm, wet cloth and keeping kittens in a warm, damp environment.

    Fleas – Fleas on a very small kitten can cause anemia. First, pick fleas off with a flea comb. For a bad infestation, you can bathe the kitten in warm water to get rid of fleas. You can also use a very small amout of gentle, liquid dish soaps such as Dawn, to bathe kittens. Avoid the eye area—use a washcloth around the face—and rinse them thoroughly. Do not use flea shampoo or topical flea treatments on kittens 6 weeks or younger. Remember, never submerge kittens fully in water. If giving a bath be careful of chilling – dry kittens thoroughly with a warm towel or hair dryer on low, then place on a heating pad.

    Parasites/Diarrhea – Any drastic change in stool consistency can mean trouble. Parasites can often cause diarrhea, strange looking stools, and dehydration. Kittens can begin a deworming treatment schedule as young as 10 days old; see a veterinarian for this. If you notice any unusual signs, your kittens should be seen by a veterinarian.

4. Socializing Feral Kittens

Feral cats are not socialized to people—and can’t be adopted. With some time and attention, however, you can work with young feral kittens to help them become affectionate and loving companions. It’s not a transformation that happens overnight—socializing kittens is a big commitment—but it’s a very rewarding experience.

Kittens who do not have any contact with humans after they are born will be feral, regardless of whether their mother is a lost house cat or a feral cat living in a colony. They will be frightened of people and demonstrate all of the signs of fear and anxiety that an adult cat would, like spitting, hissing, and running from human contact.

To become pets, they will need to be socialized, or taught to be comfortable around people. If the kittens are eight weeks or younger, usually just about anyone can socialize them by following some simple steps. Kittens between two months (eight weeks) and fourth months of age often take more time and skill to socialize. Learn how to determine kitten age.

*Note: Alley Cat Allies does not recommend attempting to socialize adult feral cats or kittens older than four months of age. Kittens who are at least 8 weeks or who weigh two pounds can be simply trapped, neutered, and returned to their colony. Learn more.

Socializing kittens is a big responsibility, but with patience and effort, your hissing feral kitten can become the cat who curls up on your lap for some cuddling. Follow these tips to get organized and gather all the supplies you need.

Do’s and Don’ts of Kitten Socialization

Veterinary Care

  • Have a kitten wellness visit at the veterinarian; make sure kittens are FVRCP vaccinated and dewormed if necessary. *Note: Rabies vaccination can’t be given until they are four months old.
  • Get immediate veterinary attention if the kittens become lethargic, lose their appetite, or have persistent diarrhea.

Kitten Age

Confinement

  • Keep kittens in a room that can be closed off, like a bathroom or spare bedroom. This will give you easy access and won’t give them an opportunity to hide in a hard-to-reach spot. This small space will also calm them and allow them to easily find their food, water, and litter, while keeping any pets or small children away.
  • Use the proper cage to confine your kittens. If they are extremely small, use nylon cages—not wire—so they can’t escape through bars. The cage should be large enough to hold a den, food and water dishes, a litter box, and soft, comfortable bedding. See 'Tools of the Trade' below.
  • Provide a safe zone or ‘den’—such as a small box with blankets or a feral cat den—in the kittens’ cage. This hiding place provides security and gives them a way to feel comfortable and not threatened. Kittens must feel relaxed in your home.
  • Make sure that the room is kitten-proofed, so if they get out of your hands, they will still be safe. You don’t want them to be able to crawl under doorways or furniture or into vents—anywhere that is difficult for you to reach, or dangerous for them.
  • Don't confine the kittens to a room with no windows, or a room that is often very noisy. The kittens need to feel comfortable and safe in their environment!

Socialization

Getting comfortable – Follow these tips to make kittens feel more at home.

  • Give kittens an initial two-day adjustment period after trapping before you begin interacting with them too much.
  • Set the kittens’ crate up off floor so they feel more comfortable. Felines feel safer if they are higher and not at ground level.
  • Move slowly and speak softly around the kittens. If you wear shoes indoors, consider slippers or socks around the kittens. Don't play loud music or musical instruments.
  • Let the kittens be a part of the household action. Leave a TV or radio on after the kittens have been in your home for a few days, so they become accustomed to human voices and sounds. If exposure to other pets is not an issue, set the whole crate in a busy living room with a TV playing.
  • For young kittens, a ticking clock wrapped in a towel sounds like a mother cat’s heartbeat and is very soothing.
  • Kittens will respond to positive experiences. Reward positive behaviors, like the kittens approaching you for attention or after a good play session, and prevent negative experiences like scolding or confrontations with other pets.
  • Gauge each kitten’s ability to learn and become accustomed to you. Evaluate each individually—don’t go by set rules.
  • Be patient! Spitting, hissing, and hiding are all expressions of fear; do not mistake these signs for aggression.
  • If a litter of kittens are slow to socialize, consider separating them. Isolating the kittens forces them to rely on people. If you can’t, make sure you spend quality time alone with each one. Litters can be put back together after a short adjustment period.
  • Don't try to rush the socialization process. Be patient, and monitor the progress of each individual kitten.

Socializing with food – Food is the key to socialization. Providing the kitten with food creates an incentive for the kitten to interact with you and forms a positive association, ensuring that she connects you with the food she loves so much.

  • You may keep dry kitten food out all day. When you feed wet food, stay in the room while the kittens eat it, so they associate you with food and begin to trust you.
  • If the kittens are very timid, try to first give them food on a spoon.
  • Over time, gradually move the food plate closer to your body while you sit in the room, until the plate is in your lap and the kittens are comfortable crawling on you to get to it.
  • Pet and handle the kittens for the first time while they are eating, so they have an incentive to stay put. Start petting around the face, chin, and behind the ears and work up to petting all over.
  • Gradually work up to holding kittens, making sure to reward them with some canned cat food or chicken-flavored baby food on a spoon. Human baby food, especially chicken flavor, is a special incentive for kittens. (Make sure the baby food has no onion—it’s toxic to cats.)
  • Don’t offer food to kittens on your finger or allow kittens to play with your hand or bite or scratch you. A bite from even a young kitten can be painful and dangerous and it teaches the kittens that biting is acceptable behavior. This rule is especially important when raising single kittens without siblings.

Socializing with touch and play – It's important to get kittens used to being handled at a young age, so they are used to this interaction when they grow up.

  • Devote at least two hours per day for successful socialization. You can do a few long sessions or several shorter sessions.
  • Get down to the kittens’ level and play with them; particularly kittens eight weeks and younger.
  • Take time to socialize each of the kittens individually. Handling them away from the group can speed up the socialization process by making them more dependent on you.
  • Hold the kittens as much as possible. Make sure they are close to your body so they feel your body warmth and heart beat. This is especially productive after they have eaten, so they associate you with the food and the cuddles.
  • Use toys to entice kittens to play as soon as they are interested, usually around three to four weeks of age.
  • If a kitten is particularly feisty, put her in a front carrying pack (see equipment list) or papoose her in a towel with only the head out and hold her while doing things around the house.
  • After kittens are comfortable enough with you to fall asleep on your lap or purr in your presence, they can move from the initial confinement space to a larger, kitten-proof room.

Introduce new friends – Your goal is to socialize the kittens so that they are comfortable around all people and pets and will be happy in their new homes, so introduce them to new some faces!

  • As long as all are healthy, you can introduce kittens to an adult socialized cat. Monitor this interaction, especially the first few times, in case you need to intervene. A neutered tom will likely play and groom the kittens, which helps the socialization process.
  • Introduce kittens to as many people as you can to adjust them to strangers and unexpected circumstances.
  • If there are other friendly animals in your household, exposing kittens to them will only help the kittens' socialization, and broaden the scope of potential adoptive homes they would do well in!

Precautions – Even a scratch from a kitten can hurt. Make sure to take precautions to keep both you and the kittens safe.

  • Feral kittens can hurt you if you are not careful; wear gloves or protective clothing if you feel it is needed.
  • Don't take chances. Sometimes you have to scruff kittens by the back of their neck to gain control. Learn how to safely scruff a kitten as shown in the photo. Use your entire hand and gently but firmly grasp the fur on back of neck without pinching, pull the cat up, and immediately support her hind legs.

Keeping Kittens Safe

  • Do not use toxic cleaning products or leave them in the room with kittens, including Lysol®, and wet wipes.
  • For clean-ups, use diluted bleach solutions (one part bleach to 15 parts water) in small amounts.
  • If kittens are in your bathroom, pull the shower curtain up and out of the way, so they don’t climb it.
  • Take ALL knick-knacks out of the room (i.e., perfume bottles, soap bottles, jewelry, figurines, etc.)
  • Do not allow very young children to play with or help socialize very young kittens. They are not old enough to understand and react to the temperament and behavior of feral kittens.
  • Don’t keep kittens in a room with a reclining chair. The kittens can be injured or killed if they go inside the chair and accidentally get closed underneath.

Tools of the Trade (equipment, etc.)

  • Confinement pens
  • Bedding materials
  • Dens or other safe nesting items
  • Litter box and litter
  • Kitten food—dry and canned
  • Food and water dishes
  • Treats, like human baby food (without onion)
  • Interactive toys, such as balls, rope toys, crinkle toys, and scratching posts
  • Radio (tuned to talk radio), or space in a room with common household noise (TV, dishwasher, vacuum cleaner, etc.)
  • Nylon front pack—hands free vest carrier for socializing
  • Gloves and towels
  • Name and phone number of a trusted veterinarian, just in case!
  © 2012 Alley Cat Allies