Some 25 years ago, when I first noticed feral cats and started helping them, a very experienced animal worker warned me: “…for feral cats there may not be a tomorrow!”. I have experienced the sad truth of these words many times and could not possibly forget them.
If this warning applies to adult feral cats which have to cope with the hazardous life of a homeless cat, then how much more does it concern young, helpless feral kittens when born in such places as skips, bonfire heaps, under floorboards, in storage rooms or simply under bushes in the open? There is a slim chance of survival, and even those kittens which are seemingly safely tucked away with their mother in a shed are at everybody’s mercy: dogs, foxes, tomcats and even cruel or ignorant humans may at any time discover and harm them. Their mother may for no obvious reason move them to a new hide-out, unknown to her concerned feeders. Raised in a damp corner kittens are especially prone to cat ‘flu, which if untreated can lead to eye infections and blindness, or to pneumonia and death.
If they are lucky enough to survive the first few weeks new dangers await them once they appear in the open. Kittens have been attacked by crows, magpies or foxes; because of their adventurous and curious nature, and their total lack of experience and judgement they have ended up in fishponds, underneath cars or inside their bonnets, inside industrial machinery, air vents, pipes, sewage systems, drainpipes, skips… all these are cases I have come across personally.
Should the kittens survive the first few weeks unharmed they will grow up fast – soon they become unhandleable and within months will begin to breed. A female can come into season as early as four months, only to produce yet more unfortunate feral cats. Unless the kittens are picked up while still very young and found homes as domestic pets, and unless the rest of the colony is neutered, we are facing a no-win situation.
To be sure the kittens are safe they have to be rescued as soon as they are noticed, and if they are very young preferably with their mother to rear them. In early years I was advised to take the kittens in and hand-rear them then trap the mother and have her neutered and returned. However, I have since developed a more satisfying method which is less time-consuming and also better and less stressful for kittens and mother cats. I rear them together in a special unit which enables me to attend safely to a frightened and potentially aggressive mother cat, and which is spacious enough for her needs but small enough to give her a feeling of privacy and safety, which helps her to relax.
The hospitalisation basket (left) is 910 mm (36 in) long, 380 mm (15 in) wide and 355 mm (14 in) high. With the help of a division panel it can be divided into two sections and it therefore has two top openings that can be used separately: this enables the carer to attend to one section while the cat is securely confined in the other, without ever touching the cat. An additional life-up end door makes transfer from a trap, queen’s cage or other side-opening equipment possible. This door has to be securely tied with string to prevent a cat from lifting it up and escaping.
The queen’s cage (right) has the same dimensions as the hospitalisation basket except for its length, 460 mm (18 in). The lift-up end door corresponds with that of the hospitalisation basket so that the two cages can easily be tied together to create extra space. It is also big enough to transport a mother cat and her kittens comfortably, and there would be space for a small litter tray.
Whenever possible we secure the mother cat first unless the kittens are in acute danger. As long as the kittens are very young and comparatively immobile, within reach and unable to escape, it is best to trap the mother before touching her kittens. Usually a mother cat will leave her nest for a short while to find food, and provided she is unsuspecting will readily walk into a trap which has been baited with very tempting food such as finely chopped cooked chicken or turkey. Any discussion about the best place to position the trap etc should take place out of the cat’s earshot behind a closed window, before ONE person goes out quietly to set the trap. If several people are in the garden, particularly if they are talking, it may be many hours before the cat appears, since she will be careful not to disclose where her kittens are.
The trap should be placed 3-5 metres (10-15 feet) away from the nest, with a trail of tiny pieces of food leading to the trap. On this occasion the automatic trap seems ideal, because it can be watched from a distance, for instance by a person hiding in the back of a room behind drawn curtains, or in a car, hiding the familiar outline of the human head behind a piece of cardboard with a peephole cut in it. THE TRAP MUST NEVER BE SET AND LEFT UNOBSERVED.
If other cats approach the trap a brief and silent appearance of a human in the garden will usually discourage them; if the mother is part of a nearby colony it is better to use a manually-operated trap so that the “unwanted” cats can eat their fill from the trap without springing it. After they are satisfied and have left, the mother cat will usually appear – possibly quite some time later – furtive and careful not to be seen.
Anxious members of the public have in the past picked up kittens before our arrival. It was then more difficult to trap the mother, who had scampered off in panic, and it sometimes took many hours, even days, before she went into the trap. A mother cat who was originally a pet and was not born feral, will usually return sooner. Whatever the situation, we persevere until she is caught. Under no circumstances must the kittens be returned to the nest once they have been picked up, as the mother will either abandon them or else most certainly move them to another hiding-place.
As soon as the mother is caught, the trap must be covered completely with a large sheet or blanket to calm her down and prevent her injuring herself in panic. The kittens may now be collected from the nest, and should be put in a separate warm box for the journey home, during which they must not be given to the mother as she may suffocate them in the trap/carrier.
Settling mother and kittens into their new home
At home the kittens are checked over, weighed and named and entered in a book with sex and colour code, the start of keeping individual records of treatments and procedures for each kitten; then they are immediately put in in a large box lined with paper in far end of the hospitalisation cage, which becomes the sleeping section. DO NOT USE SOFT BEDDING. All too many kittens have either slipped unnoticed behind and under the bedding or suffocated in the folds of sheets or blankets provided by well-meaning people. Crocheted blankets are death-traps. Kittens can easily become entangled in the mesh and have died of starvation or suffocation.
Without their mother, the kittens will cry and scramble about in the new box, moving in circles in search of the others’ scent. If the trap/carrier containing the mother is placed against the side opening of the hospitalisation cage she will soon see, smell and hear her kittens and will eagerly join them in the darkened section as soon as the adjacent sliding doors of the hospitalisation cage and trap/carrier are raised. Unless she attends to her kittens instantly, I lock her with them into the sleeping section with the help of the division panel and pull the cover over most of the cage. Contained like this for a while, the mother will soon stop panicking because there is nowhere to flee to, and if she is too frightened to take care of her kittens they will teach her: moving around hungrily they will soon find her nipples and start suckling, rekindling her maternal feelings. Usually it takes only minutes for a mother cat to settle, provided she is covered up and not disturbed by nosy humans. Nursing feral mother cats are not to be visited and gazed at by strangers, who seem unable to suppress irritating “Pussy, pussy, pssst, pssst…” noises which are meant to reassure the cat but only achieve the opposite for a feral cat.
In the first few weeks after rescue I only approach the cage when necessary and observe the cats from the far end if possible. Sometimes I lift the cover briefly to check on the kittens, but I do not raise the lid over the nest section under any circumstances, or attempt to touch or stroke the cat. Even a domestic cat, if she is nervous or defensive, can easily escape or attack and injure a person severely.
NEVER LEAVE THE CAGE until you have fastened all the doors (top doors, side opening or division panel). It takes only a second for a determined cat to escape from an insecurely fastened opening.
When kittens have to be handled…
It is quite easy to attend to the cage with the help of the division panel, which safely divides the nesting area off when we need to replace food or litter or clean the cage out. If I need to attend to the kittens while they are still nest-bound I will have to separate them from their mother. Initially I try to entice her into the other section with some nice food or, failing that, I may have to make her move over. Lifting the cover and looking at her closely usually does the trick; otherwise I gently push her with a wooden object (eg handle of a cooking spoon) through the cage, or I blow at her. Once she is closed in the other section I can exchange the paper bedding and check the kittens thoroughly, which is important when they are very young. If they are only a few days old and seem unsettled and continuously distressed when feeding, they need to be weighed regularly, to make sure they are all gaining weight. If not, I can help with bottle feeding: I offer the bottle to the whole litter and feed the kittens who take to it. If the fatter kittens accept it, there will be more mother’s milk for the weaker ones. Each time I let the mother return to her kittens as soon as possible.
Even if the mother is tame, I use the same caution when attending to her kittens. Although it may not be necessary to separate her from them, I can reach the kittens by using the second top opening and access them by lifting the division panel slightly. A contented, tame mother cat will usually not object to my handling her kittens and I can offer the bottle to all of them in turns while she is suckling the rest. Sturdier kittens may be taken out of the cage for a few minutes and bottle-fed separately, allowing the weaker ones to suckle on the mother without competition. In many cases this type of intervention has saved lives. Particularly in their early days, weaker kittens (those conceived towards the end of the 3-5 day mating period) rapidly fall behind the others, which now grow very fast. They become weaker and less able to reach the nipple, pushed away by their stronger siblings. Given up as “the runt”, they will rapidly fade and starve, but if fed and nurtured they will catch up and grow into normal-sized kittens. Quite a few “runts” in my care have later even overtaken the others.
As the kittens grow….
When the kittens are about 3 weeks old I remove the box from the nest so they can move around the entire pen. Now (if I haven’t already) I attach a queen’s cage to the end of the hospitalisation cage to create extra space. By 3-4 weeks the kittens are becoming increasingly interested in me and in the weaning food and kitten milk placed at the end of the cage farthest from the nest, and I handle them a lot, always making sure that the mother is safely separated.
As I wrote this at the beginning of January 2001 I was caring for Coco and her litter of three 3-week-olds, the smallest of which was a typical “runt”. First thing every morning she loudly demanded her milk, and she had almost caught up in size with her brothers. It was an amazing experience to be at the command of this tiny fluffy personality who regularly insisted on being picked up and cuddled. Incidentally, Coco was trapped as a heavily pregnant, well-known “feral” cat, and gave birth 4 days later. A few days after the birth she had stopped cursing and snarling at me and had begun to purr: she was in fact an ex-domestic cat who reverted to her tame nature once she felt secure. This development was most surprising for her feeders but not to me – in the past 10 years 8 out of 10 of the mother cats I was asked to rescue with their kittens, and which behaved “wild” and were untouchable, revealed their domestic past in my care and were found new homes.
Coco is one of many “feral” cats who later reveal themselves to be ex-domestic pets: she is pictured here with her daughter Cookie in their new home in New Malden, Surrey
When the kittens are 5-6 weeks old and eating steadily, the mother is spayed and, if feral, ear-tipped and returned to her site. If she is tame, she and her kittens are moved to a bigger cage and the kittens are allowed to run around the room at intervals, because they need the exercise and have to become used to moving among people and to being picked up from the floor.
With the exception of a very few cats which simply had no milk at all, feral cats (as well as domestic ones) have always reared their kittens quite contentedly in the conditions described, provided the kittens were very young when rescued and the family left undisturbed. It is advantageous to place the hospitalisation cage in a raised position, for instance on top of another kitten cage; this makes attending to the cage easier and it is less frightening for the mother cat only to see the human from waist level, rather than feet and legs, which she has learned to avoid outside.
When I first tried this arrangement, I was worried that it would be too small for a mother cat and her litter. However, it is much roomier and more comfortable than the typical cramped, filthy hole that a cat forced to have her kittens outside will choose in her search for a safe den. In the hospitalisation cage, the feral mother soon learns that the unfamiliar noises and smells need not concern her, and that the only “danger” is me, leaving her plates of nice food several times a day. Within days, many mothers are so relaxed that they can be seen lying happily stretched out on the luxury of clean paper in the main part of the cage, taking a break from the kittens they are now confident are safe.
Procedure if kittens to be rescued are older
If we do not find the kittens until they are at least 4-5 weeks old or older, we raise them without their mother: it is easy to wean them now and they are just the right age for handling and intensive bonding with humans. If left with her much longer they will start imitating her shy attitude. As the mother’s milk production is reducing, her physical urge to nurse her kittens diminishes. At this stage she is therefore less likely to settle with her kittens in captivity. To spare the feral mother stress, as soon as we have secured the kittens we trap her so she can be spayed and returned after being assessed thoroughly just in case she is actually a shy domestic cat who is behaving as if feral because of her recent wild lifestyle and in defence of her kittens. In that case we reunite her with her kittens until all can be found homes when they are old enough.
Some trapping advice if the kittens are older
A litter of kittens at large is defenceless and may come to harm: therefore, if the kittens are 4-5 weeks or older and already moving around, for safety reasons they must be trapped first (the opposite approach to the procedure for a mother with young kittens). If under 10 weeks old the kittens may not yet eat without the mother’s command, and even 3-month olds are still dependent on various signals from her, telling them to come out of their hiding-places and follow her to the food, walking very closely to her body and only eating under her supervision. She watches them play and calls them back when she suspects danger – she uses a very low guttural sound taken from the growling register that has a hypnotic effect on the kittens which forces them to stop and freeze where she wants them to stay while she goes away for a time. If the mother is trapped first the kittens may search for her, and in doing so they may lose one another, wander off and go to sleep in a wet, unsuitable place where they may die of exposure. If they think they are abandoned they will most probably cry and give themselves away to predators. Once the kittens are safe it is important to trap the mother for spaying as soon as possible, since she may quickly become reconciled to the loss of her litter, come into heat and disappear to start the cycle again.
Logically we use the manual trap for the kittens, as we do in any situation when a group of cats is present. If the mother or any other cat enters the trap first, we let her eat and wait for the kittens to take their turn. The following sequence, which may be confusing for the novice trapper, is very common: at first the mother cat appears alone and eats at leisure. Then she leaves the trap and disappears, whereupon the desperate trapper thinks this is the end of the venture and goes home. Here a great opportunity has been missed: on her way out of the trap the mother almost always thoroughly sniffs the wooden frame at the entrance of the trap before she walks away (maybe she would not trust the trap if it smelt of other animals, so it is vital that the trap is thoroughly cleaned immediately before use). This is an indication that the kittens are not far away and that she intends to bring them to the food. However, often she disappears for a while in order to nurse her kittens first, before reappearing with them and nudging them with her nose into the trap. Sometimes she may return immediately, or she may even call them from the trap as soon as she has finished eating herself. The kittens may then enter the trap either as a group or one by one. Gentle closure of the trap is essential so that the remaining cats outside are not frightened away. Once we are sure that all the kittens are safely caught, the mother should be trapped as soon as possible afterwards, because she may leave the area which she had chosen to raise her litter, probably not to be seen again until she next gives birth. If there are no other cats about, an automatic trap can now be used, since the cat may be wary of the wooden trap with which she has seen her kittens trapped. A different-looking trap, put in a different area of the yard and baited with different-smelling food, has often helped to trap a nervous cat.
Trappers have frequently argued with me that the mother cat must always be trapped first otherwise “one might never get her”. Sorry, but I have always succeeded. These same trappers have also sometimes admitted losses of kittens which disappeared when the mother was away and were never found after, proclaiming that “three out of four was quite good”. I am unable to accept this level of risk and find it quite unnecessary. I also find it easier to trap a forewarned mother cat (provided the trapper is more intelligent than the cat!) than to trap kittens without their mother. An early experience taught me a lesson: the ex-domestic mother of four three-month-old kittens had to be taken in urgently because she was poorly with pneumonia. Three kittens were trapped immediately before they realised their mother had gone, but the last kitten cried day and night and could not be trapped; it was too distressed to be interested in food. After two days we decided we had to return the mother cat briefly: the kitten ran up to her and, now comforted, went eagerly to eat in the trap. It was extremely fortunate that the “deserted” kitten was in the comparative safety of an underground garage where it was watched over by the residents and unlikely to be lost. Had it been at large in a garden or park area we might never have seen it again.
Elke de Vries © Cat Action Trust 1977