Feral Cats & Orphaned Kittens

Feral Cats

Feral cats will not approach people and will seek hiding places to avoid them...and they don't meow, beg or purr. They also generally don't make eye contact and may crawl, crouch and stay low to the ground while protecting their body with their tail. They will probably have a clean, well-kept coat. Born to a life outside on their own, many feral cats have never had human contact. They group together in colonies wherever they can find food and water such as near dumpsters, parks, behind restaurants, schools and stores, and even in your own backyard.

Other free-roaming cats (known as strays) may be former house cats that have been lost or abandoned. These cats may blink, walk up to you with tail up, and may readily approach houses, porches or cars. Strays will likely live alone and not be part of a group and may appear dirty and disheveled. They also may be vocal and meow. Unaltered cats that are left alone do not “regain their instincts” and thrive. Instead, starvation and the stress of continued reproduction cause great suffering.

The Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter believes that a healthy cat is an indoor cat. Indoor cats enjoy longer, safer and healthier lives than those that are outside. If you love your cat, keep her indoors and provide plenty of interaction and play time.

Within the County there is no leash law for cats. Because of this and many other factors, you can expect to see cats roaming in your neighborhood. Additionally, there are many free-roaming cats that do not have a home. These are cats that were domestic pets or were born as a feral cat.

Outdoor cats are frequently the source of property damage for neighbors, particularly within gardens. Please click for some suggestions on how to reduce property damage from uncontrolled outdoor cats.

Cats are a nonnative (descendents of small African cats introduced to North America by settlers from Europe) predatory species that injure and kill millions of birds and other native wildlife each year in the United States.

A cat's instinct to hunt is independent of hunger.  North American birds, reptiles and small mammals have coexisted with native predators long enough to evolve defensive strategies, but have not been exposed to domestic cats long enough to evolve defense. Feral cats can also out compete wild predators in an area, damaging ecosystems. 

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)
Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is a management plan in which feral cats are humanely trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated and returned to the location where they were trapped. Friendly cats and kittens young enough to be socialized are removed from the colony for foster and adoption. The cats are also given an ear tip, a permanent visual identifying mark, at the time of surgery to identify them as an altered, owned, and cared for cat. When all the cats are sterilized, nuisance mating behaviors will disappear. After being returned home, you provide daily food and water, warm dry shelter, and lifelong care. The cats’ quality of life improves. Spay-Neuter saves lives!

Businesses located in Watsonville City and Freedom can obtain vouchers for free spay/neuter of feral cats and kittens through Friends of Watsonville Animal Shelter (FOWAS) at the Watsonville shelter at 580 Airport Blvd in Watsonville 454-7200.

Orphaned Kittens
I have found kittens. Now what?
March to November is kitten season, the time of the year when most kittens are born and shelters are busiest with incoming cats and kittens. Reports of people finding orphaned kittens increase during this time. If you've found an orphan kitten, preserving its health is a difficult job requiring prompt action. However, right up front, take a moment to decide if the kitten or litter you've located has truly been orphaned. Sometimes well-meaning people unknowingly separate kittens from their mother, making things worse instead of better. The information below will help you determine if you're dealing with an orphan situation.  Most importantly though if the kitten is in IMMEDIATE DANGER, please remove it and get it to the animal shelter as soon as possible.

Where's Mom?
The mother cat, also called the queen, usually remains continuously with newborn kittens for one or two days after giving birth. She may then leave the 'nest' for short periods. Even well-cared-for domestic mother cats with litters indoors may leave the nest for several hours at a time about two weeks after giving birth. Feral mothers, needing to hunt for food, will leave the nest for intervals at a much earlier stage.

Also, a mother cat will often pick up and move her litter to a new location, especially during the first few weeks after birth. Establishing a new nest is part of the cat's instinctual behavior to safeguard her young by not remaining in one place too long.

What to do?
When you find small kittens without a mother cat present, the mother may simply be away hunting for food or may be moving the kittens, one by one, to or from the place you found them. In other words, don't immediately assume the kittens are orphans. If the kittens are safe for the time being, you should observe the nest to see that the mother returns soon; observe quietly from a safe distance if dealing with a shy or feral mother.

The goal here is to do what is best for the mother and her litter -- and it is best to keep a mother together with her kittens if possible, not for emotional reasons but for the best chance of survival. Not only is hand-raising a young, "prewean" kitten an intensive round-the-clock job, but also the mortality rate for these young kittens separated from their mothers is much higher than if they had been kept together.

Remember that if you encounter a lone kitten, mom may be moving the kittens, and the lone kitten could be either the first to be moved to the new location, or the last to be moved from the old.

The same considerations apply to a lone mother cat. For instance, when trapping feral cats, if you trap a nursing mother you must try to find her kittens. In fact if you are trying to trap a feral litter and their mother, you can rely on the mother returning to the nest in order to trap her with her kittens, allowing you to keep the mother and kittens safely together.

When observing kittens you've found, there is no set length of time that you should wait to watch for a returning mother cat, but think in terms of only a few hours. It's a tough call, especially if you don't know how long the kittens have been alone when you discover them. If you wait too long, the kittens can weaken beyond recovery (chilling and dehydration are major concerns).

By all means, if you've found an orphaned litter, we want you to be able to help these kittens reach a happy, healthy adulthood. But before acting, consider the information above and take a moment to ask yourself "Are these kittens orphans?"
For information on caring for orphaned kittens, visit IBOK Rescue.