According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), before you rescue a kitten, hang back and observe—could the mother cat be hiding out nearby? If you do see Mom return, contact your local Humane Society or a feral cat rescue group to find out how you can trap the entire feral cat family. Staff can teach you how to safely get the cats spayed and neutered, and how and why you may want to release them back into the neighborhood to prevent other reproducing cat colony members from coming back.
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If the mother cat doesn't return, ASPCA recommends borrowing a humane live-animal trap from a shelter or rescue group to capture wild stray kittens, or picking up tamer ones and putting them right into a cat carrier. Because kittens could carry diseases transmitted to humans, including life-threatening ones like rabies, you should tell your doctor if you're bitten or scratched by an unknown or unvaccinated cat of any age.
The next important steps…
• Call a vet immediately to determine the kitten's age because proper feeding plans vary depending on age.
• Line a small box with towels or blankets—a kitten will feel safer in a small draft-free area than it will given free reign over the entire house. Keep the kitten separate from other household pets.
• ASPCA stresses that keeping orphaned kittens warm (but not overheated) is important. The organization says keeping a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel or a closely monitored heating pad on low temperature works, as long as the kitten has enough room to move away from the heat if it gets too warm.
• Newborn kittens separated from their mother require intensive care. Translation: Call a vet, a shelter, or an experienced kitten foster-care group for help finding someone who could care for the fragile kitten better, or to ask for detailed instructions on how to do it yourself if no other help is available. Newborn kittens may need to be bottle-fed with a commercial milk replacer every one to two hours—it's like having a newborn human baby in the house!
• At 3 to 4 weeks old, kittens can be offered milk replacer from a bowl and start trying small amounts of moistened kitten food four to six times a day, says ASPCA.
• Kittens ages 6 to 12 weeks old should be fed four times a day as milk replacer is slowly weaned away.
• Kittens 3 to 6 months old should be fed three times a day.
With Mama Cat out of the picture, you'll have to perform other important, even lifesaving, duties like teaching the kitten to go to the bathroom. (Kittens don't normally go until they're 2 to 3 weeks old, but you'll have to stimulate secretion by using a soft washcloth moistened with warm water and gently massaging the anal and urinary areas. (Normally, the mother cat licks the kittens to stimulate their bowels and urinary tract.) Visit the 10 Things You Can Do to Help a Stray Kitten to learn how to perform these and other lifesaving responsibilities.