So many messages come in to the Homeless Cat Management Team each day asking for help with cats living outdoors. The cats may be abandoned, stray or feral, and in spring the need usually involves kittens. I try to help with situations that come up in my community.
Often the very first message is only the tip of the iceberg, and with the cold and snowy April this year the iceberg metaphor describes more than the developing situation. Kittens born to mother cats struggling to keep themselves protected and fed when the weather regularly dropped below freezing even during the day, significant snowfalls covered their territory, cold rain and ice and sleet fell regularly often turning a difficult situation into a heartbreaking one. But even with that, helping someone with a situation she had no idea she could get help with, and preventing a situation that would have been completely out of control in a few months, gives a rescuer hope for the future.
This particular story grew so complicated that I’m glad I took notes. It grew over the course of a week from one possibly pregnant or delivered feral female to four unspayed feral females and one unneutered male, and 18 kittens, and five people trying to trap and get them all spayed and neutered.
The call to action
In the first week of April a call came in from someone just a few blocks from me about a feral cat she had been feeding for a few years, who had had other litters, was very pregnant right then or may have given birth, and who she’d like to be trapped so she could be spayed. Tarra posted the message and tagged people who might be local or able to assist.
I called the feeder who said she had been feeding this cat for a couple of years, after a neighbor had either abandoned both the cat and the home they’d lived in, or as a feral the cat had come to live near the abandoned house because there was no human activity; the house was still standing empty. The feeder had a friendly dog but was not really familiar with cats, but she couldn’t see the pretty black cat going hungry even if she wasn’t particularly friendly. Once she started having kittens, her name became Mama Cat.
The feeder was able to pet Mama Cat, who was very reliable in coming to the feeding station. The feeder had set up a box on the porch with blankets and the cat had been sleeping in that box, and had actually been in the box for most of the past few days so it was likely she was either about to give birth or had already given birth.
Then she mentioned three other cats she fed who were kittens of this cat from previous years, all young adults. The two she described as calico were 99% likely females, but the “brown” cat, Chocolate, could actually be a father if male. One of the calicos, Shelley, was a sister to Chocolate from the same litter, and had given birth to a litter the previous year, but they had all died after birth. The younger calico, “Baby”, had not apparently had a litter yet.
Two years before when Mama Cat had brought a litter of kittens to the feeding station, the neighbor had caught all but one little black one, who was never seen again. They were still young enough to need some bottle feeding so the neighbor fed and fostered them, kept two indoors and turned the other three over to a local pet store to put up for adoption.
I knew it was highly probable that the two calicos were also pregnant right now. The calicos were somewhat friendly with the feeder and she especially liked Shelley, who was a bit long-haired and very pretty. She would adopt her if she was friendly enough, and planned to continue feeding the cats after they had been spayed or neutered.
The feeder was so happy to have found us. She had no idea any help like this existed. From what others said and did, she thought you were just supposed to let cats go and she wasn’t even sure about feeding—she fed them even though people had told her she shouldn’t, and she didn’t tell many people that she did.
Tarra and I, Sherry from Merlin’s Safe Haven Cat Rescue which is also very close to this neighborhood, and Mary, a volunteer and foster for many years who was kind enough to travel from her community, made plans and gathered traps. My car was packed for an event the next day so Mary picked me up to go to the woman’s home that evening, Friday, April 6, in time to set up traps after the usual afternoon feeding to be sure they’d be hungry.
The woman’s house and her neighbors’ were on a small alley that led down and behind the street above so they were pretty secluded on a little hillside. We met at the gate, then tiptoed to the porch where a box on its side was covered with fleecy blankets. It just looked dark inside as I slowly leaned over to look in, then suddenly a streak of black so fast I couldn’t even tell it was a cat raced from the box and disappeared into the darkness on the other end of the porch while tiny black and tux kittens came tumbling out of the box.
“That was the mom!”
So much for her possibly being a little friendly, but at least we could access the kittens to do the trap setup using them as bait. She had to be hungry nursing newborns, and her kittens appeared to be about two days old, needing a feeding every two hours.
Trapping Mama Cat using kittens as bait
Using the kittens as bait involves packing the kittens into their own carrier, wrapped and insulated so that they would stay warm, and pressing the closed door of the carrier to the back of a trap which had the trip plate set. Both the carrier and the trap are covered with one blanket so that the mother can’t access the carrier unless she goes into the trap, and she can actually see the kittens when she looks into the trap. (See Resourceful Mom Cat Gets her Kittens Rescued for a photo of this.) She can smell her kittens from outside, but it’s not until they start to cry from hunger that most mothers will consider going into the trap. It’s risky for the kittens, especially neonates who can’t regulate their body temperature so need their mother’s body heat to stay warm and need to eat regularly. Using kittens as bait pushes both kittens and mother to the edge of safety, and it’s best to only do this after experience with neonatal kittens so you understand their needs.
Night had fallen and the temperature had dropped near freezing as a cold front moved in. We had no heating pad of any sort to keep the kittens warm in their carrier, but I piled blankets in the bottom to insulate them from the concrete and wrapped blankets around the carrier. I reached in several times to give them a little shake to make sure they were okay and all responded. The kittens had likely been nursing when we arrived and frightened their mother out of the box, so it would be a while before they began mewing. (That’s them in the carrier at the top of this article.)
A tortoiseshell cat appeared on the porch and the feeder told us that was Chocolate. Another female, and not spayed! I didn’t see the calico cats that night, but knew we had our work cut out for us with catching all these cats.
Though we watched the trap for nearly four hours that night, the kittens didn’t mew very much. I was really worried it was too cold to keep this up and checked them every half hour or so to make sure they were still warm enough in there. They woke up and mewed a bit, then all snuggled back down into a heap and went back to sleep. Without their mewing Mary looked for “kitten music” on Youtube with her phone, we opened the kitchen window a bit right above the trap and played it. The mom paced around outside the porch a few times, and even came down and looked into the trap, then left.
I went home to finish getting ready for the vendor event the next morning but kept in touch, and when Mary had to leave to medicate her diabetic cat but Mama was hanging around I went back and stayed until almost midnight, with no luck. To pass the time I explained to the feeder how we plan for trapping and how the traps are set, how the spay surgery is done so cats can be released soon after, and answered a lot of questions about HCMT. She was very interested, and I encouraged her to consider trying to trap when we couldn’t be there when she’d had a chance to practice a few times. She mentioned the neighbors had trapped a cat a few years before, and because the cat was hysterical in the trap and actually hurting itself, she had let it go. I told her that was why we covered traps after cats were trapped. They are vulnerable in a trap and they know that and are frightened or even angry, but when they are covered and feel they are hidden, even though they are still in the trap, they feel safer and calm down.
What to do with the kittens?
The kittens had to be warmed and fed. Typically they’d be placed back in their box and we’d watch for Mama to come back and settle in with them, and try trapping again another time. Kittens need their mother, and even if she is feral they are better off with her. It just meant coming back another time, or many more times, to try it again.
But with the temperatures still falling and a low of 20 degrees predicted, and the rain changing to a wintry mix and then to snow with possibly significant coverage by morning, I wasn’t sure if that was the right thing to do. Mama Cat might not come back to the box, or she might decide to move them on a night with freezing weather. When I was home I had messaged Margo about the situation, and whether the kittens would be better off with a feeder until we could come back to try again, so that was the plan. I stopped at a store to pick up kitten formula on my way back to watch the trap the last time, and then took the kittens to Amy, an expert bottle feeder, and knew they were safe for the night.
Day 2: one cat trapped, pyometra, and seven newborn kittens in a flower pot, but who was the mom?
The next morning, Saturday, there was indeed snow on the ground and the air sharply cold. Because of the cold we decided to try to trap Mama Cat with just food, especially since we’d be trapping the two calico cats as well. I left for my event and Sherry spent the day with the feeder, trapping Chocolate early. Chocolate was transported to the TNR clinic for that day where it was discovered she had pyometra, a uterine infection that can follow a heat cycle, causing the uterus to fill with pus which becomes infected. The uterus can burst, spreading the infection to the abdomen. If it’s untreated it’s deadly, though as the cat’s uterus fills with pus it looks as if the cat is pregnant and people often make the mistake of waiting for the kittens to be born. If the feeder hadn’t called for help with Mama Cat, Chocolate’s pyometra would have worsened and eventually killed her if she wasn’t trapped and taken to a vet.
Through the day Sherry saw both Shelley, who looked pregnant, and Baby, who didn’t, and also a big black and white cat who acted very much like an intact male and, seeing the tux kittens in Mama Cat’s litter, was likely the father and so became Daddy Cat. Mama Cat was around but not at all fooled by the trap despite the sardines and KFC chicken warmed up to tempt her.
Later, Sherry thought she had heard kittens mewing, and as she was leaving she definitely heard it again. Following the sound she found them, seven newborn kittens in a plastic flower pot in a retaining wall above the house. Seven kittens is a large litter, but who was the mother? We knew Mama Cat had given birth, Chocolate had pyometra and was spayed that morning, they had just seen Shelley and she was pregnant, and Baby looked like a baby, and would have been huge with seven live kittens in her. Was there yet another female cat somewhere?
Day 3: Shelley is trapped
On Sunday the feeder wasn’t there but I went back and set traps on the porch with food and watched from my car. We had asked the feeder and her neighbor to stop feeding so the cats would only get food when we were around with traps. I saw Mama Cat under the porch of a house above the feeder’s house, but did not see her again while I was there. I also saw the big male tuxedo cat, who looked into both traps but did not go in. I wondered about him; since he wasn’t one of the usuals at that spot, and he wasn’t hungry, where was he eating? Possibly the girls were eating there as well.
So I went off exploring the neighborhood away from the feeder’s house so the cats could still feel comfortable about going there to eat as they usually did and possibly go into the traps, but still visually checking the traps every 15 minutes or so. I didn’t see any bowls or paper plates around where people might have been feeding cats, no shelters in others’ yards, no sign of entry into the abandoned house, and only one other cat outdoors, a white cat with gray spots. If they were eating somewhere else, it was very well-hidden.
I left when Mary arrived to take a shift and the feeder came home, and when she came outside and shook their food bowl as she always did they slowly came around. Frustratingly, Mama Cat and Shelley both walked into one of the traps that did not trip when they stepped on the plate. Tarra came when Mary had to leave and brought a really reliable trap, and finally, Shelley was trapped—and it was the feeder who ran outside and tossed the cover over the trap and heard Shelley calm down and stop jumping around and trying to get out.
Sherry had messaged that there was an emergency with two kittens from the litter of seven she’d found and they’d taken the entire litter to the emergency hospital, then she stopped by later to pick up Shelley for her spay the next morning at the one clinic that will take feral walk-ins on weekdays.
Because Mama Cat was around I went over for the late shift, and both Mama Cat and Baby were circling the traps. We were sure we’d catch them both—and then the raccoon came onto the porch. We didn’t want him in a trap. The feeder is accustomed to the raccoon and will usually pick up the food for the night, and if she’d chase him off he would usually stay away. But this long winter has been hard on all the animals. Usually by April there are greens coming up in the woods and insects and all sorts of exciting things that raccoons like to eat aside from cat food and garbage, but all the animals were hungry and chasing the raccoon wasn’t making him leave, and the cats weren’t coming anywhere near. So the feeder took in the food and we called it a night. I talked to her about setting the traps the next morning, showed her how to push the food all the way to the back so it didn’t interfere with the trip plate, how to set the door open, and to have the trap covers near. I could tell she really wanted to, but I told her if she had any hesitation, then she could wait until I got there, or try another day, just to let us know she did.
Day 4: Chocolate is back, Baby is trapped
The next morning, Monday, the feeder set the trap when she put the food out first thing, and later Sherry brought Chocolate back and released her. I checked on the feeder and the traps at mid-day after I’d set up another woman to try to trap her feral and hope to relocate him because she was moving, no one else could feed him, and outdoor cats weren’t permitted in that development (more on that later).
The feeder had done fine setting up the traps and was checking them frequently. Nothing happened for most of the day until early evening when she actually trapped Baby. She was so happy! It’s a wonderful thing when you can help someone learn what to do in cases like this and they actually go ahead and do it. That left only Mama Cat and Daddy Cat.
In the meantime, the clinic that had spayed Shelley reported that she had been pregnant, so the seven found kittens could not be hers. We were certain there had to be another female cat around. I wondered if possibly another calico from another litter might have been living around there and looked enough like Shelley or Baby that no one realized there were three calicos instead of two.
Day 5: Baby delivers kittens in the trap, and starting to lose kittens
We were beginning to wonder if possibly they were Baby’s kittens since this would have been her first litter, but overnight Baby actually delivered kittens, even though she hadn’t appeared pregnant. The first was a stillbirth, not even developed. The second was a very vocal live tabby and white who Sherry named Lucky, but whom Baby wanted nothing at all to do with. They bottle fed him but kept him in a cage with her. When Baby was spayed the next day another stillborn fetus was found in her uterus. Ultimately, that stillbirth would have caused an infection and would likely have killed Baby. Sadly, her one kitten Lucky only lived for two days. How horrible it would have been if she had given birth outdoors at the feeder’s house and no one would have known, her one live kitten would have died, and then she would have seemed to have disappeared, but as she declined the suffering would have been horrible.
Sherry also reported that the five kittens left in the litter of seven were also having health issues. The veterinarians couldn’t pin down what the problem was except to call it “failure to thrive”, and often, we never know. The next day, another kitten began to show signs of failure. If the mother cat gave birth and abandoned them, she may have inherently known there was something wrong with them and that they wouldn’t survive. Seven kittens is a large litter for any cat, and in the depths of the freezing cold endless winter even having food and shelter available is sometimes not enough to overcome the stress on an animal’s body to survive the winter. Ultimately, over the next few days, she would lose all seven kittens.
And the spay/neuter clinic had actually been unclear about Shelley—she “had been pregnant”, meaning she had been recently, but was not pregnant when she was spayed, so she was the mother of that litter of kittens. But that meant that she was pregnant in the afternoon, but sometime soon after that went off and had her kittens somewhere, then stashed them in the plastic flower pot and left while Sherry was there.
Taking a break, then coming back for more
After all that, Mama Cat, the one who had started it all, was still roaming around. The feeder was setting the traps, but Mama Cat wasn’t even coming around regularly since there was no food to eat outside of a trap. Amy reported that her kittens were doing well, but we only had a few days left before Mama Cat’s milk would dry up, and we wondered how she would act after they’d been apart for so long, and how she’d act being in a cage inside. Chocolate, Shelley and Baby had come back to their home base, but there was no food for them to eat so they were beginning to wander. We discussed what to do and decided to stop trapping after almost a week of trying and let the feeder and the neighbor go back to feeding as usual, get them on a schedule, and try again in a week or two. We wouldn’t reunite Mama Cat with her kittens, and most likely, with Daddy Cat still around, she was pregnant again.
Unfortunately, we lost one of Mama Cat’s litter of five too, the smallest one we often call the “runt”. That noticeably smaller kitten is sometimes actually younger than the others because cats mate over the course of days which can stretch to a full week, so the last kitten conceived can actually be a week younger than all the others and technically premature. It can also be a genetic issue, or developmental, from stress on the mother whose body can’t support all the kittens she’s conceived so one or more of them get less than others. He was slightly smaller at first, but they grew quickly and were twice as big as him, four ounces to his two ounces. He ate well and was very active and kept in with the bunch as kittens are supposed to, but began to fail and was gone in two days.
Please spay and neuter all cats to avoid situations like this
From one pregnant cat the story grew to include four adult female cats, one male cat and 18 kittens. Without any intervention, Chocolate would have died from pyometra, and likely Baby would have died from the unexpelled fetus. Of 18 kittens only four survived. That’s often the “cost of living” for abandoned cats who are not spayed or neutered.
All this from one feral female cat. And we still have work to do. I’m just glad we can help the cats with whatever they need, and that we find people who are as easy to work with as the feeder in this story.
The TNR is done through the Homeless Cat Management Team and the kitten fostering through Pittsburgh C.A.T. The Third Annual Spaghetti Dinner is coming up as the biggest fundraiser of the year, and you can also help both organizations by purchasing items from their Amazon wish lists;
Pittsburgh C.A.T.: https://www.amazon.com/gp/registry/wishlist/1DJBKJ6Y7IMR8/ref=nav_wishlist_lists_1
Monetary Donations can be made via PayPal to PBurghCAT@gmail.com
And thanks to Sherry of Merlin’s Safe Haven Cat Rescue for spending whole days trapping, and for transporting Shelley and Baby for spay and fostering their kittens, for the brief time they had.
Read other stories in my Rescue Stories series on The Creative Cat.
Also read my TNR Series, detailing rescues involving trapping stray and feral cats and kittens.
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