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Rescue Story: Resourceful Mom Cat Gets Her Kittens Rescued

Kittens and mom.

Well, her kittens did get rescued, and because of that she did too, but it might not have been the safest place to stash them.

Employees of a department store at a local mall heard kittens mewing, very early before the store opened and there was much traffic in the area. They traced the mewing to the area beneath the metal gates on their loading dock, back behind the pneumatic lift that would move the gate up and down to accommodate the trucks that backed up to it, and found a little heap of ginger and tabby and black kittens.

The best thing to do when you find kittens with no mother cat near is to leave them where they are. Kittens are best with their mother even if it’s a temporary inconvenience to humans. Mother has fed them and stashed them in a safe place while she’s gone off to find a meal, and she’ll be back for them in a few hours. You can rescue them all together, or if she finds the place unsafe she will move them to a better place.

But this place was not safe, not at all. The employees knew that if a truck had backed up to the dock and needed the gate to be lowered…the thought was too horrible to consider. One of the employees lifted the dock floor and reached in to pull out each of the kittens. They were hungry but none was injured, and they were placed in a plastic storage box with packing paper for bedding.

Kittens in the box

Dana was one of those employees, and only she of all her co-workers had some prior experience with rescuing stray and feral cats and kittens. She knew they had to be kept safe and warm, and to wait for their mom, and because they were mewing to also feed them until mom came back.

Dana had previously worked with Margo of the Homeless Cat Management Team (HCMT) and Pittsburgh C.A.T. through messaging in the Pittsburgh Feral Cat Movement (PFCM) Facebook group.

“One of my neighbors had trapped a kitten and a mom cat but didn’t know what to do with them,” she said. “[Margo] had taught me how to trap and I successfully trapped all 5 kittens.” The kittens were fostered and mom cat was spayed and released. Margo also provided her with traps and crates and helped her have a feral female spayed. Dana had done a cat food drive Christmas 2017 for Pittsburgh Cat, and because she and Margo live near each other they became friends. “She has always been one text away,” Dana said of how Margo has helped her with rescues.

So Dana knew the foundling kittens needed to be fed and kept warm and mom cat needed to be found and reunited with her kittens, but because she was at work and had no experience with bottle feeding she needed some help, and once again she knew she could text Margo.

Getting the help she needed

Margo messaged on PFCM about the situation and tagged several local people, including me. Many people responded with offers to help, and also followed the conversation as events moved along. I did have traps and though I had a meeting later that morning I could make it there with traps and help set them up.

Preparing for the kittens and their care

Deana was also tagged and though she couldn’t get there right away she packed a “Go Kit” for me to pick up and take there to feed and care for the kittens. Deana is an EMT and often transfers her emergency skills over to cat rescue. The “Go Kit” included:

  • carrier
  • blanket (or towel)
  • heating pad (preheated)
  • mixed KMR
  • syringes
  • extra KMR powder and heated water in a thermal cup
  • extra towel/blanket to cover carrier

I drove through an April 19 snow squall to Deana’s house and then the mall, worried about the kittens’ mom in this weather, and all other kittens and mother cats out there as well. April can be cold, but the extended winter and snow as late as April 19 could be deadly to many of these little families. Often that means lots of work to treat hypothermia and frostbite and to heal upper respiratory infections, and sadly many losses of kittens to the effects of illness and stress on their mothers.

Snow squall.
Snow squall.

I did arrive at the mall, but as an aside I went to the right loading dock first but got no answer, probably the only moment no one was at the door that morning. I went around the mall to every other loading dock to find out how to get to the one I wanted and finally got back to the original one nearly an hour later than I thought I’d arrive. I can usually get cell service there but no go that morning.

Deana had arrived before me and was checking the kittens in the box. I handed her the “Go Kit” and she got to work feeding them one by one. They were hungry and ate well, and each of the kittens was clean and plump as a kitten should be at about two weeks of age. Mom had taken good care of them, and that made it more likely that she would be back.

Deana feeding the kittens

Planning for mom cat, and caring for the kittens through the day

We made plans for kitten care through the day and for trapping mom cat a little later. I had a meeting with a customer (I was late, but she is one of my portrait customers and understood), Deana had some time while taking her young son to classes and would take the kittens with her to feed them. She would feed them through the day and before she left for work at about 3:00. I would pick up the kittens from Deana’s home after 5:00 and would meet Dana at the loading dock with a trap and set it up. Kittens eat every two to three hours and with that timing the kittens would be hungry, and sing for mama so she’d walk into the trap.

And they were hungry when I got there!

Hungry kittens

Mom is back!

Dana was waiting at the loading dock and told me immediately that the cat who had to be the mother was inside, back against the back wall. Poor girl was probably terribly confused about her kittens not being where she’d left them. As I took a few photos of her Dana remarked how warm it was in the dock because it was technically inside the building, and that was probably why this mother cat had chosen it as a place for her kittens though she had to jump up three feet to get to the opening with each of seven kittens. A UPS truck was in the dock area when I arrived too, and Dana had stood in front of the dock and told the driver he wasn’t using the dock today, he had to carry the packages around. He understood and didn’t complain.

Mom in the loading dock.

Setting the trap using kittens as bait

The kittens were already mewing so we quickly organized the specific setup using kittens to trap their mother. The kittens were a given, at this age they were friendly, but we had no idea about their mother. It’s best to presume they mother is feral or unfriendly and will not come to you, and not come to her kittens if you are too near. Even formerly socialized cats can be frightened when they’ve been forced to survive outdoors. A mother cat’s interest is protecting her kittens on top of her own survival so she will literally walk through fire, as many mother cats have done, to get to her kittens and get them to a place she feels is safer than where they are.

Knowing this cat behavior the humane trap is set so that the only way the mother can get to her kittens is to go through the trap. The kittens are safely tucked in their carrier which is bundled in blankets and with the door closed and locked. The front of the carrier is placed up against the back end of the trap so the kittens can be seen looking through the trap. Then the entire length of trap and carrier is covered with one blanket so that when mom inspects the situation she sees that the only way to get her kittens is to go into the trap and head for the back of it, and thereby stepping on the plate that closes the door. Typically it’s not a good idea to cover a trap because the cover will often move with breezes and frighten the cat off. In this case it’s necessary so the blanket covering the setup has to be weighed down or tucked under with no loose ends that might move and frighten the mother. In this case it was tucked underneath.

The loading dock and the trap setup.
The loading dock and the trap setup.

The trick is to get the kittens to mew to get mom to inspect the trap and go inside. Hearing her kittens will put just about any mom into action, though sometimes we will also use “kitten music”, videos of kittens mewing on Youtube.

Though it had stopped snowing hours before and the sun had come out it was actually quite cold as the clouds parted, and it would be a cold, clear night. We hoped for mom and for kittens as well as us that we would trap her quickly and all could be safe and warm inside before the sun went down.

Success in about five minutes!

But we had barely walked all the way back to our cars when the mother cat peeked out the side of the dock, then jumped down. She inspected the strange object with her mewing kittens inside of it, went to the front end and paused, then went in, and in a second or two we heard the trap door close. She was so fast I didn’t even have the chance to get my camera ready, and the one photo I got is the moment after she had entered the trap and before the door closed behind her. She was a tortie, and did not look like a young cat, one of last year’s kittens, but well past a year, possibly two years. She was quiet and cautious, growled a bit, but made eye contact and wasn’t flailing around. It was likely she had some socialization.

Mom in the trap.

Mary arrived to help right after the trap closed, so we all went to pick up the carrier and trap and pack them into our cars. The family was going to Deana’s house for an overnight and to their final foster the next day.

Feeding the kittens and mom

The kittens needed to eat, but not knowing the socialization status of their mother we left her in her trap when we arrived. She had growled a little bit but had not acted out at all. If she was feral she could change in a second and if let out or escaped from the trap she could be a dervish around Deana’s basement with cages of other fosters. If she saw us handling her kittens she could attack us. She would be moving the next day and getting her back in the trap could be difficult.

Mary and I used the remaining mixed formula and began feeding the kittens with syringes, joined by Deana’s daughter Angie for her first try at feeding kittens. There were seven very hungry kittens and the more hands the better. The kittens didn’t eat as well as they had before and it was likely because they were just not quite warm enough, a really important factor in kittens eating well. They had had the heating pad to keep them warm and extra blankets in there, and had only been outside of a warm place for a few minutes, and there were seven in the carrier to help keep each other warm, but on a cold day that could be just enough to lower their body temperature a degree. They had felt warm enough before we started so Mary and I, the ones with experience, decided to go ahead. When they only ate about half as much as usual we decided to continue and let them eat just a little rather than stop and warm them up. They hadn’t eaten for almost four hours and they would be fed again later after they had been inside for a while.

Feeding the kittens

Oh, yes, then we had to stimulate them to pee, since mom cat does that after or sometimes while they are nursing. Apparently we did well in that because they all performed as expected.

There are four ginger kittens in the litter, so to be sure we weren’t trying to feed one that had already been fed and missing one that had not been, we handed the kittens that were done to Dana, who snuggled them. They all went back into the carrier but still fussed a little, and the smallest one, the solid black kitty, crawled off to the corner at first, a sign he might not have been warm enough still, but then came back and piled in with the group.

Dana snuggling the kittens

Then mom got to eat. I put a can of food on a paper plate and slid it under her trap so that no door would need to be opened and she could click it off the plate through the bars. She ate hungrily and looked up at us calmly. I could touch her through the cage. She was not feral, but still might be reactive.

Deana had other fosters in her basement and could make the decision when she got home from work whether she would move them all to a cage so mom could nurse them overnight or not. Once in the cage, mom could become hard to handle, and under the stress of all this strange activity could even hurt her kittens and we didn’t want to give Deana any more work to do than she already had. Ultimately, Deana did reunite them later when she got home and mom was friendly enough, so the kittens finally got to nurse and cuddle with mom.

Off to their permanent foster

The next day the kittens went to their foster, Cami.  She found the mom to be not only friendly but sweet and affectionate and named her Barb. “She had to have belonged to someone. She’s way too sweet to have grown up stray,” she said.

All went well for two days until Cami noticed Barb had scratches on her belly and she also had a slight fever. The kittens were nursing but were still mewing as if they were hungry and Barb didn’t seem to be producing much milk, none at all from some nipples. They supplemented the kittens with feedings but the next day they realized that Barb’s milk had dried up and began feeding them around the clock. Because of her condition and a slight fever Barb was spayed but there was no sign of a uterine infection or possible pyometra. It’s still not known what caused her condition.

“As for the babes, they have been struggling with constipation most likely cause by formula and mom’s lack of stimulating them since she was sick,” Cami said. The kittens are being treated for this, and it doesn’t stop their cuteness.

“The kittens are awesome!” she said. “So very sweet and they love to snuggle. They are getting more steady on their feet and starting to play with toys since they have already mastered playing with each other.”

The black kitten is still smaller than the others, and we still refer to that littlest one as the “runt”.  “We had to syringe feed him in the beginning because he didn’t like to eat, but now he’s a little pig!” she said.

She has also named the little family.

  • Mom: Barb
  • Black runt: Bubbles
  • Black/grey stripped tabbies: Randi and Mr. Lahey
  • Gingers: Cory, Trevor, Ricky, Julian

The two tabbies have patterns distinct enough that they can be told apart, but the gingers are very similar. Hopefully for Cami they will individualize as they grow up.

The entire family will be up for adoption through Pittsburgh C.A.T. in about two months.


Kittens reunited with mom.

A few thoughts

A happy ending is always sweet and cute kittens just make your heart sing, but this litter was on the edge of tragedy. Imagine if Dana and her co-workers hadn’t heard them or hadn’t cared. Also, the cold, wet weather continued for two weeks. Imagine if mom had been trying to care for them out in those conditions; likely the little black one would have succumbed to hypothermia or a respiratory infection fairly quickly, and possibly others too. And then mom quit producing milk just two days after they were rescued, and we still don’t know why. All the kittens would have starved to death. Whatever condition mom has might have eventually killed her too.

Where did such a friendly mother cat come from? And she and her kittens were so clean and healthy in that impossible mud and snow. Had she given birth outdoors, or had she been put outside along with them by someone who just didn’t want to deal with them a day or so before mom found her way to the loading dock?

So many unanswered questions and so many possibilities, many of them not good. Bringing the little family to safety is definitely a wonderful thing, but I’ll state the obvious: spay and neuter your pets. Don’t even let them fall into the need to be rescued.

And for those who wonder where the “feral cat problem” comes from, this cat, once a pet, would become one of that population of vilified cats who are just trying to stay alive, and any of her kittens who survived would grow up unsocialized, producing more unsocialized kittens to be seen as vermin in many places, and there you have a feral colony at risk. It all came from one person who abandoned a cat outside. In Pennsylvania, abandoning any animal who relies on you for food and shelter is a crime, so why do people take it so lightly? Because people have always done this and many don’t even know it’s against the law. On our part, we have to make our society a place where everyone knows this is not only a legal crime, it’s also a moral crime.


Often my stories are quite long because I want to include information others can use, like the technique for trapping a mother cat using her kittens as bait, the kitten “Go Kit”, and the reasons for not removing kittens when you find them. Wherever I can give others a little bit of instruction I’m glad to slip it in there.

Also read, The Kitten Game: How to Help Feral Kittens


And don’t forget our Homeless Cat Management Team and Pittsburgh C.A.T. Spaghetti Dinner on May 20!


Read other stories in my Rescue Stories series.

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