First, read about making the best decision for found kittens, with or without mother, at any age in “The Kitten Game.”
Sometimes mom just won’t go into the trap, while her kittens, especially neonates and very young kittens not yet weaned, can just be picked up and handled. But as easy as that is, you should never leave an intact female cat and take her kittens. Kittens need their mom, even if she’s feral, and their mom will just go on and produce more kittens if she’s not spayed. But you can use the thing(s) she cares about most in the world to bring her in—her kittens.
A mother cat’s interest is protecting her kittens on top of her own survival so she will literally walk through fire, as mother cats have done, to get to her kittens and get them to a place she feels is safer than where they are.
So if mom is trapwise or wary, you use this particular mother cat behavior to your advantage and set a humane trap with the only bait that could possibly make her walk into it—her kittens. You don’t actually put the kittens in the trap, but you set it up so it looks as if they are, and that the only way the mother can get to them is to go through the trap.
Too many kittens
It’s kitten season and the little fluffies are popping up out of the soil like furry mushrooms. Of course, you want to rescue those cute kittens, but the first thing you need to do is ask yourself a bunch of questions about them, and their mother. Does anyone near know anything about them? Is their mother with them, or in the vicinity? Is she feral or friendly? Are they in any danger? How old do they appear to be? Are their eyes open? Are they walking around? And more.
Whether it’s a friendly mom with tiny kittens destined to be friendly and adoptable, a feral mom with older kittens in need of some socialization, or anywhere in between those two possibilities, giving all the cats involved their best chance at a life off the streets is your goal. You don’t want to grab the kittens and leave a cat able to produce yet another litter out on the streets. Your best decision will be to keep mom and kittens together regardless of her attitude because her natural food and her nurturing are both better for them than anything you could provide, and find a foster who can care for them in the condition they are in. Assess the entire situation before you do anything. I have tons of information on this assessment in an article called “The Kitten Game”, which will walk you through just about every circumstance you could walk into.
Planning your trapping
If mom and/or kittens are showing up to eat regularly and their condition seems safe and stable, or if just mom is showing up and you know where she stashed the kittens, you don’t need to grab them right away but can get to know them a little better and work on a plan for trapping.
Sometimes, though, mom is wary, and wily. Mother cats are often reluctant to enter a trap, even though food provides a hungry mom a big incentive. Even if she is a socialized, friendly cat, mother cats are often fiercely defensive and protective even when they don’t need to be—you are obviously working for their benefit—and they won’t respond to your overtures nor walk into a trap. Feral moms can seem to walk into a trap and eat and walk back out without tripping the trap. Other humans around, trying to be helpful, or not, may also be feeding, so mom will avoid the trap altogether and eat elsewhere.
Situations like these are when you would consider using her kittens as bait to lure her into the trap instead of food because when they mew for her, she will move mountains to get to them, including running into a trap when she feels it’s the only way to reach them.
The needs of neonatal kittens
If neonatal kittens are concerned, be sure you are skilled with their needs, and if not, find someone who is. This process is 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 frequently. Using kittens as bait pushes both kittens and mother to the edge of safety, and it’s best to only do this after you have experience with neonatal and younger kittens so you understand their fragility and needs.
Trapping happens in the snow and in the heat of summer. You need to be very careful neonatal kittens are warm and that they’ll stay that way but not become overheated, and how to tell the difference. If they are still nursing and mom is taking her time coming around you will also need to properly feed them milk replacement formula as recommended per their age, warmed, in a little bottle, difficult to do sitting outside watching traps so you either need to be thoroughly prepared or have help who can leave to prepare formula.
Ironically, the kittens also need to be a little hungry so they will cry for her and she will respond. It’s a difficult balance, and making the right decisions can mean life or death for the kittens.
Setting up the trap and the kittens as “bait”
If you don’t know about mom’s personality it’s best to presume she is feral or unfriendly and will not come to you, and may not come to her kittens if you are too near. Even formerly socialized cats can be resistant to human contact when they’ve been forced to survive outdoors.
The kittens are safely tucked in a carrier which is prepared for kittens of their age in the weather conditions that exist. The front of the carrier is placed up against the back end of the trap so the kittens can be seen and clearly heard when she looks into the trap.
Then the entire length of trap and carrier is covered with one cover 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, in the process 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, and they may be resistant to walk into a tunnel that smells strongly of humans and unfamiliar things. In this case it’s necessary, so the covering on the setup has to be weighed down or tucked under with no loose ends that might move and frighten the mother.
She can smell her kittens from outside so she may look around, but it’s not until they start to cry from hunger that most mothers will consider going into the trap.
The kittens won’t cry! Mom won’t go in!
There are times when the kittens ought to be hungry but they just won’t cry, or they won’t cry very much. You need to check to be sure they are okay, warm enough, alert if they aren’t napping. There are also times when the kittens may not be well enough to withstand the hours of waiting so you can’t use them this way, or the mother cat still won’t go into the trap no matter what you do.
Recordings of kittens crying will sometimes work better than using the mother’s own kittens. You could record her kittens if they cry with their foster, or find a video on YouTube or other services—yes, you’ll find two minutes of neonatal kittens mewing, and many other choices. We jokingly call this “kitten music”. Set your phone on top of the trap, in the back, above where the food would be. You can cover the trap tightly so she has to go and look inside, following the mewing.
A few examples
On the first day of trapping at the Dunbar Street abandoned house (where Mariposa came from) we discovered a feral tabby mom nursing four two-week-old tabby kittens in one of the upstairs rooms. We had to remove all the cats so of course we took the four kittens after mom took off. But we did the kitten-bait setup outside in the yard, under a bush, using only a sheet to cover because of the heat (these are the photos above). She peeked into the yard a few times, then disappeared. We packed up the kittens, fed them and got ready to come back at night for her and as many others as we could trap. We set her trap first because the kittens were restless and very vocal. She showed up quickly but paced around, poking and pulling the sheet and sitting and looking into the trap. We thought we’d have to use a little “kitten music” but suddenly she marched right into the trap, it shut, and that was that.
One feral female in a colony in my neighborhood just would not be trapped. Of course, she showed up pregnant, then conveniently gave birth to five in a shelter on the feeder’s porch. We left the kittens where they were and tried trapping her, but she just went elsewhere to eat. We were concerned she would move her kittens because of our trapping efforts. It was late spring and warm, so we decided to use her days-old kittens as bait. Her kittens began mewing just a little and she looked at the setup, but would not go any closer than several feet away. The kittens stopped mewing. We found a video of kittens mewing and set the phone on top of the carrier and she was in the trap in about five minutes.
Penny the JC Penney cat stashed her seven kittens in the warmth under the plate in a loading dock and were very lucky no deliveries had come that morning! They were about two weeks old and obviously couldn’t stay there until mom came around again. We had no idea where their mother was or how she would fare in a mall parking lot. We packed them up and Deana took them home to feed them through the day. We planned to watch for the mother and bring them back to use as bait to trap her. The woman who discovered them kept watch on the loading dock, not permitting trucks to use it, and a cat did show up again in the late afternoon. Though it was April we had snow showers that morning and the sky cleared with dropping temperatures later for a clear, cold night. We hoped for mom and for kittens that we would trap her quickly and all could be safe and warm inside before the sun went down.
Mom was inside the back of the dock when we set up the trap, and the kittens were restless, then mom started moving and we left before we had the cover all the way over the setup. 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 right in, and in a second or two we heard the trap door close. Penny turned out to be friendly and was adopted.
In messaging with a local woman who was feeding a mom cat with kittens, she mentioned this was the fourth litter from this feral mother cat. She had never been able to trap the mom but had always grabbed the kittens, and she could handle the current kittens, about six weeks old. I briefly explained the process of setting up the trap using the kittens as bait including photos, though I had explained it to others to no avail. But within hours I had a message that she’d trapped mom using the technique I’d described, and it only took minutes before mom was in that trap trying to get them. I like it when caretakers take the initiative to try something new, and it works!
It’s not foolproof
I don’t want you to think this technique always works, partly because no one needs unrealistic expectations when trapping because we are essentially herding cats and we know how that goes, and partly because it may seem that just jumping straight to this is the best idea. There is risk involved for both the mother cat and her kittens. Mother and kittens should stay together, but if you don’t trap the mother cat, what do you do? Do you put the kittens back out after you’ve had them in a carrier and try again later? Do you leave with the kittens and come back to try again until you get their mother? You need to plan out exactly what will happen to each cat involved in your rescue. A kitten’s life could depend on your plans.
One mother cat pretty much just walked away from her kittens. The feeder didn’t know they’d been born yet, but five days-old kittens came tumbling out of the box on the porch when we peeked in and mom flew out in a blur and disappeared into the darkness. It was April with cold nights and late snow. We could leave the kittens in the box and set up a trap, hoping the mother cat would be hungry, hoping the mother cat would not think the porch was suddenly unsafe and just move the kittens to a spot that might not be as warm and dry. We put them in a carrier and set things up, wrapped in blankets and covered with a comforter. Mom came back and walked around, looked in, tried to pull away the comforter, then left. She would come back and look again, then seem to look right at us behind blinds inside the kitchen, then leave again.
The right thing would have been to feed the kittens, then put them back in the box. Mom would likely have stayed with them, or moved them, but not far. Later in the season that would be okay, but snow was falling and temperatures were below freezing and kittens that young were already at risk in that weather. I took the kittens to one of our kitten fosters who would feed them until we trapped the mom. But mom laughed at the traps, including a drop trap, and apparently ate elsewhere, then we gave things a break and the feeder just began feeding again. We did trap three other unspayed females, but not her. The foster bottle fed them, and a few months later, pregnant again, mom was finally trapped with a drop trap. Read more about this TNR.
It’s worth it to try your luck, anything to get the whole family and keep them all together.
I am honored
This article was awarded a Certificate of Excellence by the Cat Writers’ Association in the 2019 Communications Contest. Click here to read more about the CWA, the contest and the awards.
The Kitten Game
Last summer I wrote an article for Pet Radio Show outlining most of the possible scenarios where kittens are found and what to consider for each one, then how to decide what is best to do. In March I learned that article had won a Certificate of Excellence, and in June I learned it had also won a MUSE™ Medallion as well as a Special Award: the Hartz™ Milk Replacement for Kittens Award. I knew from my resources and from experience that I’d written up what I had been given as best practices, and also what I’d given others as best practices, and knew it had worked for kittens and moms. I was thrilled to find it endorsed by an awarding organization. Here are the judge’s remarks:
Spending a large amount of my time on the phone assisting residents with free roaming cat issues I can tell you how I sink back in my chair when within the first few minutes of a phone call, I hear those words, “The mother and her kittens…” Bernadette’s entry includes everything one needs to hear in a very accurate and professional manner. Now if only I could record it and say to those clients calling in, “Hold please, I’m going to play a recording for you to listen to.”
Reading the onslaught of “found kitten” postings on Facebook and seeing how many people take them far too young and to anyone who wants them, and leave the mother behind able to continue reproducing more kittens and possibly in danger, I feel compelled to share the information so others can use it. Because the article was published on Pet Radio Show I’m including the link to the article so you can go there to read it.
Gifts featuring cats you know! Visit Portraits of Animals
Great Rescues Day Book:
Portraits, Rescue Stories, Holidays and Events, Essential Feline Information, All in One Book
Each month features one of my commissioned portraits of a feline or felines and their rescue story along with a kitty quote on the left page, and on the right page the month name with enough lines for all possible dates, with standard holidays and animal-themed observances and events. Great Rescues also includes a mini cat-care book illustrated with my drawings including information on finding strays or orphaned kittens, adopting for the first time or caring for a geriatric cat, a list of household toxins and toxic plants, or helping stray and feral cats and beginning with TNR.
Each book includes also 10 sheets of my “22 Cats” decorative notepaper with a collage of all the portraits in black and white so you can make your own notes or write special notes to friends.
The portraits in this book, collected as a series, won both a Certificate of Excellence and a Muse Medallion in the 2011 Cat Writers’ Association Annual Communication Contest, as well as the 22 Cats Notepaper mentioned below.
All images and text used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission, although links to your site are more than welcome and are shared. Please ask if you are interested in using and image or story in a print or internet publication. If you are interested in purchasing a print of an image or a product including it, check my animal and nature website Portraits of Animals to see if I have it available already. If you don’t find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.
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