There's nothing cuter — or more vulnerable — than newborn kittens. Their tiny little "mews" are enough to completely melt your heart. They're warm, soft, and piling all on top of each other. And they're so small, you could probably fit two newborn kittens in the palm of your hand.
It can be incredibly tempting to pick them up. But is it safe to touch newborn kittens? How would the mother cat feel about it?
There are some safeguards, but not necessarily hard and fast rules, based on the situation, that you should keep in mind if you find yourself with a batch of kittens in your care.
Are the kittens in danger?
If you found kittens and they are in a spot where they might not be safe — for instance, in an alley where loose dogs roam, in a parking lot or driveway, or under a porch where momma cat might not be able to get back to them — do consider moving them. This would not necessarily be a first choice, as it is best if mom takes care of them herself. But if the goal is to save the kittens and they seem like they are in a spot where they need help, move them.
Keep in mind that it is normal for cats in the wild to leave their kittens occasionally. A feral mother cat will walk away to find food or water, or just to stretch her legs while her kittens are sleeping. A lot of kittens end up in shelters from well-meaning people who find kittens but don't give the mother a chance to come back for them. If you can keep an eye on the kittens and you don't see the mother come back after a few hours, it's time to intervene.
Some resources say kittens need intervention if they've been left alone for four hours. The newest kittens need attention around the clock. The Best Friends Animal Society says newborn kittens one week old need to nurse every two to three hours. By two weeks old and up, they need attention every four to six hours.
Unless the mother cat is very comfortable with you, chances are she will not return to her kittens if humans are hanging around. Keep your distance, and as long as the area is safe, leave mom and kittens alone. You don't want to take kittens away from their mother unless they are at least six weeks of age, and that's even a little too young.
What are the rules for touching orphaned kittens?
The "rules" for touching kittens that have a mom are different than the rules for touching kittens that are abandoned or that you've gotten from a shelter for fostering. During the first few weeks of life, kittens can not do anything on their own. They are deaf and blind, because their eyes are sealed shut.
During the first one to three weeks of life, kittens are stimulated to urinate and defecate by licking from their mother. You definitely don't have to lick them! But you will need to hold them and gently rub them, clean them, and give them some comfort.
How does the mother cat feel?
Assuming you have kittens with the mom helping, notice how Mom feels when you're nearby. Some mother cats will get agitated if you get close to her or her kittens. If the mom is ok with you being nearby or petting her, do so slowly and gently. It is not uncommon for an otherwise-friendly mother cat to become aggressive when she is protecting her kittens.
If the mom feels like she and her kittens are being disturbed too much, she may move them to a spot where they are harder to get to. Just because she is moving the kittens, it may not mean she is abandoning them. After around eight weeks, the mother cat will naturally start to wean her kittens off mother's milk, and they will be more independent. It is around this time that it is safe to take kittens away from their mother for adopting out.
Socializing newborn kittens
Regular handling of kittens is something that lots of people have opinions about. It can be hard to find clear, consistent answers to the question of how often to handle newborn kittens, or even if it is safe to handle newborn kittens. Kittens do need socialization, so at a certain point, the more handling they get, the better.
Most kittens are adopted out at eight weeks of age. At this stage, gentle, frequent handling by multiple people is desirable. Kittens need human contact early on, so they will accept being cared for by more than one person. they also need to get used to the sights, smells, and sounds of what they will encounter in your home as they embark on their new life with you.
If you are able to handle your kittens earlier than eight weeks, touch and handle them gently for a few minutes a day starting at about four weeks of age. Purina says that the more human contact from an earlier age, the better. They say that studies show that a litter of kittens born in a location inaccessible to humans will hiss at humans at as early as two to three weeks. They also say that research suggests that handling kittens very early in life accelerates their development.
UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program says to increase handling at around two to three weeks of age. They say to begin litter box training at four weeks. According to them, at five to six weeks of age, it is time to play with your kittens daily. Alley Cat Allies says it's time to start socializing kittens when they show interest in their surroundings and interact with their litter mates, people, and toys, which happens at about four weeks.
When it comes to handling newborn kittens, there is a lot of variable advice. If they are in your care, it is important to get them used to human contact, but much of that depends on the mother's acceptance of you being close to them, and whether you have regular, safe, access to the kittens. If you are bottle feeding kittens, you will need to handle them multiple times day. If the mother is taking care of them, let her do her job with minimal interruption for the first few weeks.
Remember that it is normal for cats in the wild to leave their babies for hours at a time, so don't assume that any kittens you see without their mother are necessarily abandoned.
If the kittens are in a box in your garage and the mother accepts you, you will likely have a chance to start interacting with them early on. Even if the cats have a mother who is taking care of them, she will still need help from you to fill her water and food bowl and keep the bedding clean.
Bottom line: If they are in your care, start handling newborn kittens as soon as it is safe to do so, and without agitating the mother cat. When you start handling the kittens, be gentle, handle them for short periods of time, and keep a close eye on the mother's behavior to be sure they are not being disturbed by your actions.
- Animal Wised: Why Do Cats Move Their Kittens?
- Hill's Pet: Tips for Socializing Your Kitten with People & Other Pets
- Purina: Raising Kittens: Eight Steps To The Perfect Cat
- UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program: Guidebook: Guide to Raising Underage Kittens Chapter 2 - Caring for Kittens from Birth to Eight Weeks
- Alley Cat Allies: How Old Is That Kitten? Kitten Guide - Four Weeks
- ASPCA: A Kitten’s Journey: Caring for Our Smallest Residents at the ASPCA Kitten Nursery
- Broward County Florida Animal Resources: Caring For Found Kittens
- Best Friends Animal Society: Bottle Feeding Kittens
- Feral Change: Found Kittens, Now What?
- Canidae: Why Are Kittens and Puppies Deaf and Blind at Birth?
- ASPCA Pro: CAS Kitten Foster Manual - 2016