What to do when you find a litter of kittens
This story was originally printed in the Las Cruces Sun-News on April 3, 2015.
It happens every year, from early spring to early winter. People find kittens in their garage, under their porch, or in a bush. Although they look recently abandoned, the mother and father have probably been living there all along, but — fearful of people — only come out at night. If you find kittens on your land, your first impulse may be to call Animal Control or to take them to the shelter yourself. Don't.
First, evaluate the situation. If the kittens are in a relatively safe spot, leave them where they are until you have a plan. Observe them from a distance, but don't disturb the mother's care of them. If she senses you may approach, she'll quickly hide them. If you find kittens without their mother, watch more intently. Yes, they may have become permanently separated, but much more likely the mother may be moving the litter one kitten at a time, or is out hunting for food and water. As long as it's relatively warm out and the kittens are in a protected area, they are OK alone. If the situation doesn't change, then you may need to intercede.
Second, you need to determine their age. The options open to kittens depend on their age. The ideal time to find them is between 4 and 8 weeks of age so that the socialization process can begin with people. If you find them younger than 6 weeks old, keep them with their mother. If you are sure she is gone, then you need to find a caregiver who will be able to care for their needs.
Once you have determined they are old enough for adoption, you need to make sure it is a forever home not just a home that "likes the cute kitten." That home needs to provide medical care (vaccinations and alteration), proper food, water and housing (which means inside the home) and the animal must be licensed.
If the cats are 6 to 8 weeks old, they need socialization, so it is best to get them into a foster home where they can receive love, attention and security while they learn to enjoy human companionship. It usually takes only a few weeks to socialize them. Don't take them to an animal shelter as they will most likely be euthanized because shelters don't adopt out unsocialized kittens, since they usually have hundreds of socialized ones.
If the kittens are more than 8 weeks old and have not yet been socialized, they will be much more difficult to socialize and get them to enjoy human companionship; It's not impossible, just more difficult.
Dr. Beth Vesco-Mock is executive director of the Animal Service Center of the Mesilla Valley.