Do Feral Cats Abandon Their Kittens?

Coming across kittens without their mother cat around can be disheartening, especially for a cat lover like you. It can be extremely stressful, too, since the situation can force you to decide between lending a hand (adopting them or contacting a rescue group) and leaving them alone. And now you may be wondering: Do feral cats abandon their kittens?

As a general rule, feral cats abandon their kittens if they are sick or defective. It’s nature’s way of controlling the spread of feline diseases and genetic defects that parent cats pass to their offspring. Abandoned feral kittens, if taken and trained at the right time, can be turned into pets.

Below, you will come across some of the most important matters you need to know about seemingly abandoned kittens — how to tell if they’re abandoned alright and what you can do in case they are indeed abandoned.

Differences Between Feral and Stray Cats

Before anything else, let’s talk about the key differences between feral cats and stray cats. The best way to begin this is by establishing the fact that feral, stray and house (or pet) cats are all domestic cats.

Domestic cats are way smaller than massive wild cats that live anywhere from tropical rainforests to savannas.

Many people do not have a hard time differentiating house cats from both feral and stray cats. It’s pretty obvious that house cats are domestic cats kept as household pets. Most house cats are kept indoors, which is why they are also known as indoor cats. However, some house cats are also kept outside, within their owners’ properties.

Differentiating feral cats from stray cats, on the other hand, is not that easy for a lot of people. If you are one of them, fret not. Here are some of the key differences between feral cats and stray cats…

homeless cat

Feral cats

  • Feral cats never had any contact with people. In some instances, they once had contact with people, albeit diminished after some time. Due to the lack of or diminished socialization, feral cats fear people.
  • Because they are fearful of people, feral cats avoid having eye contact with them. They also do not meow or purr to ask for food or be turned into pets. However, feral cats won’t think twice hissing or growling at people if they feel threatened or that their territories or little ones are compromised.
  • Compared to stray cats, feral cats look cleaner. It doesn’t come as a surprise since they were born and raised outdoors — they know which places and which activities could cause them to get dirty. Because they never depended on people to remain clean, they are very good at grooming themselves.
  • Whether domestic or wild, cats are nocturnal animals — they spend most of the day sleeping and spend most of the night doing all sorts of activities. Feral cats are more active at night because there are fewer people outside, plus it is ingrained in their genes to look for food at night just like their wild counterparts.
  • Feral cats usually stick together. This is why they are often seen in alleys and sewer systems in groups.
  • The body language of feral cats reveals the fact that they are terrified of people — it’s not unlikely for them to crawl or crouch or stay low in the ground and shield their bodies with their tails.
  • In the US, only 2% of feral cats are sterilized, which is why it can be easy to come across feral female cats with kittens. It’s due to this why it’s a good idea to cooperate with animal welfare agencies with trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs to control the population of feral cats and reduce the number of feral kittens suffering.
  • The kittens of feral cats can be socialized and turned into pets. However, it’s a must to do this before they develop a strong fight or flight instinct, after which it can be quite difficult to socialize them. Below, we will discuss this matter — so don’t stop reading now if you are looking to adopt feral kittens.
  • Last but not least, it’s not advisable to try to turn feral cats into pets. While it’s not at all that impossible to make adult feral cats accustomed to humans, they may not become as docile and friendly as house cats.

Stray cats

  • Stray cats have been socialized in the past. Unfortunately, they have left or lost their homes together with their contact with people and dependence on them. Because they were once house cats, stray cats may approach people, provided that they feel that they can be trusted enough.
  • Since they are accustomed to the presence of people, it’s not unlikely for stray cats to meow or purr, especially if begging for food or feeling extra friendly. Stray cats also don’t have trouble with having eye contact.
  • Compared to feral cats, stray cats tend to look dirty or unkempt. That’s because they used to spend time indoors, where it’s less likely for them to end up messy.
  • Despite being nocturnal animals, it’s not unlikely for stray cats to be more visible during the daytime. They don’t have a hard time roaming around or hunting for food when people are active since they are not at all that threatened by them — at one point in their lives, after all, stray cats have had contact with people.
  • Stray cats usually operate on their own. So, in other words, they live alone instead of being in a group.
  • In terms of movement, stray cats closely resemble house cats. For instance, they may walk holding their tails straight up — this means that they are happy to meet you.
  • Because stray cats were once house cats, the majority of female ones are spayed. In the US, around 85% of house cats are sterilized. It’s because of this why coming across stray female cats with babies is very rare, although you may also encounter one with a litter from time to time.
  • Like the kittens of feral cats, the little ones of stray cats can be turned into pets, too. As a matter of fact, it is easier to turn them from stray kittens to house kittens since they usually acquire their mom’s trust in and friendliness to people. The sooner you socialize stray kittens, the better.
  • Finally, stray cats can become house cats. Since they were once pets, it will only take a little work to train. Sadly, if stray cats lose contact with people for a long time, they may become feral cats.

Abandoned vs. Unsupervised Kittens

abandoned kittens

Most people assume right away that kittens without their mother around are abandoned.

Like every other feline out there, a cat that has just given birth to a litter has some needs to fulfil, too. For a few minutes at a time on a daily basis, it will momentarily leave its babies to look for food and water and bury its poop somewhere. Because of this, refrain from supposing that the kittens before you are abandoned unless proven otherwise.

And this takes us to a pressing matter…

How to tell if a mother cat has abandoned her kittens

A mother cat regularly licks its kittens to comfort them and keep them clean, which is why dirty kittens are likely to be abandoned by their mom. This is especially true if they are crying and appear skinny and dehydrated, too, all of which are signs that they haven’t been breastfeeding for a while.

Bringing home feral kittens without verifying first if they are abandoned or simply unsupervised is a bad idea.

It can do each concerned party, from the mom to every member of its litter, more harm than good. A feral kitten will feel down and stressed when it returns to the nesting area and discovers that her little ones are no longer there. Also, the young cats may fail to get fully nourished even if they’re given milk replacer, which doesn’t come close to the real deal.

The importance of figuring out if kittens are abandoned for good or momentarily unattended cannot be stressed enough. Failure to come up with the correct answer can instantly turn an otherwise noble deed into a cruel act.

For instance, did you know that mother cats mourn for a long time if their babies are taken from them? For the next two to three days, they will try their best to look for their missing kittens. And upon realizing that their little ones are gone for good, they will attempt to resume living a normal life.

Luckily, there are steps that you may take to determine if the litter is abandoned or just unsupervised:

Check if the kittens are dirty

It’s no secret that cats lick themselves so much. They do it not only to stay clean but also to regulate their body temperature and calm themselves when feeling anxious.

Well, mommy cats, no matter if feral, stray or house, also lick their little ones a lot, and it’s pretty much for the same reasons, such as to keep them clean and calm them down. However, they also lick their baby cats to encourage them to breastfeed and stimulate them to pee and poop.

Observe their health status

Sickness is one of the reasons why mother cats abandon their kittens. If the ones you are checking out appear ill and extremely underweight, there is a huge possibility that they are not in good shape, which is why their mother has decided to turn its back on them. It’s heart-rending but that’s how nature works.

Hungry kittens will cry for milk. If they are just unsupervised, their mother will show up soon enough to breastfeed them. If they are abandoned, they will still be crying when you visit them again — if they’re still alive.

Count the number of kittens

Were there more kittens when you first came across the litter? There are many possible reasons why some of the baby cats are missing. It could be that someone adopted a few or a hungry predatory animal chanced upon them.

It could also be because the mother cat has moved its healthier kittens to another place and decided to leave the unhealthy ones behind. Or, if it seems like the remaining kittens are all in excellent shape, it could be that it’s just taking their mom a while to transport them one by one. Don’t worry, as it will surely come back to get the rest.

Due to the possibilities, give a try the next tip on how to determine if the litter is abandoned or just unsupervised.

Sprinkle a little flour around

Here’s a clever way to have an idea of whether or not the mommy cay is paying its kittens a visit: grab a small box of flour and sprinkle it around the nesting area. Leave the kittens alone and come back after a while. If there are paw prints when you return, it’s very much likely that the kittens are not abandoned.

Still, the paw prints could have been made by a curious stray or feral cat. If the kittens are sleeping soundly and appear well-fed, too, you can safely assume that the paw prints were made by their visiting mom.

Before we proceed to the next topic, let’s answer this critical question…

Will a mother cat abandon her kittens if you touch them?

homeless kittens

A mother cat will not abandon its kittens if humans touch them. It may be able to detect the human’s scent on its babies alright, but it won’t necessarily reject and desert them. However, a mother cat may move its kittens to a different place if it believes that they are in danger.

Observing feral kittens is perfectly fine. However, touching feral kittens is a completely different matter. This is especially true if their mother is right next to them or watching from afar.

If you attempt to touch, pick up or cuddle feral kittens and their mom is around, consider yourself lucky if all their mom does is growl and hiss at you. Consider yourself unfortunate if it scratches and bites you. If that happens, immediately wash the area with soap and water and meet with a doctor.

Getting a tetanus shot after being scratched or bitten by a feral cat is recommended for your protection. And if you live where cat rabies is common, getting a series of rabies shots is of utmost importance.

What to Do With Feral Kittens

Especially if you are a certified ailurophile or you just love animals in general, doing nothing when you come across a litter of feral kittens can leave you with feelings of guilt or inadequacy. This is why it’s very much likely for you to want to do something to make sure that those little meowing creatures won’t suffer.

Doing something is better than doing nothing at all. No matter if you decide to welcome the feral kittens into your home or alert the local rescue group, it feels nice to know that you made a difference in the lives of those creatures.

But first, it’s a definite must to establish whether those kittens need rescuing or not.

By following the above-mentioned steps on determining the current status of a litter of little cats, figuring out whether the kittens you are observing are abandoned or without a mom for just a little while should be easy. With a solid conclusion, you can decide better which action you should take next.

Here are some of the things that you may do from that point on:

Move the kittens to a safer location

Whether or not you are sure that the litter is abandoned, consider moving them to a safer place if their current location puts them in danger. Just see to it that you transfer the kittens in the immediate area only. This is to make sure that their mother will be able to find them without any trouble when it returns.

Get in touch with the pros

If it seems like the kittens are abandoned because they are unhealthy, inform a local rescue group or animal shelter. Sadly, not all agencies have a program for sick neonatal kittens — some do not have a program for any neonatal kittens at all. When looking for help, approach an agency that’s equipped for the job.

Take care of the kittens yourself

Last but not least, if you are willing to take care of a litter, you may adopt the abandoned kittens. Especially if they are far from being weaned, caring for them won’t be easy — but it can be very rewarding. Take them to the vet ASAP for a thorough examination and get expert assistance in taking care of them.

And speaking of taking care of feral kittens…

When is the best time to adopt feral kittens?

homeless kitten

The best time to take the kittens of a feral mother cat is between five to six weeks of age. Feral kittens below two months old are easy to tame and socialize because they haven’t yet acquired their mother’s strong fight or flight instinct, which is very much needed for them to survive outdoors.

As a general rule of thumb, the younger the feral kittens are adopted, the better. Unless it’s really necessary, do not take them away from their mother if they are still breastfeeding.

When it comes to turning feral kittens into pets, socializing them is a must. Socializing helps kittens learn how to interact with people. It also helps them to learn how to interact with other cats and pets. Another importance of socializing is that it increases the confidence of young felines and makes them feel safe and protected in their new home.

Kittens are very observant. When socializing them, they will take social cues from you rather than from their mother cat, which is poor at interacting with people since it’s feral.

Socializing baby cats to turn them from feral to house kittens can take some time. Kittens that are five to eight weeks old usually take two to four weeks to be socialized. On the other hand, kittens that are 10 to 12 weeks of age may take a longer time to be socialized — it may seem extremely difficult, but it’s not too late.

Please note that, since every kitten is different, the time it takes to socialize young feral cats can vary.

No matter if you choose to welcome the kittens into your home, move them to a safer place or let a local rescue group or animal shelter spring into action, ensure that the baby cats are abandoned alright and not just unattended.

Photo credit: ©

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The Pet Rescue.

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