If you have suddenly found yourself joining the kitten rescue squad, don't panic! Many people are able to successfully rescue and re-home kittens, without previous experience. When we see creatures in desperate need, we should do what we can to help, and this is something you CAN do. Here are some tips for success!
1. Take them in--Now.
Don't leave kittens outside. They are in serious and immediate danger from predators, or other traumatic events. We often hear from people who leave the scene and go back, only to find one or more kittens missing or dead. You may only have one chance to help, so do the kind thing, and pick them up right away. Be sure to transport the kittens as safely as possible, since kittens can be injured or difficult to retrieve if they escape en route. Make a quick and inexpensive cat carrier, using objects found at discount stores, such as baskets or laundry nets. If you only see one kitten, look around for siblings. Don't remove kittens from mother cats, especially if 3 weeks old or under (eyes barely open, ears not up, and/or crawling rather than walking). It is usually a very difficult job to keep young kittens healthy and well fed without their mother. Try to determine if mom might be somewhere nearby, and wait enough time to be sure the kittens are actually on their own before removing them. If kittens and mom have all been abandoned together, or are together uncared for, consider rescuing and re-homing the group. Mom will do most of the work caring for the kittens.
2. Keep them warm and hydrated
Check each kitten’s body for signs of trauma or ill health. If possible, take them directly to be checked by a veterinarian. Very young kittens (with eyes still closed) should respond by bobbing their heads up, when touched, while older kittens should actively move around. They should not cry constantly--only when hungry. In cases of orphaned kittens, dehydration is a common concern, the symptoms being lethargy and lack of appetite. Giving the kittens some sugar water may help temporarily. Mix one teaspoon sugar with a cup of warm water, and put drops into the front of the mouth. Be careful not to tip the head back, so the kitten doesn't choke or inhale liquid. Hypothermia is also a common problem, particularly with young kittens, who cannot regulate their body temperature and react dramatically to changes in ambient temperature. Gently and immediately warm kittens who feel chilled by holding them close to your bare skin. Keep the kittens warm, without being too hot, by placing a hot water bottle nearby. This can be made by wrapping a small drink bottle filled with very warm water in a towel. If the kittens need the extra warmth, they will rest near or on the bottle. Even if the room or outside temperature seems warm to you, the kittens will still need access to the extra warmth, particularly at night and in cases of a single kitten rescue. Pay special attention to any wounds, which can look small but may involve a serious abscess under the skin. Issues such as wounds, a runny nose or eyes full of discharge, often require immediate veterinary attention.
3. Give them food and comfort
Address food and comfort needs before worrying about cleaning the kittens up or removing fleas. A bed with a soft furry blanket in a box or basket, along with the hot water bottle, can really make kittens feel secure and comforted. Kittens whose eyes are open may be ready to eat soft wet food. Kitten food is best, as it is easiest to eat, and it contains the extra amount of nutrients that kittens need for growth. Warm the food slightly, to make it stronger smelling and more attractive, then place it in a small dish directly under each kitten's mouth. You may also need to introduce the food, by placing a very small dab in the front of the kitten's mouth. If that doesn't work, or the eyes are still closed, the kittens will need to be bottle fed. Do not ever give kittens cow's milk as it does not have the nutrients needed, and can also cause severe stomach upset. Specially formulated kitten milk is necessary. Find this, along with bottles, in many pet supply areas. In an emergency, there are some temporary formulas that can be made at home. Thoroughly mix the powder and water according to directions, initially using very warm water, as cool water can dangerously lower a kitten's body temperature. In order to prevent lumps that can clog the nipple, first mix the powder into a paste using a very small amount of water. Then, add water slowly while stirring. In bottle feeding, frequency and patience are key. Sucking is an important part of the feeding and digestion process, not to mention comfort and wellbeing, but it can take young kittens a bit of time to adjust to using a synthetic nipple. Rinse new nipples multiple times in warm water, to remove some of the rubbery smell. Check to be sure the milk isn't too hot or cool, and that the nipple isn't clogged, so that milk can actually flow through it. Also be sure that the hole in the nipple is not too big, creating a danger of choking or inhalation from a heavy flow of milk. The kittens may resist, at first, and some kittens may be more adaptable than others. Try to gently place the nipple in the kitten's mouth several times. Pull the nipple out, trying to get the kitten to latch on.
Wrapping the kitten in a towel, and rubbing the sides of the kitten’s mouth with your finger or thumb, can sometimes stimulate a sucking response. If a kitten doesn't start to suck, don't use force to keep the nipple in its mouth, which could create a negative association. Take a break and then try again after 10 or 20 minutes. Dropping or syringing milk into the side of the kitten's mouth can be effective, in order to provide some nutrition temporarily. As kittens grow, a liquidy paste of soft wet food and kitten formula can be syringed into the side of a kitten’s mouth to increase calorie intake and satiety. But for kittens 3 weeks of age and under, bottle feeding is usually more effective over time, so continue trying to use the bottle. Some kittens respond better if you try a different brand of bottle and/or formula. Hold kittens upright when bottle feeding, rather than on their backs, to avoid choking or aspiration (milk being drawn into lungs). Feed according to package directed amounts, 6 or more times per day and try to keep track of how much each kitten eats to be sure all are getting enough. In general, kittens should be fed as much and as often as possible. Healthy kittens should gain weight steadily, should not cry constantly, should be actively moving or quietly sleeping, and should have round bellies. Check weight daily for steady increase. Kittens need to gain weight every single day. If weight stays the same, there’s a problem. If weight goes down, there’s a big problem. Health issues in kittens move into crisis mode quickly, so vigilance and quick medical attention are essential. Even under optimum care, some kittens are not able to adapt to life without their feline mother. Some also have serious genetic defects. Give it your best shot, and know that you were at least able to provide some warmth and comfort.
4. Help them to toilet
Very young kittens need help toileting, and cannot eliminate without stimulation. Their mother would normally provide this, and without it, they may actually die. Place the kitten on its back, in the palm of your hand, and tap the genital area with a tissue gently. You can use a tissue dipped in warm water, but don't use packaged wet tissues, as the chemicals included are not always safe for kittens. Some rescues use cotton pads with plain saline solution, which can be gentler than dry tissue. Help young kittens to eliminate after every feeding, keeping track of number of times eliminating and consistency of feces. Watch out for continuous diarrhea, which requires veterinary care as it can dangerously dehydrate kittens. A few common causes of diarrhea are bacteria in the living space, diet irregularity, and/or parasites. Start by bringing a small sample of the kitten's feces along with the kitten to the vet, who can check for parasites, bacteria or digestion problems, and provide appropriate treatment. Human medications and supplements are often very unsafe or even deadly to use on cats, so do not medicate without veterinary supervision. Constipation can also be a problem. If the kitten is not defecating, try patting the area with a warm water soaked tissue and gently massaging the belly. A small amount of mashed boiled or steamed pumpkin can be added to the wet food of older kittens to lessen the symptoms of diarrhea (or constipation) but it will not address any underlying cause.
5. Keep them clean
Since orphaned kittens are without the protection of antibodies in their mother's milk, they are very susceptible to bacterial infections. So, their living space and bodies must be kept very clean. Change bedding or cage lining frequently. Wash your hands before handling, and use a warm wet washcloth (or plain saline soaked cotton pad) to clean the area around the kitten's mouth after every feeding. If not cleaned immediately after eating, food or milk on the face or neck will harden and be difficult to remove afterward, encouraging bacteria. Feces residue may also need to be cleaned away from the leg and tail area. If the kitten must be bathed, do it after the health is stabilized, and keep the kittens warm at ALL times. Sometimes, just a quick bottom half warm water wash of the tail and back legs is enough. For bigger cleanup needs, use kitten safe shampoo, but keep water and shampoo away from the kitten's face. Shampoos like Nolvasan, containing chlorhexidine, are good for removing bacteria. Immediately towel dry after removing the kittens from warm water. Use a blow dryer or heater (at a distance) while toweling dry, keeping the kittens continuously warm until dry. Discuss flea treatment with a vet, before any application, as some types may be too strong and very dangerous to use on kittens. Do not use flea collars, which are irritating to skin and sometimes get stuck in a kitten or cat’s mouth when they frantically try to remove the collars due to irritation. Flea combs are safe, and can be used to remove fleas manually.
6. Keep them safe and social
Give the kittens a safe place to play and live. Use a shallow litter tray, with a type of non-clumping cat litter that has larger pellets, so that the kittens do not accidentally ingest it. Cages can often be convenient to use for kitten care, as they address safety issues for the kittens when not supervised. Make cage life more comfortable by adding a loft bed. If you have young children, explain how fragile kittens are, and supervise all interaction. Tragic accidents can happen when young children are left unsupervised with pets. This is a good chance to instill empathy in your child, and to provide instruction on how kittens should be held and picked up, specifically not around their stomachs or necks. Friendly kittens are much more likely to be adopted, and some kittens will need more help with socialization than others. Gently play with the kittens, without scaring or stressing them, and interact with the kittens often to encourage this process.
7. Start looking for a forever home
If you are able to give the kittens a good home yourself, consider doing that. It can actually be very easy to take cats with you, for those living abroad. However, if you aren't able to provide a home yourself, get started on the re-homing process right away. It's usually much easier to find homes for kittens while they're young. Think up cute names, and write up interesting profiles. Make attractive posters to put up at schools, shops, veterinary clinics, etc. If you only have English or non-native language ability, post classified ads on popular expat websites and magazines. If you have native language ability, post on local or regional rehoming sites (for example, in Japan: http://www.satoya-boshu.net/ or http://www.pet-home.jp/). In any case, always check potential homes carefully. Do not post ads for “free kittens” as this attracts the wrong kind of people. Though most people responding to ads for kittens are genuinely interested in adoption, there are also those with bad intentions, who are searching for free cats and kittens. Consider asking new adopters to pay some of the previous veterinary costs, which can indicate a sincere investment in ongoing wellbeing. Or, ask the adopter to make a verified donation to an animal charity of your choice, perhaps the charity which provided any assistance with this rescue. Always go to the home, check that the address matches the identification, and watch how potential guardians interact with the kittens. Be absolutely certain that the kittens will be spayed or neutered or better yet, manage that aspect ahead of time yourself. Re-homing without ensuring spay/neuter could add to the tragic and unnecessary cycle of unwanted kittens continuing on for future generations.
8. Prevent other kittens from winding up in the same position
Pat yourself on the back! Helping when there is such an obvious desperate need, is the kind and good thing to do. Now, take a look around the area. Kittens are often found in places where stray cats congregate, and starting a TNR project in these areas is the most effective way to make a difference. Trapping stray cats for spay and neuter not only stops the needless reproduction and suffering of kittens, it gives these cats the best chance for a healthier, safer life. For more advice or assistance, see general rescue tips and rehoming advice. Or, feel free to contact https://japancatnetwork.org/.