“If your cat has kittens, what are you supposed to do?” This was a question asked by a local news anchor last week during a report on the Edmonton Humane Society (EHS). The animal welfare organization had issued a press release stating it would not be accepting any more owner-surrendered cats due to an extreme lack of space.
Given the time of year, this is not surprising. I believe EHS made a similar moratorium around this same time in 2013. They made it clear they would still take in stray and injured cats but could not care for any more brought in my owners until the pressure of high numbers lifted. These are cats who are surrendered to the shelter for reasons like moving, or, as in the quote above, kittens born to families who do not wish to keep them.
When I first heard the news broadcast I was so stunned by the anchor’s words that I had to rewind the footage to make sure I heard him right. My initial reaction was outrage at the display of what I deemed ignorance. I started yet one more tirade about people who see animal shelters as dumping grounds for their negligence, people who think hard-working organizations like EHS are obligated to take in their unwanted pets. You’ve all heard this before.
After stewing over this for a while I came to a different conclusion. If this informed and intelligent news anchor is unaware of the current feline situation, then it is clear there is a lot of work that needs to be done. Instead of ranting, it would be far better to approach the problem from a place of understanding. For many people, this question is quite legitimate, perhaps even for you, who may have stumbled across this piece during your own quest for answers. I will do my very best to help you out.
Question 1: What do you do if your cat has kittens?
Hopefully your vet is already aware of your cat’s pregnancy and has helped prepare you for the birth. If not, if you had missed the signs of enlarged nipples, change in eating habits, and nesting behaviours, and if the telling bulge was hidden under your cat’s dense fur, perhaps the sight of kittens was a surprise. If this is the case, I do recommend contacting your vet right away as he or she will be able to provide the best resources for your particular cat’s needs.
Assuming the pregnancy was a healthy one and the labour went smoothly for your cat, there really isn’t much you need to do for the first few weeks. Make sure the mother is well fed, has fresh water and a comfortable, dry, warm, and safe place to nurse and care for the newborns. If all goes as it should, she will do most of the work.
Do be careful around the newborns. As mentioned, it is best to let the mother do what she needs to do. This bonding time is crucial. As long as everything looks well, try not to intervene for the first little while. Of course, after the first week, it will be important to handle the kittens – gently – to help socialize them to humans during this vital period.
Question 2. How long do I have to wait to give the kittens away?
You really don’t want to rush the process. After fostering kittens who had been socialized with their siblings and one who was all on his own, I noticed a huge difference between the two. Kittens who have had the time to learn from each other and their mother make much more easygoing pets.
From what I have read, and I am not an expert, many kittens are healthy and strong enough to go to leave their mother between 8 to 12 weeks. Again, this is where the vet comes in. After 6 weeks, it is a good idea to have your vet examine them, even if they appear healthy. There are a lot of unfortunate viruses kittens can inherit or pick up. Before you send them out in the world, you’ll want to be sure they’ve been checked, de-wormed, and have had their first vaccinations. Your vet will also be able to gauge the growth of the kittens to make sure they are developing well.
Question 3. What if none of my friends will take them and all the shelters are full?
There are many rescue groups and vet clinics who might have some great suggestions for you. Unfortunately, millions of cats are born homeless or abandoned each year and too many are euthanized. The cat overpopulation crisis in our cities only seems to be getting worse. Animal welfare organizations do all they can but, especially in the spring and summer, sometimes there just aren’t enough resources to go around. However, by the fall and winter, the load on shelters and rescue groups is often much lighter. Many of them have waiting lists and if you are patient, space will eventually open up somewhere.
Rescues and shelters are also always in need of foster homes as the majority of them are run entirely by volunteers out of their own houses. Since the kittens are already living with you, you are the perfect natural foster. What a great way to make sure the kittens are cared for as they wait for their forever homes, while also helping out a local organization. You never know, you may really enjoy the experience and go on to foster other animals in the future. Partnering with a rescue in this way also ensures the right owner will be found for each one of your kittens. It is much better than posting them on a website like Kijiji and hoping for the best.
Question 4. But I can’t keep these kittens any longer. If the shelter doesn’t take them, I am going to have to leave them outside.
I understand the stress of having several unexpected little ones running around your house and causing mayhem. Kittens are an extra expense and as they grow they can definitely be a challenge. Despite their sharp claws and teeth, they are still babies, however, and are not capable of living on their own. By leaving them outside you are putting them at risk of many dangers including wildlife, moving vehicles, dehydration, and exposure. Remember, they are used to living at home with you and their mother. It would be quite a shock to suddenly be alone outside, even if you leave them with food.
Furthermore, abandoned kittens put an extra strain on already overburdened organizations. If there are no resources to care for them, shelters may be forced to take them in and then turn down cats that were born without loving homes like yours, leaving them to struggle to survive. Or, in the case of truly desperate situations, your kittens may end up euthanized.
Question 5. But my cat keeps having kittens. Am I expected to care for them all?
The best way to avoid having more unwanted litters is to have your cat spayed. Unless you live in an area with a free clinic, the surgery does come with a cost. But compared with the expense and complications of having to find homes for multiple kittens, it is money well spent. If you don’t or can’t pay for this, then the second best way is to keep your cat indoors at all times. If she doesn’t get out to mix with other cats, she won’t get pregnant. Of course, this comes with its own challenges. I know exactly how difficult it can be to stop a determined cat from getting into trouble. (TC, ahem, grrrrr.)
If you don’t want the surgery and don’t work hard to prevent your cat from escaping for her own adventures, then I am afraid the only answer to your question is yes, you are expected to care for them all. Your cat is your responsibility, and so are all of her offspring. If she has kittens they belong to you and it is your job to ensure they are well cared for and healthy. Animal welfare organizations are here to help us and to provide aid to animals in danger, not to fix our mistakes.
There are many terrific online sources of information that may help you should your cat get pregnant, International Cat Care is one of my favourites. Most local and national organizations are also happy to offer education and advice, even if they aren’t able to take your kittens in themselves. And again, I can’t say this enough, your vet is always the best person with whom to start.
I hope this post has helped you make the right decision for your kittens. I love cats as much as you do and I hope they all live long, happy lives.