How to Care for Stray Kittens: A Guide to Raising Feral Kittens - PetHelpful - By fellow animal lovers and experts
Updated date:

How to Care for Stray Kittens: A Guide to Raising Feral Kittens

Jana worked in animal welfare with abused and unwanted pets. She loves sharing her hands-on experience regarding domestic and wild critters.


Mew, Mew . . .

You're out walking, just minding your own business, when you hear it—the plaintive mewing of tiny tots or the skittish scuttle of older kittens. After a short search, you find a single bedraggled specimen or even a whole litter. For those who have never reared kittens or owned a cat in their life, this might prompt the calm question, "What on Earth do I do now?" Thankfully, there is a lot of information out there to assist the newly cat-laden person, and this article will present the basics one must know to care for and ensure the survival of abandoned kittens.

You will learn about the following:

  • When to rescue and when to only monitor the situation.
  • Settling the new arrivals in your home.
  • Assessing their health and keep your own pets safe from any illness or parasites the kittens may have.
  • Determining how old they are—care will vary with age.
  • Feeding and socializing.
  • A short introduction on normal kitten development.
  • Some dos and don'ts when finding them homes.

How Long Must You Wait?

It's easy to think with your heart when kittens are crying and appear to be lost. As unlikely as it may seem at the moment, there are instances when they should be left alone. On the flip side, some situations call for rescue. Before you decide which scenario you are dealing with, look at the kittens' physical appearance. If they look well-fed, then that means the mother is still caring for them. Yet, you are worried that perhaps she got hit by a car or had an accident because the little ones look like they skipped a meal or two. That is a legitimate worry.

Here are some additional reasons the mother might be gone.

  • At that moment, she could be out hunting for food.
  • Feral mothers are known to move their litters around. She could be away because she's carrying the next kitten to a new nest.
  • She could be nearby but refuse to show herself because there is a human (aka you) near her young.
  • Female cats are dedicated parents but some will abandon their offspring.

The condition of the kittens is a good clue to help you assess the situation. If they are quiet and healthy, then they've been well cared for until recently and chances are that mom's just around the corner. Or giving you the evil eye from a nearby tree. Retreat to a good distance that will allow the mother to think you've gone, but not so far away that you can't monitor any developments. If she returns eventually, you can continue to keep an eye on the family for as long as you wish. However, if she doesn't come back then the babies are facing deadly survival odds against slow starvation, cold nights and undesirable characters hearing their cries. Even if they are in good condition, don't wait hours and definitely not until the next morning.

Remove immediately when:

  • The kittens are wet, cold or both. Cold, especially, is deadly to the very young, the single kitten, or a litter that doesn't bunch together for heat.
  • They are in danger from the elements, people or other animals.
  • They look scraggly, squirmy and highly distressed.
  • If you happen to find the mother and she's passed away.
New, scared arrivals will benefit from a safe space, such as their own room.

New, scared arrivals will benefit from a safe space, such as their own room.

What to Do When You Bring Them Home

Your first instinct may be to place a saucer of milk in front of your new furry friend, but don't. More often than not stray kittens, especially those found on their own, are very chilled. One very important feline rescue rule states that one must never feed a cold kitten. Test for warmth by feeling the ears, inside of the mouth and paw pads. If there is no sign of warmth, the kitten is in deep trouble.

How to Warm a Cold Kitten

Fold a towel or blanket around the youngster and hold it against your chest for body heat. This allows the baby to warm up gradually, which is important. Sudden heat can be just as dangerous. If there are more than one, place a snug blanket in a box and let the litter warm each other, while you hold each in turn. Sometimes, they will be fine just being close to their brothers and sisters in a comfy, blanket lined box away from the wind and rain. A cozy baby will eat, sleep and develop normally and be more resistant to illness.

How to Set Up a Safe Nursery

When you choose the nursery, think safety and silence. Placing their basket where your toddler twins and Great Dane regularly gallop through is not ideal. Look for a room such as the study or guest room and keep the door closed to keep sounds down.

Older kittens are prone to be on edge when they are suddenly moved into the home, smell new scents and having to deal with humans for the first time. They will settle faster if they are in a safe, quiet and warm environment. That being said, some kittens take to home life quickly and with flair. They just need to feel that they are safe and cared for. Soon, you will have a bunch of tiny clowns on your hands.

Before mixing your pets and the new kitten, ensure mutual safety first.

Before mixing your pets and the new kitten, ensure mutual safety first.

Doing a Checkup at Home

If you detect no serious issues, the first checkup can be done at home. A healthy kitten will move normally, have a clean face and feed and sleep in a detectable cycle. Check below the tail for signs of a runny tummy. Any signs of diarrhea must be watched very closely because it can quickly dehydrate them. Dehydration is another kitten killer.

Go to the Vet!

If the nose and eyes are snotty or crusty and the baby sneezes, then it could be the highly infectious feline condition known as Snuffles. The name may be cute but the consequences are far from it. The good news is that Snuffles is very treatable. The bad news is that it spreads like wildfire and, left untreated, can cause serious damage to the nose, mouth and vision.

If you suspect the new arrivals have this respiratory bug, they must visit the vet. Pronto. The same if there are visible worms near the anus area, they keep refusing food, have wounds or were found between dead litter mates.

Separating Your New Arrivals Keeps Everybody Healthy

For the sake of everybody's well being, this is another reason you need to keep their nursery separate from kids and other pets. Every time you handle the new arrivals, wash your hands thoroughly afterwards with a good disinfectant soap to prevent parasites and germs from passing on to your other animals. However, don't let the thought of a possible health issue stop you from picking up stray furballs. Most kittens will be just fine.

Commercial Milk Powder Can Feed From Newborn To Weaning

Figuring Out Your Kittens' Ages: Tots or Teenagers?

Similar to any baby in the animal kingdom, what passes for correct care will change as the kitten grows older. Therefore, one must determine how old they are. Luckily, it's not that hard. Kittens have some pretty distinctive phases and they reach independence quite fast.

Roughly speaking, those adorable squeaky toys under the age of four weeks are called neonatal. This group needs two very important things. They must be kept warm and they need elimination stimulation. They cannot go on their own. You need to take a tissue or cotton bud and gently wipe (to simulate the mother's licking) in order to help their bowel and bladder functions along. Keep doing this after every meal as they grow older until they can "go to the bathroom" on their own. Also, remember to burp them gently by patting them softly on the back after a meal.

  • If the umbilical cord is still attached, your kitten is in its first week of life. It will fall off at around 5 days after birth. Newborns are small and truly helpless. They are toothless, their folded-down ears are deaf and their eyes cannot open. Don't feed a kitten on its back like a human baby or give cow's milk. It will cause diarrhea. You can contact your vet for a commercial formula or make one at home. Your vet should also be able to tell you how to mix the latter and provide the necessary bottles or tell you where you can get some. Feed the recommended amount (stated by the commercial product or vet) every 2 hours.
  • During their second week, they will still be small and not really able to move around. They will develop their hearing and at the end of this week, the eyes will be open. Feed the formula once every 2-3 hours.
  • Aged 3 weeks, their walk will be more of a crawl-and-stagger. Some will start purring at this age and most will cut their teeth. Feed the formula once every 3-4 hours.
A happy kitten will make a toy out of anything.

A happy kitten will make a toy out of anything.

How Kittens Develop Week-by-Week

Week 4: Weight gain is now rapid. They'll start playing with their litter mates or on their own, make a toy out of anything. They will start grooming themselves. This is the likeliest time that the mother will leave them for longer periods of time. At this point start offering the liquid formula on a spoon to encourage them to lap up their feedings instead of suckling. Feed every 4-5 hours.

Week 5: They are balls of energy, teeth and claws are well-developed and getting used on everything (most likely). They are more controlled with their movements. If they are now lapping up their milk, you can start adding small amounts of solids to the formula. If the kittens suddenly pass loose stools, then cut down on the amount of canned food that's being added. It's a guessing game. If your kittens are not eating enough, you can still bottle-feed them to make sure that they receive enough nourishment for their fast growing bodies. Feed every 5-6 hours.

Week 6: They are basically smaller versions of adults and are lively, eating solids, trying to climb up stuff. From here on, their energy levels increase exponentially. Note that kittens wean at different stage and some may be late bloomers or adjust quickly to a diet of solids. When they start switching over to solids, say near week 4 or 5, make sure that they have access to fresh water at all times as well. They won't love it at first, but it needs to be introduced along with the weaning process. Feed every 6 hours.

Week 7: Feed every 6 hours.

Week 8: They should have a full set of teeth. A critical age for socialization with humans. Luckily, if you raise them from a younger age, they are already very used to you. But the older they are when you find them, the less easy socialization will occur. So handle them kindly, patiently and use their hunting instinct. Sometimes, even a weary kitten cannot resist a game where you pull a toy past it like living prey. Feed every 6 hours.

If they are already 3-4 months old upon discovery, then they are considered feral. Indeed, socializing them at this point will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. The way to deal with these bush babies is the same as any other feral cat - provide water, food and possibly shelter but don't try to take them home. Should you try to touch them, they are likely to get aggressive. However, if one appears injured or very sick, then capture and a vet appointment should be considered.

Don't tell prospective owners they trashed your piano, the pantry, car...

Don't tell prospective owners they trashed your piano, the pantry, car...

Considering the Kittens' Future

While it remains the choice of the person who raised them, an animal shelter is not always the best next step. Don't be pacified by a shelter's reply of "We don't euthanize". Most shelters are not transparent with their euthanasia policy and with good reason. They will lose public donations and land in an even worse position to help animals.

It's not that they are trying to be deceitful. Most are caught in the terrible reality where there are simply too many animals not being adopted. They can only care for so many and unwanted pets keep pouring into shelters.

Shelter or Home?

Overall, kittens will be better off raised in a home instead of a charity kennel. They will avoid certain diseases that spread in communal catteries such as Snuffles and feline Aids. Besides, to suddenly leave them at a noisy, packed shelter after they've been reared in somebody's house, is frankly, traumatic.

The perk of a shelter is that most, if they find a home for a cat, will sterilize it for the new owner. Sterilization among cats is critical since it's no secret that their population is booming exponentially. Should you decide to rather home them yourself, start looking for prospective owners as soon as you can. Look to friends and family who you know are cat lovers.


  • Never pressure somebody to take a kitten. A pet is a lifetime responsibility and therefor not a light decision. If somebody isn't sure, tell them to let you know when they've decided and then don't bother them again.
  • Hand them out like sweets to strangers. If you don't know the person, you can't be sure that your kitten will be cared for. Many people fall for the cute face, make an impulsive choice but then later regret it.
  • Don't forget to assess potential future owners. If you know of somebody who loves animals but he has cat-eating dog, cruel kids, a small mine field in his garden, unsafe home environment and a blase attitude towards pets around a pool, then pass.

Some Final Pointers

  • When you find kittens and they are old enough to stumble/walk around make sure that you don't leave one behind. Investigate the surroundings thoroughly to find any that might have strayed from the rest.
  • If they are old enough to spit and snarl, make sure that you don't get bitten.
  • Keep a notebook nearby and write down something about each kitten every day. Note any weight gain or loss, teeth, activity and stool issues. This is a great way to monitor if a litter is developing normally, the habits and quirks of each or tracking reoccurring issues.
  • Finally, prepare to be exhausted but try and enjoy the experience. Hand raised cats allow you a very special and unique form of bonding.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: What do I buy for a stray kitten?

Answer: It depends on the kitten's age. But let's start with the basics. Get a warm blanket, bowls, toys, and food. The latter varies with the kitten's ability to eat. If it's already old enough to eat by itself, you can introduce it slowly to watered-down tinned food for kittens. Give it straight out of the can and it might give the animal stomach trouble. Kittens with diarrhea can die very quickly. Provide water and milk but introduce the latter in small quantities to make its digestive system used to the new diet. You can buy dry kibble later when the kitten's a bit older. If the kitten is too young to eat solids, you can purchase formula and equipment at your vet.

Watch out for fleas as they can make a kitten dangerously anemic, but also make sure that you buy a safe flea product should you notice your pet has parasites. Speaking of which, you need to deworm your kitten as well so that means buying a pill, paste or liquid that will provide a broad spectrum kill (kills many worm species at once).

© 2017 Jana Louise Smit


Jana Louise Smit (author) from South Africa on June 28, 2020:

Hi Sophie. I'm glad you found the tips helpful. There are so many feral kittens and they need all the help they can get. :)

Sophie Turner from Los Angeles on June 23, 2020:

These are some great tips! And you’ve got it right; it makes a massive difference. Choosing the right technic can be pretty tricky, but this guide made it a lot simpler! Thank you so much for writing; this was helpful!

Jana Louise Smit (author) from South Africa on October 24, 2017:

Hi Flourish. I simply love your story about Ono! It is an amazing experience to gain a feral furry's trust. :)

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 19, 2017:

This is so well written and demonstrates such compassion for cats. The last cat to "volunteer" himself at our home was a very young feral kitten who suddenly showed up on our porch last November and started cuddling with our outside cat at night, a docile but large and muscular male cat. You would've assumed such a large and unrelated cat would be scary to a baby, but I think he needed warmth. We named him "Ono," as in "Oh, no! There's a kitten on the porch!"

For the longest time Ono disappeared during the days and returned only at night to cuddle with Jamal (the older cat), who had blankets and a warming disk. Now Ono's here 24/7 and he allows us to touch him. Of course, he's fixed, too. We fix every animal we can, including those who just pass through.