You just found a group of tiny newborn kittens and their mother is nowhere to be seen. Before that rescue instinct kicks in and you scoop them up, take a deep breath, step back and evaluate the situation. In most cases, removing the kittens is not the best response.

Healthy kittens? Give mom time.

Mother cats may leave their kittens for several hours at a time. If the kittens are warm and don’t appear sick or in distress, their mom is likely nearby, getting food or hiding from you.

The kittens’ best chances for survival are with their mom. Her milk is much better quality than kitten milk replacement. She’s able to keep them warm and stimulate them to pee and poop, as well as help them learn to be cats.

Keep in mind that your presence may keep mom cat away, so monitor the nest from a distance. Or you may sprinkle a ring of flour around the nest or place some light twigs atop the kittens. If these are disturbed when you return or the kittens have full, rounded bellies, the mother cat is caring for her babies.

Your immediate role

  • Help the mother cat do her job: Provide high-calorie food and fresh water in a nearby location (but not too close to her nest). It’s a myth that cats won’t care for kittens after you’ve touched them; however, if you hover around, she will likely move the kittens. Keep your distance and let her do the hard work of raising her babies.
  • Canvas the neighborhood: Mother cats will often move away from their regular feeding area to give birth. She could be someone’s pet or a member of a group of community cats being fed nearby. Talk with your neighbors and post on local social media sites to learn who may have been feeding her; they may be searching for the cat and her kittens and be able to help you as you work through the next steps.
  • Research local resources: It’s never too soon to start contacting local rescue groups and shelters about foster care, low-cost spay/neuter and other veterinary resources, and trap-neuter-return programs in your region. Check out our tips for identifying animal welfare organizations and other resources in your region.
  • Plan for your feline family’s future: Depending on what resources are available and your own capacity, you may choose to capture the kittens after they’re weaned for socialization and adoption, or you may trap-neuter-return the kittens when they’re old enough for spaying or neutering (most clinics will sterilize kittens when they’re at least 8 weeks old and weigh two pounds or more). Don’t forget to include the mother cat in your spay/neuter plans.

Abandoned or sick kittens?

If the kittens are truly abandoned or appear sick, cold or nonresponsive when you touch them, you need a different game plan. The younger the kittens are, the quicker you’ll need to act and the more care they’ll need.

Your immediate role

  • Stabilize the kittens: Place the kittens in a warm, safe place with a gentle heat source (but one they can move away from if they grow too warm). Assess their overall health.
  • Feed carefully: Never feed cow’s milk to kittens, and don’t try to feed them if they’re cold or overheated. Learn what and how to feed young kittens.
  • Find help: Contact an animal welfare organization or shelter that can help you assess the situation. Most animal shelters don’t have staff able to provide the 24/7 care newborn kittens require, but they may have an experienced foster volunteer available. If not, they may be able to provide financial assistance for veterinary care or supplies to help you care for the kittens yourself.

How old are the kittens?

Knowing the kittens’ approximate age will help guide your decisions. Kittens grow fast, and their needs change week by week. At birth, kittens’ eyes are closed, their ears are folded, and they can’t see or hear. By 2 weeks old, their eyes are open, their ears are unfolding and they’re managing a wobbly walk. By 8 weeks old, most kittens will be eating independently and confidently exploring their world. Check out these photos and developmental milestones to determine the kittens’ age.

Ask the Expert: Socializing Kittens

Don’t forget the big picture

While you’re figuring out the best course of action for these kittens, you also want to think about long-term prevention. Otherwise, you’ll soon find yourself back at square one when the next litter of kittens appears.

Learn, then share: A few minutes’ study is all it takes to become a reasonably informed cat advocate, able to talk to others about the benefits of spay/neuter and the basics of trap-neuter-return.

Neighborhood search: If you haven’t already, take time to canvas your neighborhood. The information you gather by talking with neighbors will help determine your next steps, whether that’s helping a neighbor find a low-cost spay/neuter option for their pet cat or helping to coordinate a TNR effort for several cats. Most people understand the importance of spay/neuter and will appreciate your help—and may want to join the effort.