Part of Ireland's TNR Manual
How to Help Community Cats
Adapted for Ireland from Alley Cat Allies.
Previous Step: First Steps When You Find Kittens Outdoors
In this section, you’ll learn:
- The various scenarios you may encounter when planning to trap a mother cat and kittens;
- How to trap a family of mother and kittens; and
- Trapping safety tips for kittens.
In order to do what’s best for kittens, you MUST know how old they are. Throughout this guide, refer to kitten progression photos (see links below) for help determining kittens’ age.
How to Estimate Kitten Age
- Alley Cat Allies kitten progression week-by-week
- Alley Cat Allies kitten progression at-a-glance
- Our Kitten Development Gallery
Here are a few guidelines to remember:
- The best place for kittens younger than eight weeks old (and preferably up to twelve weeks) is with their mother, if at all possible.
- The ideal window for socializing kittens is about between 3 and 7 weeks, with a window up to 16 weeks. Older kittens should be trapped, neutered and returned.
Here are some common scenarios you might encounter and how to deal with them:
First and foremost: Do not assume that a kittens are abandoned or orphaned just because you do not see their mother. A mother cat will temporarily leave her kittens for good reasons, like looking for food. She may even be hiding and waiting for YOU to leave.
Wait and Watch
Always wait several hours, or even a full day to see if a mother cat returns. Watch from a hidden spot or from inside so you don’t scare the mother cat away. Your presence may keep her from returning to her kittens’ nest.
Even if you don’t see the mother cat for a long time, check on the kittens periodically. If they are cuddled together and sleeping quietly, look pink, warm, and clean, and have full bellies, then their mother has very likely been back. You just didn’t notice. Community cats are good at staying out of sight when they want!
A Helpful Tip
Sprinkle flour near the kittens’ nest. If the mother cat returns, she will leave paw prints.
If you have waited for several hours or more than a day and have reason to believe the kittens’ mother is no longer around, step in to help them. Neonatal kittens (kittens 4 weeks old and younger) will need special supplies and round-the-clock care to survive.
If the mother cat doesn’t come back after several hours, and you think she has abandoned the kittens or they are in danger, you can choose to raise them yourself. Do not take this decision lightly. You will need to determine if the kittens require neonatal kitten care (one- to four-weeks-old), if the kittens are young enough to be socialised, fostered or adopted (three- to 16-weeks-old), or if they are at the age to be trapped, neutered and returned (four months or older).
Keep in mind young kittens have a much greater chance of survival if raised by their mother, rather than by bottle- and/or hand-feeding. Only separate young kittens from their mother if you absolutely have to.
If the mother cat does return for her kittens, you have multiple options to consider:
- If the mother is feral and the kittens are too young to be separated from her, the best thing for the family is to leave them where they are for now as long as the location is safe. (Use your judgment and common sense - if you think the location is safe enough for the mother to survive, leave the kittens with her; if not, see next bullet point.) Remember, the mother is best able to care for her kittens. Provide food, water, and shelter. Monitor the family daily and make the environment as safe for them as you can. If you have decided you don't have the time or the resources to foster, socialise and adopt out the kittens, then you can trap, neuter and return the whole family when the kittens are a healthy 8-weeks-old or 1kg. If you can foster, socialise and adopt out the kittens, the ideal window is when the kitten are between six weeks and 12 weeks old. The best thing for the mother cat is to be trapped, spayed and returned to her outdoor home.
- If the kittens are too young to be separated, and you believe it is safer for the whole family to come indoors - you can trap the mom, trap or scoop up the kittens depending on their age, and bring the whole family inside to a quiet, small room like a bathroom, where they can live until the kittens are weaned and it is safe to get them all neutered. Learn more about how to care for an outdoor cat family indoors. From there you can decide what is best for the kittens and either return mom outside if she is feral, or find her an adoptive home if she is fully socialised. Learn how to tell the difference between socialised (stray) cats and feral cats.
- If the mother is feral and the kittens are old enough to be separated from her, you have a decision to make: commit to foster, socialise and adopt out the kittens, or trap, neuter and return the kittens when they are a healthy 8 weeks or 1kg.
If you trap a cat and discover at the clinic that she is a nursing mother, get her spayed immediately and return her to the area where you trapped her as soon as she is clear-eyed that evening, with approval from the veterinarian. Many times, you only learn this after she is at the clinic - make sure the clinic knows your plans for returning nursing mothers as soon as possible; they may have an anaesthesia protocol that will enable her to wake up from surgery more quickly. It may seem counter intuitive to separate her from her kittens, but it’s difficult to trap her again - this may be your only real chance to spay her and prevent further litters. Try to find the kittens (following the mother after you return her) so that you can trap and neuter them when they are old enough.
Note: Nursing mother cats continue to produce milk after being spayed, and can continue to nurse their kittens.
If you discover at the clinic that you have brought in a pregnant cat, have her spayed by an experienced veterinarian who has performed this surgery before. It may be necessary to allow an extra day for recovery and extended observation. For many people, this is a difficult aspect of Trap Neuter Return, but as with nursing mothers or any cat in a trap, it may be difficult to trap her again - this is your opportunity to protect her from the health risks and ongoing stresses of mating and pregnancy.
How to Use Kittens to Trap a Mother Cat, and Vice Versa
For general information on how to trap cats, see our TNR Manual for Ireland. Use this baseline information to inform the more complex process of trapping a mum and kittens.
On your first attempt at trapping a cat family, always set out at least one baited trap for every cat and kitten in the family (see our kitten safety tips below). Note: These instructions are for moms with kittens who are old enough to walk. Younger kittens can be scooped up and used to attract mom, but not vice versa.
If you don’t trap mom in the first round, she will soon hear, see and smell her kittens in the trap and want to get close to them, providing the perfect incentive for her to enter a trap herself.
Once you have a kitten trapped, immediately set up a second trap of similar size end-to-end against the one holding the kitten, so that mom will have to walk into the open trap to reach her baby. Do not open the trap holding the kitten. The short ends of the traps should be touching and the two traps together should form a long rectangle.
Alternatively, with very small kittens, pop the tiny in a kitten cage (see picture above) and place the cage at the end of the set trap as described above.
To make sure mum goes inside the trap and not around the back or sides, cover the trap holding the kitten on three sides so that the kitten is only visible from the entrance of the open trap. Cover the area where the traps meet, so mum can’t see the partition as easily. To her, it will appear as though the kitten is inside a tunnel.
If you trap the mother cat first, or if you are trapping other cats and you trap her by accident, keep her in the trap and set a second trap, following the same instructions outlined above with the traps used end-to-end, with one important addition: once you have trapped one kitten, you will have to set up a new trap for the next kitten. Kittens can also be used to trap their siblings in a similar fashion.
Trapping Tips: Kitten Safety
When trapping kittens, make sure you are using an appropriately sized trap (see Traps Gallery), a multi-cat trap, or any trap made specifically for kittens. Larger traps, like those used for tomcats, are too powerful for kittens, can put them at risk, and kittens sometimes are not heavy enough to trip the plate.
We suggest that you prop open the trap door with a water bottle or other similarly sized object (like a stick) attached to a string, so you can spring the trap manually when all kittens are safely clear of the door. Once the kitten is fully inside the trap and clear of the door, pull the string hard and fast to remove the water bottle. See our Manual Traps pages for more information.
Make sure to set out at least one trap per kitten, to discourage kittens from following each other into the same trap. (They may still do this, but springing the trap manually will make sure no one gets caught in the trap door.) If you do catch two kittens in one trap, either use an isolator to transfer one into another trap, or bring an extra trap or housing cage to the clinic and the clinic will separate the cats after surgery.
As cat experts, we understand your reservations about interfering with nursing mothers and their kittens, but the best thing you can do for the whole family in every situation is to trap and neuter them as soon as it is safe to do so. Where you place the kittens after trapping - either in adoptive homes or back with their colony - depends on many factors, including your own time and resources. No two situations are exactly alike, so be prepared to use your judgment.