Find Kittens? Observe Before You Rescue

With kitten season coming and cat intake restrictions due to COVID-19, MCAS has created this guide to help Multnomah County residents understand what to do if they find litters of kittens, and how they can help. 

Continue reading to find out how to tell if the kittens you found are truly in need of help.


Multnomah County Animal Services will soon be entering into what many in the Animal Welfare Industry refer to as “Kitten Season” and this year presents new and interesting challenges. Unlike previous years, we have to consider the safety and well-being of the community as a whole due to COVID-19 — and as a result have had to make the decision to limit our intake for healthy, unweaned kittens. Per national recommendations in response to the COVID-19 crisis, MCAS will not be accepting healthy, unweaned litters of kittens (with or without mom).

We want to reassure the community that we are still here to protect all animals, including kittens, that are sick, injured, or in immediate danger. However, unweaned healthy kittens with or without a mom present are considered healthy- with a food source- and do not need human intervention. MCAS has created this guide to help the residents of Multnomah County understand what to do when they do find a litter of kittens, and how to help.

Guide Contents

Find kittens? Observe before you rescue.

Additional Resources and Information for Kittens

Mom may be hiding just around the corner!

You hear meowing in your garden, and find a litter of kittens. What do you do? Learn what to look for and what decisions to make in order to have the best outcome for them. 

The time between late spring and early autumn is known as “kitten season.” During this time of year, unaltered, outdoor cats (both owned and “community” cats) reproduce prolifically. It’s not uncommon to find a litter of kittens - or single kittens - under a hedge, or porch, or perhaps out in the garden with mom cat nowhere in sight. What do you do? Your first instinct may be to scoop them up and take them inside, or perhaps to your local shelter. But wait, the best thing for the kittens is most likely to leave them where they are.

Wait and Observe

A mother cat will periodically leave her nest to search for food. If you see young kittens without their mother, it is likely she will return. It’s not unusual for the mother to be gone for several hours. She may also be in the process of moving them - this is often the case when people find small, single kittens outside. Mom may even be watching you from a safe distance, waiting to return to her litter until she no longer detects your presence - especially if she is scared or not socialized to human contact. The mother should return to the nest within a few hours if you watch quietly from a distance (at least 35 feet). An easy way to see if mom is still around (without having to sit and watch for several hours) is to sprinkle flour or baby powder around the nest of kittens. You can then check back a couple of times throughout the day to see if there are paw prints or disturbances indicating that mom has returned.

Do NOT place food near the kittens to lure mom. Mom almost always purposely hides her litter away from food sources as she knows that food will attract other cats and even bigger predators!

It is important that you do not take pre-weaned kittens away from their mother. Pre-weaned kittens (under 4 weeks) without a mother are very difficult to care for and have a high mortality rate. They require frequent feedings of kitten milk replacer formula day and night, and many simply "fail to thrive" without the care of their mother.

If the kittens appear healthy and comfortable, you can safely wait 4-6 hours for a mom to return if the kittens are 4-weeks and under. If kittens appear to be over 4-weeks, they can be left alone for 8-10 hours.

Assess the kittens’ apparent health:

While you are observing from a safe distance, pay attention to the kittens’ appearance and their surroundings. If the kittens appear healthy, and in a relatively safe location, they can survive without mom longer than if they are sickly, and in the middle of a muddy yard. 

  • Does their fur look healthy, full and fluffy? OR Are they dirty? Sickly? Eyes crusty?
  • Are they sleeping quietly? In a heap? OR Are they crying? Squalling?
  • Are they dry? OR Are they wet/soaked?

Assess the environment. Are the kittens in IMMEDIATE danger from:

  • Heavy rain? Standing water/flooding?
  • Wild animals? Dogs?
  • Traffic – pedestrian foot traffic? Bicycles or cars?

If the kittens appear healthy, but are not in a safe location, try placing them in a box or similar shelter in a safe spot as close to where you found them as possible, and continue to observe for mom. 

Know that healthy kittens can survive several hours without food as long as they are warm. Neonatal kittens are much more at risk of hypothermia than they are of starvation. During typical ‘kitten season’ (during the late spring and summer months), waiting a longer time to see if mom will come back is usually very safe.

Remove the kittens only if they are in immediate danger OR if they appear very sickly and ill.

Per national recommendations in response to the COVID-19 crisis, MCAS will not be accepting healthy, unweaned litters of kittens (with or without mom). 

If the mother cat returns…

If mom cat returns, but is not comfortable around people, and the area is relatively safe, leave the kittens alone with mom until they are weaned (5-6 weeks). Cats that are uncomfortable around people often become very stressed in an indoor environment and can even be exacerbated in shelter environments where they have less control of their environment - especially when she has kittens to protect. Stress can cause illness, aggression, and negatively affect mom’s ability to care for her kittens - stress can even cause her to reject the kittens. Please do not remove kittens from outdoor/unsocial mothers. 

You can monitor the environment and offer shelter (giving mom a couple options is helpful and increases the chance she will use it) and regular food to mom in safe, protected areas … but keep the food and shelter at a distance from each other. Mom will find the food but will not accept your shelter if the food is nearby, because she will not want to attract other cats – or any other predators — to food located near her nest.

If at all possible, kittens should be left with the mom cat for at least 6-weeks. Kittens not only obtain important nutrients and antibodies from mom, but critical socialization skills also. At 6-weeks, it is safe to remove kittens from mom and work on socializing them for adoption. Urban Cat League and Alley Cat Allies both have excellent how-to guides on socializing kittens, including links to video! 

If the mom cat returns and is comfortable around humans, first make sure she is not someone’s indoor/outdoor cat. Unfortunately, there are still many owned, un-altered cats that are allowed to roam outside and some opt to have kittens outside where they may have found a quieter location. Moms that are comfortable around people can either be monitored outside, or - if you have a quiet, spare room to isolate her in and you’ve checked she isn’t owned - you can bring her and her kittens inside your home. See below for how-to guides and videos on fostering moms with litters.

Removing Kittens From A Location

The Mom Cat offers her kittens the absolute best chance for survival, so WAIT and WATCH as long as you can. The best food for kittens is their mother’s milk. She will provide them not only with properly balanced nutrition but also much-needed antibodies and immune system support! The older a kitten is, the longer they can maintain without their mother. 

If the mother cat does not return…

Here is a kitten aging chart documenting development for newborns kittens to those 8-weeks and older as well as comprehensive guides to feeding and care of kittens at various stages. Please read guides carefully before removing kittens from their environment — and ensure you have the supplies and information you need to raise them without their mother. If you need support in feeding and caring for orphan kittens between 0-5 weeks of age, you can contact MCAS at (503) 988-7387 to request a ‘bottle baby starter kit’.

**Please remember, until further notice Multnomah County Animal Services is not intaking healthy strays due to COVID-19. This includes healthy, orphaned kittens and moms. If you find a sick or injured cat and/or kitten, please call the shelter at (503) 988-7387 prior to bringing the animal(s) to the shelter.

Additional Resources and Information for Kittens

Feeding and Caring For Orphan Kittens 6-7 weeks 

(Contact MCAS at (503) 987-7387 to request food/litter assistance)

Caring for Mom Cats with Litters

Caring for Unsocial Mom Cats with Litters Indoors

Remember, the best place for an unsocial mom and litter is outside if they are in a relatively safe location. Offer outdoor shelter, water, and regular feedings until kittens are about 6-weeks-old, when it’s safer to remove them from mom. Or, if mom has become more social with you, consider bringing the whole family inside!

** If you absolutely need to trap and bring an unsocial mom and her kittens into your home, there are two methods. Cage-confinement for unsocial moms, or using a small, spare room. You can find more information on these methods below. When in doubt, start with large cage confinement. 

  • Tiny Kittens Rescue (small room confinement) - Compassionate Foster Care for Feral Moms. Small rooms with plenty of easily-accessible hiding options generally work better for cats that become reactive when they are scared or anxious (hissing, growling, swatting/striking, even biting when extremely frightened).
  • Feral Cat Focus (cage confinement) - Feral Cat Set-up for Long-term Fosters. Cage confinement generally works best for fearful cats that want to hide, as the smaller space gives them a sense of security. Always remember to give them a hiding space that is big enough for mom and litter to comfortably nest. Cages should be at least 42L x 28W x 30H inches. 48L x 30W x 33H inches is ideal.

Feeding and Caring For Kittens 8+ weeks 

(Contact MCAS at (503) 987-7387 to request food/litter assistance)

How to Socialize ("tame") Feral/scared Kittens

  • Urban Cat League has wonderful and comprehensive information on taming feral/scared kittens up to 6-months of age (these techniques can also work with some adult cats)
Kitten in the brush
Assess whether kittens are healthy, or sick and in need of care