Raising Kittens

Last Friday, the cool air foretold of fall, but the litter of barn kittens didn’t comprehend the implications.

They were curled together in a shallow bowl of old straw. Three of the six newborns had wiggled away from the pitiful nest.

The mother cat was nowhere in sight.

The kittens were dry, but still had their umbilical cords dangling. Their eyes were slits, but their mouths gaped as they mewed for their mama.

“What should we do, Mom?” asked my 12-year-old daughter, Abby.

I mulled the options.

I’ve raised several species of orphans, but not kittens. If we took them from their mother, I knew to keep them warm, but how warm? Fed, but how much? Yet, if we left them in the barn, these were vulnerable to cold, hunger and predators. As much as I wanted new life to flourish, I also wanted to model compassion and respect for nature to my daughter. These kittens languished at that intersection.

I decided to leave them alone for now. The morning sun would warm the barn and maybe the teenage mother would accept her responsibilities.

We checked on the kittens again at 10 a.m. The mother foraged in the opposite side of the barn.

By noon, the kittens were mewing loudly. The mother scampered around, unlike any cat who curls around her kittens to keep them warm and fed.

I weighed the risks.

We had a few small syringes and some cow colostrum, along with some high-calorie lamb milk replacer. We had a box and some old rags to keep them warm.

Yet, feeding six newborn kittens every two or three hours did not blend well with my insistent to-do list. All species of babies have a better chance to live if they stay with their mothers, even less-than-attentive mothers.

“I’ll feed them, Mom!” Abby voiced her preference.

Yeah, right, all the way until school started on Tuesday.

“Let’s take three of them to the house,” I compromised, betting that the mother had abandoned them for good, but offering one more chance for rudimentary motherhood while spreading the odds for a teenager’s life lesson.

Abby tucked three kittens under her shirt. We traipsed to the house to find a box and get some advice from a friend with far more experience.

The kittens nursed on the syringe, but that hard plastic held most of the milk inside, unless one of us pushed on the plunger too hard and made milk come out the kitten’s nose.

The next morning, I fed them at 4, before we left for the Great Falls farmers market. Abby loaded their box and some milk, joyous at how they snuggled into her neck when she fed them. The kittens we left at the barn were hungry orphans so they joined the kittens in the kitchen box after the farmers market.

We found three more dead newborns in a different, slum-style nest.

More desperate mewing came from under a pile of wood, but we could not locate the source. At least hiding new babies was normal feline behavior. Maybe the mama cat would take care of them.

By Sunday morning, one kitten had died.

Abby was still holding strong with frequent feedings and I had my fingers crossed that her compassion and resolve would yield a loving pet for her.

We have 11 barn cats, but this time of year, a mouser at the house would not be all bad.

By Monday morning, when I stopped at the vet clinic to get a real kitten bottle, Abby texted that the other five kittens had died, too.

But I learned a lot at the vet clinic.

First, often cats will abandon their babies in the fall. Mother Nature says the kittens won’t make it through the winter so she encourages the mama to save herself.

Second, kittens must be stimulated to pee and poo. No wonder the second two kittens looked so full. But I drew the line at mimicking a mama cat with my tongue. A tissue would have to do.

Third, kittens need energy more than any other nutrient. Kitty milk replacer works, but a great homemade recipe to use when you’re not sure you want to invest in gambling on a kitten’s success is two cups of whole milk, two egg yolks and one tablespoon of vegetable oil.

By the time I returned home, Abby was sad, but resilient.

She had learned a little more about compassion, effort and stacked odds.

Lisa Schmidt