The first step in helping kittens you see outside is assessing how old they are and determining if and when to intervene. Alley Cat Allies’ How Old is that Kitten is a great resource in estimating the age of kittens. Once you understand the kittens’ age, you can decide how to help them.

What to Do with Kittens that You Find Outside Download as PDF

WeeksPhysical AppearanceBehaviorAction
NewbornEyes closed, ears folded down, umbilical cord attached, very fragile, can’t stand, not much bigger than a hot dog bunCan’t regulate their own body temperature, sleep most of the day when not eating from mama, do not move much or leave nest, cannot urinate or defecate on their own (mama stimulates them with her tongue)Leave them where they are. Wait out of sight 4-6 hours for mama to come back. Monitor the family, trap mama and rescue kittens when they are 5-6 weeks old. If mama is dead or gone, rescue, make sure they are warm (first), then bottle feed KMR, stimulate them with a warm cotton ball to urinate and defecate
1Eyes closed, ears still folded down, no umbilical cordRolling and wiggling a bit, cannot urinate or defecation their ownLeave them where they are. Wait out of sight 4-6 hours for mama to come back. Monitor the family, trap mama and rescue kittens when they are 5-6 weeks old. If mama is dead or gone, rescue, make sure they are warm (first), then bottle feed KMR, stimulate them with a warm cotton ball to urinate and defecate
2Eyes start to open, blue eyes, ears still folded downScooting and taking first steps, very wobbly, staying in nest, cannot urinate or defecate on their ownLeave them where they are. Wait out of sight 4-6 hours for mama to come back. Monitor the family, trap mama and rescue kittens when they are 5-6 weeks old. If mama is dead or gone, rescue, make sure they are warm (first), then bottle feed KMR, stimulate them with a warm cotton ball to urinate and defecate
3Blue eyes, fully open, ears starting to stand up, getting first baby teethCan start to lick up a slurry of watered-down canned food mixed with KMR on their own if introduced to it. Getting curious, looking around taking first steps out of nest, starting to urinate and defecation their own, but not in a litter box, genitalia developed enough for identificationLeave them where they are. Wait out of sight 4-6 hours for mama to come back. Monitor the family, trap mama and rescue kittens when they are 5-6 weeks old. If mama is dead or gone, rescue, keep warm, bottle feed KMR , introduce to canned food watered down, stimulate if not eliminating
4Blue eyes open, vision improving, ears fully upWalking around with confidence, venturing out of nest, starting to find the litter box, eating lots of slurryTry to keep them with mama a little longer. Monitor the family, trap mama and rescue kittens when they are 5-6 weeks old. If mama is dead or gone, rescue, introduce to canned food watered down mixed with KMR, stimulate if not eliminating
5Blue eyes open, ears fully up, back teeth coming inEating regular canned food and some kibble, running around yard, stalking, pouncing, following mama to food sourceTrap kittens with mama. Spay and return mama immediately if she is feral. Keep her with her kittens until they are 8 weeks if she is friendly
6Blue eyes open, ears fully up, all baby teeth inNursing less from mama, eating solid food regularly, exploring on their own, joining mama at mealsTrap kittens with mama. Spay and return mama immediately if she is feral. Keep her with her kittens until they are 8 weeks if she is friendly
7Blue eyes start changing to adult colorNursing occasionally from mama, energetic and playfulTrap kittens with mama. Spay and return mama immediately if she is feral. Keep her with her kittens until they are 8 weeks if she is friendly
8Adult eye color becoming more predominantMay be nursing occasionally from mama, should be about 2 lbsTrap and remove kittens. Ready for spay/neuter if 2 lbs. Separate kittens from mama. TNR mama immediately if feral.
9Adult eye color becoming more predominant, growth rate slowingMay be nursing occasionally from mama, but mama is about done with this. Should be more than 2 lbsTrap kittens and mama. Separate kittens from mama. Spay/neuter everyone. Socialize kittens if you have time and resources. TNR mama immediately if feral.
10Have adult eye color, playful and activeShould be 2.5 lbsTrap kittens and mama. Separate kittens from mama. Spay/neuter everyone. Socialize kittens if you have time and resources. TNR mama immediately if feral.
11Have adult eye color, playful and activeShould be 2.5+ lbsTrap kittens and mama. Separate kittens from mama. Spay/neuter everyone. Socialize kittens if you have time and resources. TNR mama immediately if feral.
12Have adult eye color, playful and activeShould be 3 lbsTrap kittens and mama. Separate kittens from mama. Spay/neuter everyone. Socialize kittens if you have time and resources. TNR mama immediately if feral.
13Have adult eye color, playful and activeShould be 3+ lbsIf the kittens have not received any socialization outside and is completely feral, sterilize, vaccinate and return to colony (TNR).
14Have adult eye color, playful and activeShould be 3.5 lbsIf the kittens have not received any socialization outside and is completely feral, sterilize, vaccinate and return to colony (TNR).
15Have adult eye color, playful and activeShould be 3.5+ lbsIf the kittens have not received any socialization outside and is completely feral, sterilize, vaccinate and return to colony (TNR).
16+Have adult eye color, playful and activeShould be 4 lbs.If the kittens have not received any socialization outside and is completely feral, sterilize, vaccinate and return to colony (TNR).

The Socialization Process

If you are planning to adopt out kittens or get them into a shelter, it is critical that they are well socialized. Kittens must pass a behavioral exam during the shelter intake process whereby they are handled by veterinary staff that are meeting the kittens for the first time. If the kittens are terrified, hiss at the clinic staff or try to run away, they will likely be returned to you.Before you decide to take kittens into your home, please refer to What to do with Kittens to determine if they are an appropriate age to come inside. Kittens that are older than 12 weeks that are entirely feral should be TNR’d and returned to their colony, as they will be very difficult to socialize.

Set-Up

It is very important when bringing kittens off the street into your home to socialize them for adoption that you have the appropriate set-up. You will need a small space isolated from other pets where the kittens feel comfortable and you can have productive interaction with them. A small bathroom works well. If you are using a den, bedroom, basement or any other room, you should plan to start them out in a large wire dog crate (42” or 48”) on top of a table. This way you will have arms-length access to them and can sit in a chair in front of the crate, so you aren’t scaring them by towering over them. If the kittens are little, make sure that they can’t squeeze through the bars. You may need to fortify the sides of the crate with cardboard and wire ties. If your only option is to have kittens loose in a room, you need to clear out any furniture or other objects that they can hide under. Kittens that are hiding are not socializing. Kittens that are not socializing will remain feral and unadoptable.The younger kittens are, the easier they are to socialize. Every day that they grow older becomes more and more difficult. Do not wait for kittens to get acclimated to a space. Begin to work with them immediately. Every day that you wait will just make it more difficult to socialize them.

Play Therapy

Kittens are very curious and playful by nature. Getting feral kittens to play is a great way to distract them from their fear of humans and get them to relax. A stiff rod toy with a small, light-weight ribbon or feather on the end is the best socialization toy. You should be able to drag the toy quietly in front of them without “throwing” it at them or scaring them. Toys that are too large or make noise are not effective. Start off by just getting their eyes to follow it. Then they will reach out a paw and hopefully begin chasing it.  While they are playing, keep talking to them in a soft, soothing voice. They will learn to associate the fun of playing with humans. Do not leave toys in the crate. Kittens should not be having excess fun without you. They will be fine. They can play with each other’s tails. You are not doing them any favors by spoiling them. Socializing is “tough love.” The best thing you can do for them is to socialize them quickly and get them into their adoptive homes. Each time you come into the room, sit down and play with them for about 20 minutes before you feed them. Drag the wand toy towards you to get them used to approaching. 

Kitten playing with a feathery toy
A group of kittens eating out of dish full of cat food

Food Bonding

Growing kittens are usually hungry, which works in your favor because you can use food as a socialization tool. Do not leave food in the crate or room. If you are not in the room, the kittens should not be eating. Instead, you should bring fragrant canned food into the room each time you come, place it near you or in front of the cage, and encourage the kittens to approach you to eat. Make them eat in front of you. Talk to them in a soft, soothing voice while they are eating. You can start touching them on their backs while they are eating, to teach them that food (which they love) is associated with human touch.You can also start to feed them from a spoon, lick food off your fingers and take treats from your hand. Gerber’s chicken and gravy baby food works well as a special treat, as do “meat tubes,” which are pureed cat food in a tube-shaped wrapper. Visit them as many times a day as you have time for, play with them and feed them each time.

Next Steps

Once the kittens begin to relax and feel more comfortable in your presence, you can work on additional handling. Start by stroking their back, then scratching their head and cheeks. Move to petting them with both hands, then lightly squeezing them on each side, then lifting them about an inch or two off the ground, then higher. If you do this gradually, you should eventually be able to pick them up without them panicking. Work at their pace, but continuously push their comfort level. Remember that you are their ticket to a loving, adoptive home.

Other Tools

If you are the only person that interacts with the kittens, there is a chance they will only socialize to you. If you can, invite other people into your home to interact with them. Coach friends and family members not to scare the kittens and to be gentle and patient with them.A radio or television is a great addition, to get the kittens used to human voices.Also refer to The Best Friends Cat Socialization Guide and How to Socialize Hissy Feral Kittens from The Kitten Lady.