If someone says “It’s kitten season!”, it probably sounds like a super exciting time, when we can all enjoy adorable kittens. While it’s true that kittens are wonderful little fluff balls, kitten season isn’t so positive. In reality, kitten season contributes to the overpopulation problem, causes tons of kitten deaths, and is a huge burden on our animal rescue efforts.
In this guide to kitten season, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about kitten season, including:
So keep reading to become a kitten season expert, and cat population control advocate!
Understanding kitten season
Kitten season is the time of year when cats primarily breed. You know how spring is when all those cute forest animals are born? Yep, that’s when cats start having babies too. But for cats, breeding season is even longer than for other animals. Though kitten season starts in spring, huge numbers of kitten births can continue all the way to autumn.
Why are so many kittens born during kitten season? Unlike dogs, who routinely go into heat once every six months, cats have developed a seasonal mating cycle. Starting in spring, a female cat can go into heat as often as every two weeks. Plus when a “queen” is in heat, she is relentless in finding a tomcat to mate with. She’ll actively search out mates, and mate with a tomcat multiple times to increase the chances of a pregnancy. With plenty of tomcats on the prowl, it’s not hard for each queen to find a mate.
Then there’s the fact that cats are extremely good breeders biologically. In addition to frequent heats and the intense instinct to mate, female cats are “induced ovulators.” This means that instead of an egg dropping automatically during heat, the eggs wait until after copulation, dropping between 30-50 hours after mating. This greatly increases the chance of sperm and egg meeting, resulting in kittens.
Cats can give birth to anywhere from two-five kittens at a time. Additionally, most cats reproduce multiple times during the long kitten season months because a queen can go back into heat before her litter is even weaned. The average queen will have three litters per Kitten Season, so she can produce up to 15 kittens a year. And as those kittens grow up, they just add to the problem; in two years, a cat and her offspring could produce up to 225 cats!
The challenges of kitten season
In addition to overpopulation, kitten season produces lots of obstacles for animal rescuers. Most cat mamas are feral, and therefore quite hard to catch. Plus, feral mama cats often leave their babies to go hunt. So most kittens are found alone, and brought into shelters either individually, or with their siblings.
The younger a kitten is, the more help it will need. Without a mom, even kittens receiving the best care only have about a 50% chance of survival. And caring for young kittens takes a lot of work. Young kittens need to be fed very frequently, washed routinely, and even need help to go to the bathroom. Caretakers also have to teach kittens the “cat basics” they’d usually learn from mom, such as how to clean themselves and use a litter-box.
Young kittens are also highly vulnerable to disease. Without a mama cat, this problem is even worse, because they don’t receive the benefits of colostrum from mom’s milk. So kittens need to be kept in foster homes until they’re old enough to thrive in a shelter setting.
How can I help?
Luckily, there are lots of ways that you can help protect the cats we have, and help reduce reproduction rates. Here are a few top ways you can help out during kitten season months.
What to do when you see a kitten
When you come upon a kitten along the road, in your parking lot or in your backyard, it’s important to approach the situation carefully. Look out for signs of serious illness, and make sure you can safely rescue the kitten before reaching out to grab it. Be especially careful to avoid a bite or scratches, as cat bites and scratches are notorious for getting infected. Here are a few other tips on what to do when you see a kitten:
- Check the surrounding area. Where you see one kitten, its siblings are likely nearby.
- Take note of where you are, so you can tell rescuers and they can continue the search.
- If you see a mom with newborn kittens (under five weeks old, or still blind or deaf), leave them alone! Newborns that stay with their moms are more likely to survive.
- Bring the kitten to a qualified rescue shelter, where volunteers can care for it.
- If you are planning on keeping or caring for the kitten yourself, your first stop should be a veterinarian’s office. Young kittens can have a myriad of disease, ticks or fleas or other conditions that should be addressed as soon as possible! (Here’s a quick primer on how to make kitten glop and bottlefeed kittens.)
Spay and neuter your cats
Even if your cats are indoor only, make sure to get your kitties spayed and neutered. Many unwanted litters are the result of cat escapees who get out while in heat, meet a tomcat, and come home pregnant. These kittens often end up in shelters when the mama cat’s owner can’t find enough homes, or doesn’t have the time to care for them. If you have a tomcat who gets out, it’s important to remember that he could be mating with multiple females, therefore creating dozens, or even hundreds or kittens during kitten breeding season.
Understanding the Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) strategy
It sounds counterintuitive to return a cat to the streets, but adult, feral cats are actually well-equipped to living on their own, and—some argue—are unlikely to thrive in a home, because they essentially grew up wild. TNR programs, as practised in the US and parts of Europe, help reduce cat overpopulation, while allowing truly feral cats to stay where they feel best—outside.
Here’s how TNR works. First you put a humane cat trap in an area with lots of feral cats. Humane cat traps usually involve placing a treat into the cat, which lures the kitties in. When the cats step on a trigger, the cage door closes, keeping the cat safely inside. Once a cat is caught, they’re brought to a participating shelter or vet, who not only spays or neuters the animal, but also provides it will essential vaccinations. The cat is then returned to their home and released.
Often, TNR programs will tag cats using a technique called ear-tipping. During this process, about ¼ inch of the feral cat’s left ear is removed with a straight line cut. This doesn’t cause any health problems or hearing issues, and means cats who’ve already been through the program can easily be identified. Since the TNR process, while beneficial, can be quite stressful for the cat, this means that you can confidently release any ear-tipped cat you accidentally catch, without making them visit the vet again.
Interested in getting involved? Check out what CatRescue 901 has to say about TNR programmes in Australia here, and a study about ‘Trap-Neuter-Return Activities in Urban Stray Cat Colonies in Australia’ here.
Be sure to fully understand if TNR is allowed in your area or not, because different councils may approach it differently.
Adopt, don’t shop!
By now, it should be clear that kitten season is a big problem that animal rescuers fight every year. It also means that from spring to autumn, there are TONS of young kittens in shelters waiting to find homes. So instead of getting a kitty at a pet store, adopt a cat instead. You’ll help get one more kitten off the street, and make room for rescuers to help other animals.
After learning all these kitten season facts, you’re now an expert on kitten season! You’ve learned:
- That kitten season lasts from spring to autumn
- That cats are expert breeders, and can produce thousands of kittens annually
- What to do if you find a kitten or kittens, alone or with their mother
- The importance of spaying and neutering your own cats
- What TNR programmes are and how to get involved
We hope this article has inspired you to get out and help animal rescuers save and protect our cats and kittens. With your help, maybe we can change kitten season from being a time of overpopulation, to a time when we really can all just sit and cuddle kittens.