Hand-rearing and Tiny Tails

2 new-born kittens found abandoned on a patio

One morning in October our rescue team were called to two new-born kittens found on the patio of one of the people who monitors a feral colony for us. They were cold, covered in birthing fluid, mud, feathers and no sign of the mother. We rushed over to see if we could find the mother, and other kittens and rescue them if we couldn’t find Mum. We found neither the mother nor other kittens and it was very strange as it looked as if the kittens had been in something’s mouth and one had a cut on its leg. They were hours old, if that and would not have been born on the patio. 

Meanwhile, Miss Skimbleshanks, one of our mother and kitten fosterers, had a mother cat who had tried to mother everything whilst boarding at the vet with her new borns, therefore we thought we would try to adopt the kittens onto Daisy. Once we had slowly warmed up the kittens and got as much muck off them as possible, Daisy was amazing – she immediately “stole” one of the babies and ran into the other room with her and curled up. We brought the other kitten to her and put both of them on her to feed. She allowed them to. However, Daisy’s kittens were 3 weeks old and these were new borns so we couldn’t mix the two litters together. Whilst Daisy would feed, clean and toilet the kittens if Miss Skimbleshanks put them with her, Daisy wouldn’t go to them regularly. 

Miss S. learnt the tribulations of hand-feeding every two hours, even through the night which is what it takes to get hand-rear kittens through the first couple of weeks before being able to increase the volume and the gap, going to 3 hours, 4 hours, etc. On Day 3 one of the two girls started to show signs of being unwell and Daisy wanted nothing to do with either.

Miss S. posted about the turn of events on our Facebook page, and that we needed a new hand-rearer since two of ours had stopped this year. One of Miss S.’s followers (who adopted from her a couple of months ago) tagged Tiny Tails in Hertfordshire to ask if she had any space. Tiny Tails have been hand-rearing kittens for 14 years which is amazing as we know how difficult it is. Tiny Tails had space for the 2 girls and then the wonderful adopter drove from work in Reading, to West London to pick up the kittens and then to Hertfordshire to deliver them to Tiny Tails – all out of the goodness of her heart.

2 more litters of 6 rejected and collected

That very same night, we had a pregnant feral cat (being fostered) at Richmond Vet give birth to 6 kittens, but the mother rejected them all, not even allowing one important colostrum feed. As she was feral she couldn’t be handled to try to put the kittens to her. Tiny Tails drove over that night to collect all 6. 

2 days after that another feral mother being looked after by one of our other vets gave birth to 6 kittens and these too were rejected, not allowing even one feed. A vet nurse hand-reared them for a few days until Tiny Tails met up with her and took in those 6 as well.

Hand rearing is tough – there’s a high mortality rate, regardless of how well you care for them. And when the kittens have not even had a first feed its even higher. You have to feed them every two hours, they usually come from tough conditions, with unhealthy mothers, you need to keep them warm for 3 weeks as they can’t regulate their body temperature for that time, normally relying on Mum to keep them warm or moving away to cool them down.  Mum “toilets” her babies, licking their anus and urethra to stimulate them to go… this is both because the kittens will not evacuate on their own until about 4 weeks and also Mums consume it to keep the den clean.

Any kitten that becomes ill goes down hard and fast, so every feed you’re watching for signs. And even the most expert hand rearer can have a tragedy on their hands with no apparent reason and in spite of their care. Tiny Tails is qualified to give anti-biotics, painkillers and anti-inflammatories, as well as fluid injections beneath the skin (all under veterinary guidance when needed), they worm them as soon as possible, and have an intensive care area where the kittens can be given oxygen therapy.

Tragically out of the 14 hand rears we rescued and gave a chance to, 13 of them died over the following 10 days. This was in spite of the most experienced, dedicated, determined, knowledgeable and skilful care of Tiny Tails who did absolutely everything right and all they could. We suspect that the two new borns from the patio succumbed to infections from whatever grabbed them before they were found. Regarding the two feral mother litters: we suspect both colonies have an infection of coccidia – a parasite that adult cats can deal with but kittens can’t, particularly when they have had not colostrum to give them some sort of immune system boost. 

Regardless of the reason, this experience nearly broke Tiny Tails. After successfully raising 36 kittens this year alone, losing 13 of the 14 in such a concentrated time was devastating. They have said since, they considered giving up. But one little chap pulled her through and she pulled him through – in spite of him having a seizure and nearly dying too. 

Eddie – the survivor!

Eddie is the cutest little ginger fighter – we often say that ginger boys are the most likely not to make it through hand-rearing. Tiny Tails has found it too but we think little Eddie heard this and decided to be the exception! He purrs loudly, opened his eyes quickly to take in the world and has the funniest little character. Tiny Tails will continue with their amazing work, there are more kittens to rescue and raise and this awful experience will not stop them.

If only people would get their animals neutered – first time mothers often reject their kittens and if we don’t get to the abandoned strays or feral colonies quickly enough we have exactly these situations. Last year it was hard to trap, neuter, release as vets were not spaying and once that started again, there were backlogs and reduced lists due to catching up on other procedures. PLEASE neuter your animals – even the boys. One boy can father hundreds of kittens in one season, and there are more kittens than homes for them already.

Miss S