#18 OMG we spayed a lactating female!!!

Question: To our horror, when we picked up our last group of TNR ferals from the Spay/Neuter clinic, one of the females was lactating. We have no idea where her kittens are so we released her. We had been holding her in a trap for almost 4 full days! Will she and the kittens be OK? We're worried sick! Carmen

Carmen, Although this is not the way anyone would choose to plan things, don't automatically expect the worst. Normally our TNR vets recommend keeping a spayed female at least 48 hours for recovery, but in cases like this we watch the cat for 24 hours and if she is doing well we release her to return to the kittens. In our experience, kittens have recovered well after being without the mother for even 4 days.

We had a tragic experience at Urban Cat League which reinforced this opinion that kittens can survive a few days without mom. A lactating feral was run over and killed and we had no idea where her 2 week old kittens were hidden. It took us 7 days of searching everywhere to find them but all but one kitten was still healthy and quickly bounced back as soon as we started bottle feeding them. The runt was very weak and died unfortunately, even after surviving the 7 days. If we had found them only a day or so sooner, perhaps even the runt would have survived. These young kittens survived with no food or water of any kind for 7 days.

Back to your situation with a spayed feral lactating mom. When we confront this situation, IF we can find where the kittens are hidden, we will hold onto the mother and set her up with the kittens in a pen to watch over them all. This can be done without spaying the mother or even if she was spayed before you realized she was lactating.

Returning the mother unspayed will require a lot of time and energy later, finding her and retrapping her later once the kittens are weaned. If you keep the mother unspayed with the kittens, you can wean the kittens, socialize them, spay mom and return her to the colony later. For information on how to set up a safe feral mom and kittens set up, look on the neighborhoodcats.org website. Don't assume if you find a litter of kittens that they belong to the mom you have in the trap. It is not uncommon for all the intact females in a colony to have litters at the same time.

If you release mom back out, there is a brief opportunity to locate the kittens at the time you release her. Once released, she will make a bee-line to the kittens. If you can quickly follow her trail until she disappears you will soon hear the sound of kittens squealing when they see that mom is back. The squealing will only last a few seconds until each kitten finds a nipple and starts to nurse. If you listen carefully you may be able to locate the den to keep a distant eye on things. Try not to let mom know you know where they are or she may move them. Leave her alone with them for at least a few days to get them back to nursing and healthy. At about 6 weeks of age, they will appear trailing behind mom one day at the feeding station. 6 weeks is the perfect age to start trapping the kittens for socialization. It may be best to trap mom first because she may move the litter after you trap the first kittens and then you'll be searching all over again. At this age, a couple weeks delay without starting the socialization can make your work more challenging.

In our experience the instinct to care for and nurse the kittens is stronger than any discomfort the mother has from being spayed. Although we don't like subjecting the moms to this stress and discomfort, many times letting her go without being spayed can mean the difference of getting a colony under control or not. With a small group of cats in a convenient location for you to care for them, you may have the time and energy to let mom go and trap her for spaying again later. TNR work is full of tough choices and painful memories. Chin up and do the best you can under the circumstances.

Although some people contend that spayed mothers will reject the kittens and not want to nurse, we at UCL have never seen this happen. We've been fortunate that all of the spayed mothers we know about have returned to the kittens and resumed nursing. Going forward you should notify the vet or clinic of your wishes in advance if they discover that a cat is lactating. Many "gung-ho" TNR clinics will go ahead with the spay without any prior discussion, assuming you have no options available to hold the mom or re-trap her later. On the other hand, some private vets don't like to spay a lactating female for fear they might nick one of the mammary glands during the surgery and any leaking milk could infect the spay incision. The more experienced high-volume spay clinic vets will spay a lactating female safely without any hesitation. If there is any fear for infection, a shot of long acting antibiotic (Convenia) may be recommended by the vet as a preventative.

These decisions are very difficult and stressful but don't torture yourself if you find yourself in this situation. If you have been caring for the colony well up to this point with good quality food and shelters, the mom and kittens will probably be healthy enough to make it through 3-4 days and bounce back fine. On the other hand, if the mom is sickly or the colony not well cared for, you may want to take extra care to make sure the family is reunited asap and follow up with providing mom with plenty of high quality food and water while things get back to normal. Leave the extra food in the usual place and not too near moms nest. Mom will not want other cats attracted to her hiding spot and will move the litter if you leave food too near to her den.


#17 How to avoid chasing them to be picked up?

Hi Mike,
Some good news, both kittens are now ok with being held. They don't scratch or anything when I pick them up. The only problem I have now is that when I let them roam around them apartment, I have a hard time "catching" them again. Although they aren't scared when I hold them, they do run away if I let them explore and attempt to get them.

How do I desensitize them from "being caught." I dont want them to always run away when someone attempts to pick them up. How will I adopt them out if they always hide when someone attempts to pick them up?

Thanks, Diana

Dear Diana, I like to keep a pen set up and continue to feed them in the pen even after I'm leaving the door wide open for them to come and go exploring life out in the household. They will continue to go in and wait for food at meal times like clockwork if you maintain a regular schedule. This way, I can handle them without chasing after them which always gets them worked up in a negative way. When the pen is still there as home base, they often feel safest in the pen and will go in and out many times per day without hesitation.

Also, you need to break up the routine to make them more relaxed in all areas of the house. On alternate days you can try feeding them in new places around the house where they must come to you and submit to being petted which eventually will lead to them being desensitized to being picked up without any incentive except affection in all places of the house. Maybe just a few special treats before mealtime when they are really hungry will achieve this.
Also you should introduce them to as many new people as possible. In preparation for this space out their meals so they will be very hungry at the time of the new person's visit. I'd lure them with food of a toy into a pen before a new person comes into the house. This way you won't be chasing after them in a panic if they hide when a new person comes into the house. Then let the new person feed them and pet them while they eat in the cage. If they do well with this, after a few times with a stranger you can try lifting them out and being held with a stranger present.
You should do the holding the first couple times. Having a stranger there will probably be enough of a "new thing" for them and you can work up to a stranger "adopter" pick them up. First, I'd try just having the stranger feed them in your lap and maybe work up to petting. If all that goes well you can put them calmly and securely into the person's lap with treats or baby food on hand and hunger on your side. If you work up to all of these things methodically the kittens will adjust to each new level as you raise the bar. Prepare the strangers well in advance so they know not to make any fast moves, gush with baby talk or make any sudden jarring moves. Ask them to watch part 2 of the You Tube video if you think they can't sit through all three parts. If the kittens get away from you just let them hide and don't enlist the help of a stranger to try to confine them. Thank the person for being willing to help but insist that you need to let the kittens calm down and be confined again before trying again. The kittens will quickly bounce back to where they were before the new visitor came IF you don't chase after them or insist that they be dragged out to continue the session right away. If they are calm with you, try luring them out with food or just ignore them for awhile until they forget about the incident.
Hang in there, you'll get them adopted!
Follow up one month later:
Hi mike,
just wanted to let you know that I let the kittens out for about two weeks and like you said, they got along with the other cats just fine. on sunday, we found a woman that was interested in adopting the pair, but asked to foster them for a month first. so sunday night, they met their new foster parents. so far so good, they have a pretty big apartment so I'm relieved that they have more room to run and play. I'm glad that they have each other.
I never thought I would miss them so much, but it's been three days and I really miss them. it's too bad my apartment is so small, or else I would've loved to keep them.
thanks for your help,