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.