#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.


  1. It sounds like you did the best you could under the circumstances to get the mom back as soon as you could. I'll be thinking good thoughts for both mom and the kittens.

  2. Anonymous25 May, 2010

    thanks so much. very helpful I just picked up one of my ferals that I had trapped, and I knew she had babies and have been bottle feeding them. I just wasn't sure how long to wait before putting her back with the babies.

  3. How soon post surgery can a lactating cat be released back? Me and my tnr people here in Miami, FL release a nursing cat the very same day, as soon as the anesthesia wears off.

  4. That is what we have done too so that she can return to the kittens asap. The moms we've returned all went back to nursing and had healthy kittens and recovered well themselves also. The mom's we've been able to reunite with their kittens and observe up close have also returned to nursing and done well. It's always a stressful scenario but the moms seem to deal with it. Obviously one wouldn't intentionally spay a nursing female and risk her rejecting the kittens or having a post-spay complication out in the field. It must be painful to nurse after being spayed but instinct seems to compel the mother cats to deal with it and nurture their offspring nonetheless. Too bad there are so many cats needing Spay/Neuter that we have to take such chances . Also, there used to be 2 distinct kitten seasons per year in Spring and Fall and one could avoid trapping during those times. In the last few years, kittens are born year round with no real break in the cycle. Perhaps it's global warming or not, but things are not the way they used to be only 5-6 years ago.

  5. Anonymous24 July, 2012

    A feral cat appeared during severe weather 5 weeks ago. She is in next door's greenhouse. We have taken kittens for an hour at a time daily to get them used to humans. Mum cat is feeding still. She is only 9 months old herself. Problem is, two male cats are coming around and mum cat looks as if she may be in season again. Vet can't spay until her milk dries up which is another 2 weeks. Meanwhile we have found homes for 2 kittens and separated her from her last kitten. Mum cat is howling all day and night. Its terrible. I feel awful and its tearing me apart thinking I am doing the worst thing in the world. Vets and professionals keep on telling me i have to do this but in my heart i don't agree. Problem is the Tom cats and also the stray has upset my little cat so much she is borderline leaving home. Can I reunite mum cat with her last kitten after she has been spayed in 2 weeks or so and how long will it take her to recover? Mum cat doesn't like being confined so difficult to keep her in with the kitten to avoid Tom. Mum cat literally goes ballistic if doors are closed. HELP ME PLEEEEEEEEEEEZE!!!

  6. Anonymous25 July, 2012

    My first reaction is why don't you get the tom cats neutered too? But to answer your question, ntioned above, a lactating female CAN be spayed. Call around to other until you find one willing to do it. All of the answers to your questions are in the blog entry above. You CAN put mom back with the kittens a day after being spayed. She will "probably" go right back to nursing unless she decides it's time to wean them. None of this is ideal, but since you feel you are in such an impossible situation, find a more experienced vet who will agree to spay mom, get her a shot of long acting antibiotic if the vet recommends it for any risk of infection and continue your taming on schedule.

  7. I am full of guilts...I took a feral cat, which my parents regularly feed, to the local animal welfare for neutering...Then found out that she gave birth one week ago...I looked around but it was impossible to find the kittens..we brought her home after the surgery and she disappeared, assuming that she went to find the kittens...Is she going to survive if she keeps on lactating so soon after the operation?

  8. Mom and kittens should be fine. Moms usually go right back to nursing, and if the kittens stayed warm together in the nest (It's late March now) while mom was away they will always survived a few days without food. Staying warm is the most important under these circumstances, not eating. You will probably see mom bring out the kittens around 6 weeks old. Taming them for adoption is easy at that age, but if you don't have that option be sure to get them neutered before they start reproducing themselves which can happen starting at 4 months old. Best, Mike

  9. You have no idea how helpful this is. Thanks so much for sharing and answering our questions

  10. I am so glad I have found this blog, you have helped to reduce some of my own guilt!! We have also accidently caught and neutered a lactating feral female. We only realised when we heard her kittens in a tree and found one kitten that had fallen. We released the mum, who had been separated from her litter for 3 days but was concerned that her milk may dry up after her op. She is back looking after her young who look approximately 4 weeks old and we hope to capture them in a couple of weeks when she brings them to ground level. I have been unable to get any sound advice locally and was repeatedly told by one charity that the kittens will not survive. After catching and neutering 3 males, 1 female and taming and homing 2 litters of feral kittens (just from our back garden)I am beginning to think we actually know more about ferals.

  11. Does the milk dry up soon after spaying?? I am not sure if spaying affects their hormones in the same way a hysterectomy affects a woman.

  12. Hello! I have a problem with my cat who is nursing 2 kittens. I took her to the Vet because she had a big abcess on her neck.
    The vet told me she has to inject convenia and AFTER she told me ah! You have to weane the cats!!!!! Now the cat and the kittens are crying all day, she has massive breasts (i am very worried she can get a mastitis) and kittens wont eat.
    I called the Vet and she told me it is no safe to nurse but i want to know what can happen to the kittens if they do? I have red that some vets do inject convenia to nursing cats.
    I think all the stress is worse that the abcess itself! And there other options!!!
    Thank you! Kittens are almost 5 weeks.