[Editor’s Note: There is always a possibility of injury when you approach an animal that you don’t know. It’s recommended that you contact animal control or your local shelter if you are concerned about personal injury. Many shelters will come out and get the kitten for you, and you can still be involved in the kitten’s care as described below.]
You find a stray kitten or, as if often the case, a stray kitten finds you. What should you do?
The first interaction
As the saying goes, ‘above all do no harm.’ That would be to you or to the kitten, if possible. He may be small but he is still armed with teeth and claws and, depending on his personality, he may be terrified and apt to lash out at you, wriggle free of you (and fall) or run off headlong into some other peril. So if you have the option, take a minute to prepare before you approach. Have a box or a carrier ready. Have a fluffy towel or some gloves. Since we are talking about a small kitten and not a feral adult cat, scooping him up with the towel is probably the preferred approach. If you have to try to catch him with a leash, be careful. Snared cats have a tendency to spin and a leash can quickly become too tight around their necks; then you will have to get your hands into the fray.
What comes after the introduction?
Once you have the kitten secured, your next step depends a lot on what condition he is in, where you are, what day it is, what time it is and what your future plans for the kitten are.
First of all, even if he looks thin or unkempt, is he, at least, apparently uninjured? If he is injured, physically distressed or in obvious pain or discomfort, you will want to take him directly to a veterinarian for assessment and care.
If he seems to be physically okay, but you are not planning on keeping the kitten, I'm sure you still want him to have safe shelter and the hope of a better life. The best thing to do next is to take the little tyke to an appropriate shelter/rescue association as soon as possible. If there will be a short delay in doing this, then put food and water in his box for the interim. You will have to judge what is appropriate based on his presumed age. If he’s tiny and still nursing, his needs will be different than an adult. This is another good time to contact a veterinarian if you’re unsure.
If you cannot get him to a facility in a reasonable period of time, you will have to take steps to keep him comfortable until you can. That may mean a bigger box/carrier that will accommodate not only food and water but litter too, or setting him up in a small room/bathroom in your home for the time being. If he is going to have to spend some time at your home, and if you can safely handle him, you might want to check for fleas and ticks and bathe/treat him accordingly. If you have to use an insecticide, you must use one that is safe and specifically label-approved for cats/kittens. No dog products allowed. Also, be sure to wash your hands well after handling the kitten.
What if you want to keep him?
What if this adorable, little ball of fur captures your heart and you don’t want to give him up? Then you need to schedule an appointment for him with your veterinarian. You want to know that he is healthy and, if he is not, you want to be able to promptly address any medical issues he might have—ESPECIALLY if you have small children or other pets in the house. Kittens can carry diseases that are contagious to other pets and infections like ringworm and intestinal worms that have zoonotic potential (meaning they can affect people). So until you get the green light from your veterinarian, wait on introducing him to the whole family; keep him safe and comfortable for the time being. You’ll have plenty of time for everyone to get to know each other. Just take it slowly.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.