It’s that time of year when rescue groups and animals shelters across the country are on high alert — kitten season. It can be one of the most stressful times for animal workers when litters of kittens can arrive in a single day as unaltered community cats reproduce prolifically.


If you haven’t heard the term kitten season before, it begins in March, peaks in the late spring, levels off during the summer and spikes again in the fall. It’s estimated 20 million kittens will be born this spring alone, pushing the limits of shelters and rescues everywhere. Female kittens can become pregnant as young as four months and can go into heat every two to three weeks.


“An enormous amount of kittens have nowhere to go. People bring them to shelters, and the shelters become overcrowded,” said PetSmart Charities program manager Bryan Kortis on the organization’s website.


Caring for the flood of kittens is the most difficult test. It is easier to adopt out kittens than older cats; but, caring for then until they are old enough to go to their new home is intensely demanding. Those less than five weeks old must be fed every few hours so if they are without their mother they must go to a special foster home trained to care for these young ones.


Older kittens still require special care because their immune systems are still developing and they are very susceptible to disease, illness and parasites. Between five and eight week’s kittens begin eating cat food and need to start being handled and socialized. They can be adopted around eight weeks.


Here’s what to do if you find kittens and aren’t sure what to do from Flagler Humane Society executive director Amy Carotenuto. “Most importantly, leave them alone and watch out for their mother,” Carotenuto said. Moms leave their young ones alone during the day to hunt and look for food, but always return later. “Finding a litter of kittens can be startling, but keep an eye on them for at least 24 hours before going near them. They need their mother and mother’s milk to stay healthy and have a chance for survival,” said Carotenuto.


Once the kittens are older, around four to six weeks old, you can consider taking them into a shelter or bringing them indoors to care for. “One of the best ways you can help animals during this demanding time is to foster,” said Carotenuto. Flagler Humane Society foster parents receive all the food, supplies and any training they might need. Fostering helps kittens become socialized, helps cut down on illness being spread to others in the shelter and is overall better for the animal’s health and well-being.


The most significant ways you can help during kitten season and all year round is to spay or neuter you pets, support your local shelter and to adopt an older cat. Years of spreading the message about spay and neutering is paying off as admissions to shelters has gone down nationwide, including Flagler Humane Society which saw a four percent reduction in stray animal intake. Older cats often have trouble finding homes and end up staying shelters for much longer than their younger counterparts.