Too Young to Survive?

by : LeAnn R. Ralph

Eight o’clock on a beautiful June morning in southern Wisconsin. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. And I was on my way to the stable where I boarded my two horses. Little did I know that in just a few minutes I would become a “momma kitty."

As I slid open the barn door I saw the calico cat. The previous evening she had been plump with kittens, but now she was suspiciously thin, so I knew she had given birth during the night.

“After I feed the horses, you’ll have to show me where you hid your babies," I said to her, scooping dry cat food into the dish.

The calico settled down for a snack and I began measuring out grain. There were six horses pastured together with stalls in this barn. I was going to let my horses in, so I figured I might as well feed all of them.

As I walked to the other end of the barn so I could open the door, the calico sat on the floor near one of the stalls to watch the horses come in — just like she did most mornings.

One by one, the horses clip-clopped to their stalls. I followed behind, closing their doors. But before I could close one door, the horse inside lunged at another who was just passing by. The mare jumped sideways to avoid being bitten — and trampled the calico cat.

Almost before I could draw breath to scream, the calico cat was dead. I knelt beside her, stroking the soft fur. “Your kittens," I whispered. “What am I going to do about your kittens? I don’t even know where they are."

I had grown up on a dairy farm in west central Wisconsin with many barn cats. I knew cats liked to keep their kittens hidden until they’re old enough to move around. And I knew young kittens depended upon their mothers for survival until they were about eight weeks old.

I also knew the stable cats usually made nests for their kittens in the haymow above me. But because it was summer and new hay was being put in the mow every day, I didn’t know where to begin to look for those kittens. The thought of orphaned kittens waiting for a mother who would never return brought tears to my eyes. How could I ever find them? Unless. . .

Every morning for the past week when I let the horses inside, I had seen the calico cat coming out of an unused dog kennel near the end of the barn. Was it possible she'd made a nest in the dog house?

I went out to the kennel, peered into the dog house — and sure enough, there were the kittens. A black, a gray and a tabby, curled up together for warmth.

I got hold of the kittens. All three fit in the palm of my hand.

After putting the kittens in a box, I went to the stable office so I could call my veterinarian for advice. The year before I had adopted four two-week old kittens who had been orphaned at this same stable (which leads me to believe stables are exceptionally dangerous places for mother cats). But two-week old kittens were very different from the kittens I had just settled into a box. I wasn't sure the newborns had even had a chance to nurse their mother. And they were so incredibly, impossibly tiny.

Because it was a weekend, my regular vet turned out not to be on call at the clinic. I really wanted to talk to him because he was so knowledgeable and helpful, but this was an emergency and I knew I couldn't wait until Monday morning. The on-call vet I reached, however, was not at all helpful. “Don’t even bother," he said. “They’ll never make it."

When I hung up the phone, I had a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. Don't bother? How could I not bother? I simply couldn't accept just sitting back and doing nothing. If I did everything I could and the kittens died, that would be one thing. But just leaving them to starve to death, their little bodies growing weak and cold — especially after I had witnessed their mother's death and felt, somehow, sort of responsible because I hadn't gotten that door shut quickly enough — no, I just couldn't do it. I knew if I didn't try, I would have trouble sleeping at night for weeks to come. So, I searched the yellow pages for another vet clinic.

The next veterinarian I called was much more optimistic about the situation. “Bring them into the office," he said. “We’ll weigh them and I’ll tell you what you need to do."

The kittens only weighed three ounces each and at first, they consumed a half an eyedropper of canned milk replacer three times a day. The vet told me their mother would normally feed them every two hours but that I shouldn't try feeding them that often. "They won't be really hungry, and then you'll get frustrated and they’ll get frustrated. Feed them three times a day," he explained.

In a few days the kittens started to put on weight. At ten days old they opened their eyes. At four weeks old they began to use a litter box. Not a regular one, but an aluminum pie plate that was just their size. . .

All these years later (12 to be exact!), I’m happy to say the kittens grew up to be healthy, lively cats. Two of them, a 7-pound black female, Nightshade, and a 13-pound tabby male, Sebastian, became as much a part of the family as my other four cats. The gray kitten was adopted by a woman who desperately wanted another cat. Her faithful companion of many years had died recently and when she heard about the orphaned kittens I was raising, well — she just knew she had to adopt one of them. As far as I can tell, Nightshade and Sebastian are not suffering any problems from being orphaned as newborns. Except, perhaps, for the fact that Sebastian becomes uneasy when the kitty food dishes are empty. He'll come to find me, "talking," chirping and purring non-stop while running a few feet ahead to lead me to the dishes. All I have to do is put out a handful of dry food and he's satisfied. Most of the time he's not even hungry — just worried, I think, because the dishes are empty.

As for Nightshade, she has turned my six-foot-two-inch tall husband from a man who swore he didn't like cats into a person who holds her, cuddles her and tells her she has "itty-bitty kitty fitties (feet)" — which he will deny vehemently if anyone mentions it to him. "I do NOT," he says, drawing himself up to his full height, "talk to my cat that way."

Although I now live 250 miles from the veterinarian who told me "not to bother" I have been tempted to send him pictures of Nightshade and Sebastian. They are living proof of what can happen when you ignore the advice of experts and follow your heart, adding just a little bit of "bother" and a whole lot of love.


© LeAnn R. Ralph 2004