Aggression/Anxiety/Fear Behavior Foster Diary Handling

Mama Lemon: An Outdoor Cat’s Journey Home

One outdoor cat’s story from pregnancy through delivery, from shelter care through foster care, and ultimately from spay through returning home.

As a child, I grew up around an outdoor colony of cats at my grandparents’ house, giving me an interesting perspective on cat health and behavior. Watching the outdoor colony taught me that cats are masterful survivalists. These cats never came inside, whether it was swelteringly hot or bitterly cold, but they survived. It isn’t cruel to have outdoor cats, and in some instances, it’s crucial to the cat’s survival that it stays outside. That is the case with my former foster, Mama Lemon. This is her story.

From Lemon to Mama Lemon

cat in alley
One week before Lemon had her babies.

Lemon was an outdoor cat being fed by multiple people: a doctor, her husband, Miss Janice, and a lovely woman named Tara. In October 2019, they knew she was pregnant and understood the importance of a spay abort. After the husband trapped her on a Wednesday, he took her to a shelter/rescue organization and was told she was too far along and the surgery would be dangerous (spay aborts are safe until active labor, so I’m not sure why he was told this). They said to take her home and let her have the babies.

pregnant cat
There are four babies in that belly.

On Saturday, she gave birth to four kittens in the doctor and her husband’s basement. One died shortly after birth. The husband had to pull another out of the placenta to save its life (Wonton). The caretakers only saw one other kitten, an orange one (Jalapeno), but couldn’t find Lemon. Then they heard another baby crying, followed the cries and found Lemon with her last baby (Eggroll). (I know these names are pure gold.)

Tara’s boyfriend tried to trap Lemon, and in what will become pure Lemon-outdoor-cat fashion, she bolted out of the basement into the house. He chased Lemon around a small room until he eventually caught her. They took Lemon and her babies to ACCT Philly, the city’s only open-intake animal shelter.

Lemon the Outdoor Cat in the Nursery

Even though Tara advised that Lemon was an outdoor cat, kittens without a mother need foster care immediately. For obvious reasons, ACCT and most other animal welfare organizations try to keep the mother with the babies. It gives them the best chance for survival, and alleviates the pressure of a foster needing to bottle feed and stimulate the lils to pee and poop every 2-3 hours.

mom cat nursing babies
Lemon nursing her babies in the ACCT Philly nursery.

While in the nursery, Lemon minded her business, staying in the carrier in her kennel. She didn’t allow touching, but did allow the staff to check on her three babies.

After 10 days, some crazy girl recovering from major abdominal surgery (me) figured, “I’ll take a mom and babies. The mom does all the work. It’ll be easy. Oh, this poor mom has been there for 10 days. I’ll take her!”

Little did I know that there’s nothing poor about Lemon. She’s an outdoor cat that likes to live on her terms.

It’s Midnight & I Have 3 Bottle Feeders

When the transporter arrived, I excitedly ran to the front door. She handed over a cardboard carrier with the warning, “The mom is a little upset because we moved her.” Got it. After all, I’m used to dealing with cats that hate me.

I went right to the bathroom I had set up for the new family, opened the carrier, and my heart melted: A beautiful mom and three little fluffy tater tots. I picked up the orange kitten, in all his big-bellied beauty, then put him back in the carrier, calmly speaking to Mama Lemon and patting her head. She responded by biting me.

I’m no stranger to cat bites, and given I was recovering from major surgery, I knew I needed antibiotics ASAP. After a quick urgent care visit and getting meds, I returned home. Anxiously, I ran up to the bathroom, opened the door and …


There were three 10-day old babies in the bed, and no Lemon. I looked in the shower and under the sink. No Lemon. Then I saw the air vent on the floor, ripped off the duct.

bathroom status
How the bathroom looked after Mama Lemon split.

And now I had three bottle babies and a semi-feral outdoor cat in my ductwork. Ugh. And the kittens were covered in fleas. I bathed them, hoping their cries would bring Mama Lemon back. They didn’t.

I had very little experienced with bottle feeders and no formula. If Lemon didn’t come back, the babies would starve overnight, so I went to a 24-hour Walmart, bought formula, returned home, fed the lils, and went to bed, hoping Lemon would return.

Where in the World Is Mama Lemon?

In the middle the night, I heard a bunch of noises in the air ducts. They lasted about a half hour. I fully expected to open the bathroom door and see Lemon back with her babies.

No dice. Where was she and why wasn’t she coming back?

In the morning, I talked to my HVAC guy, who explained that she likely fell from the 3rd floor all the way to the basement. There would be no way for her to get back up. The noises I heard were probably Lemon trying to get back to her babies.

More than anything, I wanted eyes on her to make sure she was okay. Fortunately, there was a patch on my air duct in the basement because I’d had the ducts cleaned. Once I removed it, I popped my head inside, and about 20-30 feet away, I saw movement, and the glow of eyes against my flashlight.

Lemon located in the ducts in the basement.

She was alive and moving fine, so I didn’t think she had been injured during the fall. But she didn’t have food or water, so I set up a smorgasbord of stinky fish and water right under the air duct. I also tried baiting her with a crying kitten. Her response? Complete disinterest. I hoped the smell would bring her out.

It didn’t.

Day after day, every few hours, I’d check on her and talk to her. When hydration became a concern, I put water and food in the duct. I was so worried about her, but it was important for me to remember, she was an outdoor cat, and outdoor cats know how to survive.

Baiting Lemon with sardines. She is completely disinterested.

Welcome Back

After 7.5 days, I heard a strange noise early in the morning. I ran down to the kitchen, which is on the 2nd floor. Lemon popped out of one of the air ducts and immediately ran down the steps to the first floor.

Cornered between a closed basement door and me, I put down a carrier, and Lemon ran right in. Relief.

I set up a kennel for her in the basement with water, dry food, wet food, a bed, and towels. While I didn’t like the location, my surgery recovery included no lifting of anything over 10 lbs., so I really couldn’t move the kennel. It would have to stay.

Every few hours, I would go in, talk to Lemon, and slowly pet and scratch her head. I brought crying kittens to her, but she was too scared to even care. She didn’t bother to smell and her dilated pupils were just fixated on me.

One day she seemed to enjoy some head scratches, and I was hopeful she would turn a corner, but the next day, she reverted and I couldn’t touch her at all. She was swatting and growling and clearly over it.

After a week of seeing her mostly sit and sleep in her litter box and look like most depressed thing ever, I couldn’t take it anymore. I reached out to the shelter and asked if they could SNR (Shelter Neuter Returned) her. This means they would return to her outside home post spay. They agreed that with multiple caretakers, she’d be well looked after. It was the right thing to do. She was a true outdoor cat.

Finally, an Outdoor Cat Returns Home

Returning her to the shelter was invigorating. Not because I didn’t care, but because I knew she wasn’t happy, and she would be happier once she was returned home. After her spay, she scratched a vet tech and had to serve a 10-day scratch quarantine at the shelter. Oh, Lemon.

After Lemon’s release, it took Lemon some time to come back around, but she did. One of Lemon’s caretakers, Tara, tracked me down on Facebook, and showed me pics of Lemon now – so beautiful, fluffy, and happy. She agreed Lemon was an outdoor-only cat, “That cat is crazy. She bit me.”

The Lemon Injured Us Club had more members than I thought.

The bottom line is that some cats are just happier outside. Lemon was fortunate to have caretakers, but without them she would’ve ben placed in a farm or warehouse to do rodent control.

There are options for outdoor cats. Remember, cats are genetically built to survive on their own. Are there some that don’t belong outside? Yes, but if a cat thrives outside, your main job is to get it spayed/neutered and return it.

It’s also important to note that over 75% of kittens born to ferals die in the first few weeks. One of Lemon’s babies died shortly after birth. Wonton was only saved by human intervention (he was trapped in the placenta because Lemon didn’t get him out). And Jalapeno was born with an enlarged heart and euthanized in November. Without human intervention, Eggroll would have been the only survivor. Between Lemon’s rearing and her genetics, she really wasn’t the best mom. Just another reason to spay and neuter animals as soon as possible.

Three kittens in cat bed
From top to bottom, Jalapeno, Eggroll, and Wonton.

I’m so happy Lemon is home. It took a village to get her there, but I know she’s exactly where she needs to be.

Learn More

TNR is a great way to manage cat overpopulation, especially in big cities. Read TNR Explained & How One Shelter Does It Right.

Did you know cats and kittens can get tapeworms? Check out my sweet illustrations in Parasites in Cats: Tapeworms & Their Rice Grain Butts.

Worried about your pets and COVID-19? Don’t be. Take a look at my Panic-Free FAQ.

By LizsKittyBootCamp

Hi, I'm Liz, and I'm a cat behaviorist who provides advice and insights on cat behavior.

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