Orphan Kitten Care FAQ
This FAQ will appear as a section in the forthcoming publication
Love That Cat! Guide to 1600 Products, Resources, Solutions &
Comforts for Cats and Cat Lovers.
Olivia Russell, ed. Allium Press, Takoma Park, Maryland, 1997.
Copyright 1997 by Olivia Russell, All Rights Reserved
Internet distribution arranged by Sharon Talbert,
A general note about taking in strangers. Always, always isolate a rescued cat or kitten from your pets for at least fourteen days and until it has been examined by your veterinarian and tested for lethal disease; even a tiny kitten can pack a killer virus or parasite. Make the kitten comfortable in a room that is frequently visited by you and that is
separate from your other pets, and wash your hands with an antibacterial soap between visits to the new animal and your household. Consult with your veterinarian so that you are able to weigh the risks against the many blessings of taking in an orphan kitten.
The following, numbered sequence could be applied generally to an orphaned kitten of any age but is particularly important for the frail newborn. Less detailed instructions for older kittens follow. Good luck to foster mothers everywhere.
Table of Contents
- 1. Determine the Kitten’s Condition
- 2. Make the Kitten Comfortable and Warm
- 3. Prepare the Feeding
- 4. More on Emptying the Bowel and Bladder
- 5. Maintenance
Any kitten, even if it seems fine, should be seen by your vet as soon as possible. Take a fresh stool sample with you, so the vet may check for intestinal parasites. If a fecal cannot be done by the time of the appointment, take a stool sample as soon as you can. Remove as many fleas as you safely can (with a comb for newborns; do not bathe, spray or powder
a kitten before it is six weeks old).
If the kitten is lethargic or cool to the touch, you may have a life-threatening emergency (such as exposure or distemper). Get the kitten on a heating pad or other primary heat source (see item 2) and get it to a veterinarian right away or consult an emergency veterinary clinic. Do NOT feed a chilled newborn — you will kill it. Instead, administer slightly warmed Pedialyte (an infant rehydrating fluid, available in any grocery or pharmacy), using an animal nurser, syringe, or dropper. (You can greatly extend the life of the Pedialyte by freezing it as ice cubes, bagging the cubes and storing them in your freezer, by the way.) Feed the kitten only when it is warmed and indicates it is hungry.
If the kitten seems over-warm and/or is breathing rapidly, it may be feverish or suffering from heat exhaustion or worse. Contact your vet or an emergency veterinary clinic immediately for advice if you can. To help lower the kitten’s body temperature, try wiping it down with a cool, damp cloth; then administer Pedialyte. Get the kitten to a veterinarian as soon as possible.
If the kitten is active and screaming lustily for its mother, go quickly to item 2; you will find that a heating pad will help calm the kitten while you prepare its first meal.
Empty the Bladder
Newborns cannot evacuate their bowel or bladder unassisted. The kitten you have found may be in excruciating pain or in danger of going toxic from having to retain its own body waste. You should help the kitten at least empty its bladder before proceeding with warming or feeding or even the trip to the veterinarian. With the kitten on a towel in your lap, lightly rub the kitten’s body with a rough, dry washcloth. (At that point, the kitten may roll over or otherwise present its bottom to you.) With a generous handful of soft tissue (also to be kept handy at all times) gently stroke the kitten’s behind, keeping the tissue in contact. The kitten should oblige by urinating a rather amazing amount. Simply rotate the tissue until kitten stops urinating or the tissue is soaked, whichever comes first. (Did I mention to keep a waste bag handy for this procedure?)
Another method to stimulate evacuation is to use a tissue or wash cloth moistened with warm water instead of a dry cloth or to apply a moistened Q-tip (hold the kitten over a sink or a folded towel if you use the latter method).
Warm the kitten
A newborn kitten is not capable of generating or maintaining body warmth and must depend on its mother (and now you) to sustain warmth and life. Keeping a newborn orphan warm (even on a warm day) is a priority, more important initially than feeding (do NOT feed a chilled kitten, by the way — you will kill it). Bundling up the kitten will do no good; it has no body heat of its own to retain. And putting the kitten near a space heater or other heating element is neither
sufficient for the long-term nor safe. Wrap a heating pad, set on low, in a towel or flannel and place it in or beneath the nesting box, leaving room for the kitten to crawl off the heated area as needed. (Emergency, short-term measures: If you don’t have a heating pad, put the kitten on a wrapped hot water bottle or snugged against a tightly sealed and well stabilized jar of warm water. Better yet, put the kitten next to your body — next to the skin if possible. Then go out and borrow or buy that heating pad after the first feeding or take the kitten to the vet immediately if its condition is poor or questionable.)
Newborns should be shielded from direct light and contained in their den until they are at least three weeks old. Remember to try to provide the kitten an area in the den where it can crawl off the heating pad if it gets overheated. A small airline-style carrier doubles very well as a den and a taxi, though the kitten will soon outgrow it. A pair of large
nested boxes is a good den, as long as the kitten cannot crawl out. If you are fostering a single kitten, provide a surrogate sibling in the form of a small stuffed toy or bundled sock.
There are several good milk replacers on the market, available in liquid or powder form (my personal favorite is called Just Born). The ready-mix liquid is more convenient. Be sure the product is engineered for kittens and that it is fresh (some have a short shelf-life). Milk replacers can be found in any pet supplies store, most veterinary clinics, and even in some variety stores. In an emergency or for the short-term, you can make up your own formula from tinned or powdered goat’s milk (see below). If the kitten seems weak or ill and you cannot get to a veterinarian right away, you should administer slightly warmed Pedialyte before offering the milk replacer.
Mona’s Homemade Goats Milk Formula
Mona Myers, a certified bird rehabilitator in Seattle who has in the past rescued orphan kittens, swears by this formula and prefers it to the ready-made products. You might try her recipe if the kitten is not responding well to the commercial product.
Use tinned or powdered goats milk. (Either should be kept in the fridge when opened>) For a newborn or a kitten suffering from exposure, substitute Pedialyte for water to reconstitute the powdered goats milk. (Stick with the Pedialyte formula for the first week or so with a weak newborn, then switch to boiled water as the base.) Warm a measured amount of the liquid slightly and pour into a bowl. Using a flour sifter, sift the goats milk powder into the liquid, blending with a wire whisk. To every 8 oz of goats milk, whether tinned or reconstituted, add 1/3 dropper Avitron and 1/3 dropper Avimin (available in pet supply stores). Finally, add 1/4 tsp acidophilus culture and 1/4 tablet
(crushed) papaya enzyme (these last ingredients are found in health food stores; acidophilus culture must be refrigerated).
This formula is best after being refrigerated for at least an hour, but it can be warmed (in hot water or microwaved a few seconds in a dish, not in the nurser) and served immediately.
While you are purchasing the milk replacer, find a good nurser. Most of these look like a baby bottle in miniature; I prefer the model with a pointy nipple. Pierce the nipple with a large-gauge needle (heated over a match) or ask the veterinarian to prepare the nurser for you. The nipple is constructed of tough stuff and is difficult to pierce; whatever you do do NOT cut the nipple with a knife or household scissors, however tempted you may be — you may kill the kitten if you make the hole too large and flood its lungs. If you must resort to cutting, use a cuticle scissor and snip ever so delicately, then test (the flow should be a very thin stream) before offering the bottle to the kitten. If you did it wrong and made the hole too big, go out and buy another bottle or replacer nipple.
Other possible nursers are a 6-cc syringe or the kind of squeeze bottle used to dispense droplet medication (ask your veterinarian or pharmacist). These do present some risk, as the formula must be forced into the kitten’s mouth, again increasing the risk of flooding the lungs. Last choice is a dropper, the slowest of the slow, but better than nothing until you go out and buy a nurser.
Heat the formula (in hot water) until it is comfortably warm. Test a stream on the inside of your wrist, first shaking the bottle to even out the temperature. Within easy reach, set a rough washcloth, paper towel, and a box of tissue. Also keep a cup of hot water nearby (but not where it could tip onto the kitten) to warm the nurser as needed. Then lay an
old towel, the fluffier the better, across your lap. Hold the kitten belly-down, steadying and guiding the head to the nipple with the same hand that is holding the bottle. (This is just my technique; you may find another that works best for you.) Try to center the nipple in the kitten’s mouth, over the tongue, and apply just enough pressure on the nurser to bead out a bit of formula on the nipple. If this is not enough to induce the kitten to begin suckling, squeeze a tiny bit into its mouth and wait for it to swallow before (gently!) squeezing again. This can be even trickier than it sounds, particularly if the kitten is desperately hungry. Convincing a frenzied kitten to slow down and suckle is no easy task.
Another kitten may be put off by the strangeness of the offering and so will resist feeding or may be too weak to take the nipple immediately. Be patient and calm and persistent, applying careful pressure on the nurser to keep the formula coming at a natural rate without squirting it down the kitten’s throat. Watch the ears: If they start to bob, the kitten is getting just the right amount of formula. If formula bubbles out the nostrils, pull back immediately — you are drowning the kitten.
Do not overfeed, especially at the first meal. A series of small meals is better than one large one. And don’t go crazy trying to follow the complicated instructions on the formula container. Feed the kitten until it settles down and its tummy is full but not distended, then gently remove the nipple and rub the kitten gently but briskly all over with your
hand or that rough dry washcloth. (Remember, you are a momcat now; your baby needs the stimulation provided by that tough-love tongue all mother cats have.) If the kitten doesn’t immediately begin to complain and nuzzle for more milk, it is fed. Continue rubbing or patting until you get a burp. If you don’t get a burp right away, try putting the kitten
over your shoulder like any other baby and patting it gently on the side or back. Then return it to the heating pad for about 15 minutes before going to the next step. (Or to the next kitten, if you are caring for a litter.)
A special note on suckling. The suckling instinct in very strong in these little guys, and they are likely to suckle on another. This behavior can be lethal to a male kitten if the genitals are suckled, causing swelling and impaction of the urinary tract. You may need to separate kittens from one another, or at least separate the aggressive suckler. The single
kitten should be provided a surrogate momcat or sibling in the person of a soft plush toy that can be snuggled and suckled. Keep the surrogate “mom” and the kitten’s bedding clean but chemical-free, for safe suckling.
Frequency of feedings
Feed a newborn at least every four hours or on demand. Do not overfeed. Be prepared to do night feedings.
A note on tube-feeding. The feeding process can be greatly speeded up by feeding per catheter directly to the stomach. Consult with your veterinarian and insist on a training session before attempting to tube-feed, incorrect insertion of the catheter could flood the kitten’s lungs. I do not recommend tube-feeding on a daily basis; kittens need
nurturing, physical contact in order to thrive almost as much as they need nourishment. If you do tube-feed, handle the kittens. Put them in a sling or fanny pack and wear them around the house (I use a kitten snuggly made by a friend).
I recommend emptying the kitten both immediately before and about 15 minutes following each feeding. With any luck, you have already emptied the bladder. Evacuation of the bowel will probably not happen at the first attempt and may take a day or two. When it does happen, don’t be horrified at the toothpaste consistency and mustard color — this is normal for a newborn. (A grayish stool is cause for concern, however; call the vet at once.) Once bowel movements have begun, you should see a movement for every feeding.
Kittens dehydrate quickly, so feed carefully to prevent diarrhea. Do not over-feed and do not make sudden or radical changes to the kitten’s diet. If diarrhea (or constipation) develops, consult your veterinarian for adjustment of the formula or feeding portion. If the stool is liquid or bloody or contains mucous, consult your vet or make an
Weigh the kitten on the first day and re-weigh and record the kitten’s weight at least every other day. Use a postage scale or food scale or baby scale (the bathroom scale is not going to cut it). Observe the kitten’s daily progress closely. if there is failure to thrive, weight loss, signs of distress, lassitude, or change in body temperature, consult your veterinarian at once. Be alert for changes in behavior; if a newborn kitten persistently crawls away from the nest or (in the case of a litter) seems always to be on its own, consult your veterinarian at once.
A kitten’s eyes are generally fully open by ten days old (they begin to open at seven days). By three or four weeks a kitten is mobile and able to eat at least some solid food. The kitten is also ready for the litterpan as soon as it can toddle to it. (I recommend introduction to the litterpan by three weeks with expectation of seeing some independent use of the pan by four weeks.)
Den and Living Space
Toddlers should be encouraged to play and extend themselves, but they must be contained in a safe, small room. Do not give small kittens the run of your home or apartment, particularly if they are in the process of being socialized! Start newborns with the denning box, then at about three weeks allow them out of the box to explore a small,
kitten-proofed room that is warm and secure. A spare bedroom is a good living space, a bathroom is fine, as long as the lid is left down on the toilet and floor isn’t too cold (newspaper is a good insulator if that is the case). Provide a den (the carrier or nesting box) as safe haven and sleeping place.
By four weeks old or a bit sooner, your kitten can be introduced to solid food. Start with a slightly warmed moosh of formula mixed with strained meat babyfood (chicken or turkey) and formula, offered on a saucer or small plate. (There is a transitional cereal offered by Just Born you can mix into the mess as well.) Be sure not to overheat the stuff in the microwave — only a few seconds is all it needs, and be sure to mix it thoroughly with your finger so that you get all the hot spots. You may have to put a bit of food on the kitten’s nose or in its mouth to get it going, using your finger or a plastic spoon. Within the week, add a good-quality kitten chow (I prefer Iams), softened in warm water, while phasing out the formula, both by nurser or in the solid food (moisten with water, as necessary). By the time the kitten is six weeks old, it should be scarfing down straight kitten chow and drinking water on its own. Wean gently and gradually though; you don’t want a thumb-sucker on your hands.
The Water Dish
By four or five weeks, the kitten should be taking water on its own as well as food. Provide a low, heavy dish, so the kitten can walk in it, dip its paws and otherwise perform the scientific experiments typical of all felines. If you can, place the dish in a corner or other low-traffic area and handy but not too close to the food dish. You may need to help the kitten by providing it with an opaque rather than a clear dish and by wetting its nose with your finger and leading it down to water level. Given the kitten has been lapping up its moosh-meals for a while by now, drinking water shouldn’t be too great an adjustment.
Kittens are like any other toddler; they play too hard and too long and then desperately need to relieve themselves, so be sure a litterpan (or litterpans, in a larger room) is handly at all times. Start with a pan small enough and low enough for a toddler to get into (and out again) with no trouble; a good starter pan is the cut-down box used in pet food stores for display of small tins. Very little training is necessary. Put the kitten into the litterpan 15 minutes or so after a meal, perhaps stimulating it by guiding its paws into a digging motion. If the kitten hops right out, put it right back in again, at least for a time or two. That and the occasional remainder is all you should have to do. If there is an accident, put the feces in the litterpan to help redirect the kitten. Use newspaper rather than plastic on the floor. And do NOT use clumping litter for a young kitten! Kittens are likely to eat litter, and the clumping stuff can block the intestine. I recommend a pellet-style litter until the kitten is at least eight weeks old, and even then watch to be sure the kitten is not eating the stuff. When the kitten is five or six weeks old, it is ready for a full-size litterpan; simply provide a
brick as a stepping stone if necessary (I wrap the brick in an old towel).
Preschoolers (eyes starting to turn color)
Orphans should be started on their distemper shots (done in a series of three) at six weeks. (Note: A kitten who did not receive at least the first three days of its mother’s milk should be started on shots at four weeks.) The kitten should be tested for FeLV (or even FIV, if it is from a high-risk feral colony or of unknown background), and should also have its
stool tested for intestinal parasites. Innoculation against FeLV (feline leukemia) will have to wait until the kitten is at least ten weeks old, but test anyway. A kitten testing positive should be held for at least two weeks (I recommend a month) and then tested a second time, to rule out a false postitive result. Starting an animal on the FeLV series without
first ruling out whether the animal is a carrier is irresponsible and reprehensible!
By now your foster kitten is gobbling down kitten chow by the bowlful and drinking water on its own. That’s all any weanling kitten needs, if the food is good quality and the kitten is healthy. By the time the kitten is a robust eight weeks old it is ready to go to a loving, responsible home — if you are strong enough to let it go.
And if you do adopt out your kitten, please consider spaying or neutering it first, before it starts making kittens of its own (which it can by six months of age). A healthy kitten can be safely spayed/neutered as early as eight weeks of age (minimum weight two pounds), but at least sterilize by four months.