Caring for Newborn Kittens Without a Mother
During the late spring and early summer, animal hospitals, shelters and rescue organizations brace themselves for that legendary time of year – kitten season! Yes, that’s right. There is an actual time of year when an overwhelming number of sweet, baby cats are born into this world.
While the cute factor is high during this time, so is the stress of caring for these kittens, many of whom find themselves at DoveLewis or at a shelter without a mother. And looking after these orphaned, adorable creatures is hard work! Much like caring for newborn humans, newborn kittens need constant attention, feeding and help during the first stage of their life.
Ever wonder what it’s like to act as a surrogate mother for these tiny creatures? Dr. Erika Loftin, DoveLewis relief veterinarian, shares details on the ins and outs of kitten care.
What should you expect when caring for newborn kittens?
Caring for orphaned neonatal kittens takes round the clock effort, but it can be done if you are willing to put in the time and dedication. You have to be prepared to get up throughout the night for the feedings. It’s very much like caring for a human baby in that regard. However, they grow up much faster, so you are not doing it for months at a time. But it still takes a similar dedication. You definitely have sleepless nights and periods of worry. Are they getting enough to eat? Are they growing the way they are supposed to?
It can also be really sad sometimes, because they don’t all make it. Some studies say that the mortality rate for kittens can be up to 40 percent. But you definitely create a real bond caring for them through that period.
How often do you feed newborn kittens?
Neonatal kittens need to be fed on a regular basis day and night. For the first week of life, they need to be fed about every two to three hours. After that, you can usually stretch it out to every four hours.
These kittens should be bottle-fed using kitten milk replacer (or KMR), which comes in either liquid or powder form. It’s the equivalent to formula that you would use for a bottle-fed baby, except it’s formulated for cats. The formula, bottles and nipples are all available over the counter at most pet supply stores. You don’t need a prescription. The instructions will give you a guideline on how much to feed based on the weight of the cat.
When preparing the bottle, be cautious of milk flow. If you make the hole in the nipple too big, the kitten can actually aspirate, or drown. The bottles come with instructions on how to prep the nipple for milk flow. However, if you are struggling, I would advise you to seek help from your veterinarian. Never cut off the entire tip of the nipple, as this is often what causes cats to aspirate.
What about bathroom time?
Orphaned neonatal kittens need help urinating and defecating. Generally a mother cat would do that with her rough tongue. Without the mother available, use a warm, damp cotton ball or cloth and rub gently over their genitals and anal area. If they are well-hydrated, which is your goal, then you should stimulate them after every feeding and pee should come out. This stimulation usually needs to occur for the first three to four weeks of life. Be sure to clean and dry the area after they’ve done their business.
Do newborn kittens need special bedding?
You can use a simple box with soft blankets to contain the kitten. For warmth, I would suggest using a warm water bottle wrapped in a towel. Simply put it between two blankets that line the entire box. I would discourage people from using a heating pad, because it’s easier for the kitten to overheat that way.
What are some special handling techniques to keep them healthy and safe?
In the first four weeks of their life, minimize the number of people who handle the kitten. During that time, they have not yet built up their immune systems, and they are prone to illnesses and infections. Be sure to wash your hands before and after each time you handle them.
Avoid allowing the kitten to interact with other animals – even other cats. You never know how another animal will treat a small kitten, and neonatal cats are fragile in this stage of life.
If you have more than one kitten from the same litter, you can definitely keep them in the same box. They can help keep each other warm. If they are from different litters, you can still keep them in the same box, unless they are radically different ages or sizes. Also, don’t mix sick and healthy kittens.
When should I take kittens to the veterinarian?
Overall, it’s a good idea to keep in touch with your veterinarian during the first four weeks of the kitten’s life so they can help you monitor their progress and answer any questions that may arise. Your veterinarian will most likely see them once, but they may request more check-ups depending on the progress you report along the way.