While most female cats who have kittens are excellent mothers by instinct, what do you do when the mother cat rejects a kitten or a whole litter or you find a litter that has been abandoned because it was dumped by someone or the mother was killed?
The first thing to do is get them in a warm, dry, and dimly lit situation. A cardboard box, cat carrier (with a towel over it to prevent drafts through the normal ventilation areas), or similar container. Then get them warm. Newly born kittens have no body resources to produce heat and need to be kept in an area that is 85-90 degrees for the first week or two. Also, check for dehydration. If the kittens gums are pale or the skin and fur don’t return to normal when pulled gently, the kitten may need to be seen by the vet for hydration. If only mildly dehydrated, a bit of warm water can be administered very slowly with an eyedropper.
A couple of suggestions to provide the warmth needed: A cloth bag filled with about 2 pounds of uncooked rice can be heated in a microwave for about 2 minutes, then wrapped in an old towel. This can be reheated as needed, but probably about every two hours. An electric heating pad on low, wrapped in a towel, but not placed on the bottom of the box, place it on the side and monitor it frequently. If you are using a small area such as a powder room or closet, a small space heater, especially one with a thermostat can bring the area to the needed temperature.
Now is the time to hit the phone. Call your vet, shelter, and any breeders or rescue groups in the area to see if they know of a surrogate mom-cat. This is the best way for the kittens. Many times a female will accept other kittens.
If you are not successful in finding a surrogate here are some other equipment and supplies you will need. Old towels, washcloths, t-shirts, flannel pj’s, sheets, fleece pads or other soft washable fabrics that can be used to line the bottom of the container you are using.A food or postal scale.Kitten nurser bottles and formula – powdered or liquid.
Kittens are born deaf and blind. They normally find the mother’s nipple by scent and vibration from her purring. The mother’s milk provides colostrum during the first day or so. This provides the kitten with some immunity to disease (assuming the mother has been immunized or developed antibodies to certain feline diseases) and an extra boost of nutrition. If you are not sure if your kittens received this protection, make certain you take extra precautions to wash your hands before handling the kittens. Even if they may have received colostrum, good hygiene is imperative.
Newborn to one-week-old kittens need to be fed every two to four hours. They will need about 32 ccs of food per 4 ounces of body weight per day during the first week. This is where the scale comes in handy! Take a notepad and document each kitten’s weight to calculate how much food it will need, then divide by the number of feedings to come up with an amount per meal. The powdered formulas keep well, unmixed, in the refrigerator for up to 3 months. Liquids and mixed powdered formula can be kept refrigerated for up to 48 hours. Make sure the formula is warmed to about 90 degrees before feeding. Sterilize the bottles and nipples along with any containers used to prepare the formula for each meal. Make sure the nipples allow for ample passage of the formula. Do not overfeed as it can cause constipation, gas, and other tummy upsets. Do not give cow’s milk to kittens as it does not provide the nutrients needed and it will also promote digestive upsets. There are some homemade formulas that can be used in an emergency, but it is recommended to use a formula made for kittens for at least the first four weeks.
It is easiest to put a towel on your lap or a table and put the kitten on the towel to feed. Hold the bottle at about a 45-degree angle. If the kitten doesn’t seem to know how to suckle, stroke under the chin lightly with your finger. After the kitten starts suckling, stroke the head and back gently. When you have finished feeding, burp the kitten by placing it on your shoulder and very gently pat it. Fortunately, they don’t spit up often…but you should hear an audible burp. Take a warm, damp washcloth and wash the kitten’s face using a gentle circular motion, covering the chin, sides, and neck.
Normally a mother cat will bathe the kittens and stimulate bowel movements. Now that you are “mom”, you will need to do this by taking a warm, damp washcloth, or cotton ball, and massaging the tummy area in a circular motion. The kitten may not go right away, but you will need to bathe it once it does. No soap or shampoo, just warm water, and a washcloth. Make sure you dry the kitten off well and clean up the nest box, then place the kittens back in the box until the next event.
Keep a log of the weight and growth of your kittens. This is one way to tell if a kitten is thriving. A steady weight gain is important. If a newborn is 3 to 4 ounces, it should be 7 to 8 ounces by the second week. That fraction of an ounce gain each day is an indicator of progress. Should you have a kitten that is not gaining or seems to be weaker, call your vet immediately. It may be anemic or have hypoglycemia or any number of other problems that can be effectively treated by a vet.
Fleas and other parasites can be serious problems to kittens. There are very few flea products that are safe for kittens under 8-12 weeks of age. Use a flea comb and a bowl of water to rid the kittens of fleas. Comb thru and then plunge the comb into the water and remove any hair and fleas. Change the bedding and if you are using a carrier or box that can be cleaned, do so, otherwise replace the box. If there are LOTS of fleas, bathing the kittens in warm water, then drying them thoroughly might be the best solution. Do not allow the kittens to become chilled, though. If there is diarrhea, talk to your vet as it may be from other parasites, other diseases or over-feeding.
A kitten’s eyes will begin to open between 7-10 days, but sight will be limited until about 14 days. They will start moving around more and become more active. At about 3 weeks a low-sided box can be introduced for “litterbox” training. You may have to put them in and help them learn to dig, but they will soon figure it out. Non-clumping litter is recommended for kittens as they will try to eat anything that comes in to their world. They will also play and sleep in the box.
At about 5 weeks, the formula can be mixed with some dry kitten food and mashed into a mush to begin weaning and the transition to solid food. At the same time, introduce a water dish.
From 3 or 4 weeks of age, play with the kittens out of the box and provide some toys. Pingpong balls, film cannisters with a few beans or pebbles inside or other cat toys that can’t be chewed are good to start. As they get a bit older, soft toys can be added.
Once they are weaned and eating solid kitten food and have mastered the litterbox, you can begin thinking about new homes for the kittens. (Be sure you don’t fall into the trap of giving your kittens away Free To a Good Home!) An appointment with the vet for a thorough check and vaccination schedule is next. Although kittens raised by a mom-cat should stay with their mother and siblings until at least 8 weeks and preferably 10-12 weeks, orphaned kittens may be placed a bit earlier, but not before 6 weeks.