Caring for Orphaned Kittens
- Orphaned kittens should be taken to a veterinarian immediately. Your veterinarian can give you advice on caring for kittens and might be able to provide you with contact information for animal rescue groups.
- During the first few weeks of life, kittens need proper nourishment, warmth, socialization, and help with urinating and defecating.
- Don’t give regular cow’s milk to kittens because it doesn’t contain the protein and nutrients that kittens need and it can give them (and adult cats) diarrhea.
Orphaned kittens should be taken to a veterinarian immediately. Your veterinarian can give you advice on caring for kittens and might be able to provide you with contact information for animal rescue groups. During the first few weeks of life, kittens need proper nourishment, warmth, socialization, and help with urinating and defecating.
Kittens need two to three times as many calories as an adult cat. A mother cat’s milk provides all of a kitten’s nutritional needs during the first 4 weeks of life. Newborn kittens may nurse every 1 to 2 hours.
If you find orphaned kittens, ask your veterinarian or an animal welfare group to help you find a mother cat with a small litter because she may be able to nurse the kittens. If you cannot find a foster mother cat, ask your veterinarian to teach you how to bottle feed kittens with a commercial kitten formula milk replacer. Don’t give regular cow’s milk to kittens because it doesn’t contain enough of the protein and nutrients that kittens need and it can give them (and adult cats) diarrhea.
Kittens should be fed while on all four legs or lying upright on their stomachs (the same position for nursing from the mother). If kittens are bottle fed, they must be burped by holding them to your shoulder and gently rubbing their backs. Be careful not to overfeed or underfeed kittens; your veterinarian can teach you how to tell when kittens are full. Notify your veterinarian immediately if a kitten refuses to take a bottle, seems weak, or has problems nursing from a bottle.
For the first 3 weeks of life, orphaned kittens are usually bottle fed with kitten formula milk replacer every 2 to 4 hours. When kittens are 3 to 4 weeks of age, feed them a kitten milk replacer mixed with small amounts of moist, easily chewable, commercial kitten food four to six times each day. You can warm the milk replacer and mix it with some “mashed” kitten food in a shallow saucer. During this period, milk replacer should gradually be decreased and replaced with free access to clean water. Feed a name-brand kitten food with the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement on the bag or label ensuring that the food is nutritionally balanced for kittens. Look for this AAFCO label whenever selecting food for a kitten or adult cat to ensure that the diet is appropriate for the life stage of the cat. By 6 to 7 weeks of age, kittens can be offered dry or canned commercial kitten food. At 6 to 12 weeks of age, kittens should be fed four times a day. At 3 to 6 months of age, kittens should be fed commercial kitten food three times a day. Kittens can be weaned onto adult cat food when they approach 9 months of age.
An average birth weight for kittens is about 3.5 ounces, depending on breed and litter size. During the first weeks of life, a kitten’s body weight may double or triple. Kittens should gain 0.25 to 0.5 ounces daily until weaning. If a kitten looks too thin (e.g., ribs are showing) or its belly looks too fat, ask your veterinarian if your kitten’s weight is within a healthy range.
For the first 2 weeks of life,orphaned kittens must be kept warm. Please ask your veterinarian about the ideal temperature of heat sources such as a heating pad or a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel. Be sure that the heat source is not too warm; kittens can be seriously burned. Also, the heat source should be placed so that the kitten can move away from it to cool down. If you use a heating pad, monitor it to ensure that it is functioning properly and that the temperature setting is not too high.
To be properly socialized to people, kittens should be handled from 2 through 7 weeks of age; this period is considered an important time for socialization. If you are caring for kittens younger than 2 weeks, consult your veterinarian for guidelines about how much they should be handled. Kittens that have human contact before they are 10 to 12 weeks old are more likely to interact well with people throughout their lives. Kittens must be handled gently; therefore, young children should be supervised when handling kittens. To aid socialization, orphaned kittens should be kept with their littermates until they are about 10 weeks old.
After feeding, a mother cat grooms her kittens, especially in the anal area. This stimulates urination and defecation (excretion), which kittens need help with until they are 3 weeks old. To encourage orphaned kittens to excrete, after each meal, dip a soft washcloth or a cotton ball in warm water and gently massage the kitten’s anal and urinary areas; the warmth, texture, and movement mimic a mother cat’s tongue.
When kittens are 4 weeks of age, teach them to use a litterbox by placing them in it after meals. Leave some waste in the litterbox; the scent can help direct kittens to it when they have to excrete. One side of the litterbox can be cut open to make it easier for kittens to get in and out.
Kittens tend to get messy during feedings, so they need to be cleaned regularly. Gently wipe them clean using a washcloth moistened with warm water. Dry them immediately with a towel or hair dryer set on low.
An initial veterinary examination should be scheduled as soon as you obtain an orphaned kitten. Birth defects and other health issues can be brought to your attention. This initial examination is also an ideal time to address any feeding questions or other concerns about home care.
Intestinal parasites are common in kittens. Deworming medication can be given when the kittens are approximately 3 weeks old. Fecal examinations and dewormings are usually repeated every 3 to 4 weeks until two consecutive fecal examinations have negative results. External parasites (fleas, ticks, and mites) are treated with products approved for use on kittens.
Orphaned kittens need to receive initial vaccinations at 8 or 9 weeks of age. Testing for infectious diseases such as feline leukemia and feline AIDS is usually performed at this time if testing was not done earlier.
Kittens should be spayed or neutered by 6 months of age. This helps to control pet overpopulation and reduces the chance of behavior problems and some medical conditions.