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Caring for Orphaned Kittens
Asiya Bhaisaheb, Veterinary Student Class of 2025

Date Published: 08/30/2022

So you’re the brand new parent to a litter of fuzzy, squeaky little kittens! Although nothing can replace the care from a feline mama, there are steps you can take to become an excellent foster parent until the kittens are ready to face the world.

Note: Be sure not to assume that kittens you find outdoors are orphans! Mother cats often leave kittens for a few hours to look for food. Contact a veterinary or shelter professional or use this guide to figure out if kittens found outside need help. https://www.aspca.org/helping-people-pets/i-found-kittens-what-do-i-do

Environment

If possible, it is best to keep all the kittens in the litter together. They should be housed in a carrier or box small enough that they are nestled closely together with soft, clean bedding. This will help them maintain their body temperature.

Kitten body temperature can change rapidly, so it is important to keep the environment at a consistent temperature. The room they are housed in should be between 68-72°F, and the inside of the box should be around 90°F in the first week of life, gradually going down to 75°F over the next several weeks.

The box can be kept warm with a hot water bottle or a microwaveable heating disc (available online). Electric heating pads often heat unevenly and may even burn the kittens, so they are not advisable. Whatever method you choose, wrap it in a cloth or towel and place it in a corner of the box so that the kittens can move away if it is too warm. A heat lamp or incubator can also be used but should be far enough to one corner that kittens are not burned.

Socialization

The most sensitive period for socialization in a kitten’s life is between 2 and 7 weeks. During this time, kittens are most receptive to a variety of new experiences, which will help them become confident adults. Kittens should be handled by different people in the household for brief periods of time to get them used to human touch. Consider (gently!) rubbing ears, touching gums, and handling feet and nails to get them used to potentially scary situations they could face at a veterinarian’s office. Wash hands thoroughly before handling kittens.

Feeding

Feeding a carrier full of crying kittens can seem intimidating, but with the right tools and training, you can fill those hungry tummies in no time. 

Commercial kitten milk replacers are the best option for orphaned kittens. Cow’s milk and milk from other species generally have the wrong balance of fat, protein, and other nutrients for growing kittens. In an emergency or for extremely short term use, you can use the following recipe to make milk replacer at home - this is NOT for long-term use and can make kittens ill or keep them from growing well long term.

  • 1 cup whole cow’s milk
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 tbsp neutral oil (like corn oil)

Blend thoroughly, warm, and use.

Commercial milk replacers are available as liquids or powders that need to be mixed with water before being given. Follow the instructions on the container. Only prepare the amount of milk needed for each feeding to make sure that bacteria doesn’t grow in it. Warm the milk replacer in a bowl of hot water instead of the microwave, as that can heat the formula unevenly. You can make sure the milk isn’t too hot to drink by placing a small drop on your skin. 

Kittens should not be fed if their body temperature is less than 35.5°C/96°F. If their temperature is lower than this, attempt to warm them with blankets and hot water bottles before feeding. Low body temperature can be very dangerous, so if you are unable to warm them back up to 98°-100°, take them to your veterinarian.  

Each kitten will need about 20-26 milliliters of milk replacer for every 100 grams of their body weight each day. Break up the total quantity of milk to be given in 2-3 milliliters for every 100 grams of body weight so as not to overfill their stomachs. 

You can use this chart to estimate how much milk to feed your kitten depending on their weight. Since milk replacers and feeding techniques can vary, it is important to weigh your kitten daily, record their weight, and adjust how much you feed based on how their weight is changing. Kittens should be gaining roughly 10-15 grams every day until they are weaned. 

If you would like more information on how to read and use a syringe, you can use the detailed guide linked below. Check with your veterinarian if you have more questions.
https://childrenswi.org/-/media/chwlibrary/publication-media-library/2020/03/30/19/56/1619en.pdf

Image Courtesy Canto/VIN Images

Bottle Feeding

You can buy nursing bottles for kittens online or in pet stores. They will generally need a hole or slit cut in the nipple. The hole should be big enough to allow a drop to form when held upside down without applying any pressure to the bottle. Feed the kitten in an upright position with her head slightly elevated (NOT on her back like a human baby – that is not their natural feeding position!). Do not squeeze the bottle as the kitten is suckling. 

Tube Feeding

Tube feeding may be necessary for kittens who are unable or unwilling to suckle, but it can be risky. This is different from feeding tubes that are put in surgically, which you may have seen in other pets or in human patients. A soft tube is gently inserted a soft tube into the kitten's stomach from their mouth to feed them, and then remove the tube at the end of each feeding. Improper tube feeding can cause aspiration pneumonia, a condition where food is inhaled into the lungs and causes an infection. This is life-threatening. Do not try to tube feed without first being instructed to do so and trained by the veterinary staff!

Regardless of which method you use, disinfect all your materials after each feeding. You can buy baby bottle sterilizing solutions online or at department stores. Flush thoroughly with water before using the solution.

Elimination

Kittens less than 3-4 weeks will not use the restroom on their own. Normally, after feeding, the mother cat encourages kittens to relieve themselves by licking the genitals and the anus. In orphaned kittens, you will need to stimulate elimination by gently wiping the area with a soft, damp cloth after each feeding. Check to make sure that the urine and feces look normal. Urine is usually almost transparent or pale yellow, while feces are soft and yellow. 

Constipation and Diarrhea

Both constipation and diarrhea are relatively common in hand-reared kittens. If kittens have not had a bowel movement for more than a day, it may be a result of not enough liquid in the milk replacer or not enough stimulation to the anus after feedings. Your veterinarian can supply you with oral laxatives or perform an enema to help your kitten pass stool if necessary. Contact your veterinarian if your kitten has not defecated in over 2 days. Diarrhea can cause fluid loss quite quickly and can result in low blood sugar or dehydration. Contact your veterinarian if diarrhea continues for over a day.

Weaning

Kittens are weaned between weeks 3 and 4. You can start to offer them high-quality wet kitten food mixed in with warm water or milk replacer. Be sure to offer food in a flat or shallow plate and feed the same type of wet food all through weaning.

Monitoring Health

A kitten’s health can change very quickly from day to day, especially in sensitive time periods such as immediately after birth and weaning. Keeping a thorough record of your litter’s health will help you catch and address problems early. Record important information like weight, food intake, behavior, restroom habits, etc. each day. If you can't tell the kittens apart, put nail polish on their nails using a different color for each kitten.

Upper Respiratory Infections

Upper respiratory infections are viral diseases that spread from kitten to kitten, especially when they are stressed or crowded. Symptoms can vary from cold-type signs, like sneezing and coughing, to swollen, infected eyes. If appropriate, your veterinarian can provide antimicrobials or supportive care for infected kittens.

Fleas, Ticks, and Parasites

Fleas can cause severe anemia in small kittens and should be treated promptly. Fipronil spray products (e.g. Frontline) can be used in kittens 2 days and older. Apply the spray to a cotton ball or cloth first, then rub on the kitten’s body, avoiding the face, genitals, and anus. You can also control a flea infestation by flea combing regularly. If your kittens have a flea infestation, assume that the environment does too and treat carpets and bedding with a product like Fleabusters Rx powder. Pyrantel pamoate can be given after 2 weeks of age to treat intestinal worms. 

Low Blood Sugar (Hypoglycemia)

Low blood sugar is common in kittens because they are still too young to store enough glucose in their bodies. Glucose is extremely important for many tissues to function properly, including the brain and the nervous system. Low blood sugar may cause weakness and lethargy and it can become life-threatening.

A hypoglycemic kitten will need to get supportive care with sugar solutions until their blood glucose comes up to normal. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect a kitten has low blood sugar.

Cross Suckling

Some kittens, especially those without mothers, will try to suckle on one another. Searching and suckling are both natural behaviors for kittens, but when they suck on one another’s stomachs or genitals, they can cause a lot of damage. If you notice your kittens suckling on one another, try to provide more options for them to suck on, like nipples attached to a board or a rubber mat. You can place clothing on the kittens as long as it isn’t so tight that it keeps them from moving, and it doesn’t have any elastic that can apply pressure. Separating the kittens isn’t ideal because they need social stimulation, especially if they don’t have a mother, but it may be necessary if cross-suckling can’t be corrected otherwise.

Fading Kitten Syndrome

A "fading" kitten is one who fails to thrive - they may cry out excessively even after being fed, appear weak or lethargic, or refuse to suckle. This syndrome can be caused by a number of factors including genetics, infections, and issues during birth. Regardless of the cause, fading kitten syndrome is dangerous and these kittens can rapidly decline. Your veterinarian can help provide supportive care to these ill kittens, so don't hesitate to ask for help if you suspect a kitten's behavior or health has changed.

Caring for orphaned kittens is not always easy, but it can be very rewarding. Hand-rearing kittens is an imperfect practice and there is always a chance that they will begin to feel unwell. By monitoring their health closely and promptly addressing health issues as they arise, you can help keep your foster kittens happy and growing.



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