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How to Feed and Care for Orphaned Kittens
Over the past 15 years, I have fostered nine orphaned kittens. Four of them were two weeks old when their mother was killed; three others were only a few hours old when their mother died; two other kittens fell out of the nest in our barn when they were only a day old.
Raising kittens without a mother is not a difficult process, but it requires patience, time and a lot of care.
Here are some tips to help you raise your orphaned kittens:
1. Make a nest.
A mother cat usually spends many hours a day in the nest with her kittens, which helps her babies stay warm. Keeping kittens warm is important because if they are not warm enough, they will not want to eat and in fact all of their body functions will slow down.
To keep your orphaned kittens warm, make a nest in a small box and line it with towels or old T-shirts or hoodies to help the babies conserve body heat. Place a towel over the box to block the light. Females choose dark nests. If you don’t have a heat lamp, use a small 40-watt desk lamp and place it a few feet above the box to keep the kittens warm.
If the box is large enough, you can also use a jug or other large container filled with hot water to keep the babies warm. Place the jug in the box, then make a nest with towels next to it. Fill the jug when it cools. You can also use a quart jar as a “hot water bottle” except that a quart jar gets cold very quickly.
2. Use a dropper or syringe to feed the kittens.
The first time I fostered orphaned kittens, I found that the small nursing bottles available at vet clinics were too big. The kittens could not put their mouths around the nipples. So at first, for newborn kittens, I used a dropper. As the kittens grew, a syringe worked really well, the kind of syringe for giving injections (without the needle, of course!). I started with the 3cc size and moved up to larger syringes as the kittens got bigger. The tip of a syringe is about the size of a cat’s nipple, and my kitties eventually sucked hard enough on the end of the syringe to pull the plunger down on their own. Check with your veterinary clinic if used syringes are available or if you can purchase new syringes from the clinic.
A word of caution: Whether you’re feeding with a dropper or a syringe, be careful to only give a few drops at a time. My vet told me that if the kittens get too much formula at once (more than they could swallow) they could inhale it. Inhaling formula will make your kitties much more susceptible to pneumonia.
Along the way, I’ve also discovered that it’s best to feed the kittens as much as they want to eat. They will settle down and sleep until the next feeding if they have enough to eat. Small kittens will start by taking maybe 1 CC at a time. As they grow, they will eat about 12 CC at a time (usually in several different portions).
Kittens learn very quickly that food comes from the syringe in your hand. If you have trouble getting them to take the formula from the syringe, leave them in the palm of your hand for a few seconds or let them suck your fingers. Then insert the syringe and let them suck while pushing the plunger very slowly down.
3. Feed the kittens KMR or kitten formula that you have mixed yourself.
KMR, canned cat milk replacer, is available at most veterinary clinics in a premixed or dry form. It is specifically formulated to provide kittens with all the nutrients they need. Follow label directions. The amount to feed is determined by body weight. My newborn kittens weighed three ounces each and for the first few days only needed half a dropper of KMR at a time.
My vet clinic also gave me a prescription for “kitten formula”. After the first can of KMR, this is what all my kitties have been raised to.
Here is the recipe for the kitten formula
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon of white corn syrup
1 egg yolk
a pinch of salt
Mix with a mixer and mix well enough in advance to give the bubbles time to dissipate.
Heat over medium heat. Warm the formula until it feels slightly warm to the touch. All my kitties have refused to swallow formula if it was too cold or too hot. Same thing happened with KMR.
4. Feed your kittens on a regular schedule three times a day.
Mother cats nurse their kittens every two hours. The vet I consulted warned me not to feed them that often. “They’re not going to eat well and you’re going to get frustrated and they’re going to get frustrated and it’s going to be harder for everybody,” he said. He was right. Feeding the kittens three times a day worked great.
5. Prep your kittens with a warm, wet towel and help them empty their bladders and bowels.
Young kittens can’t empty their bladders or move their bowels, so you’ll need to help them. Use a warm, wet towel and wipe them under the tail until they have emptied their bladder and/or moved their bowels. Be prepared to use up to four towels for each kitten. If they only need to empty their bladders, you won’t need as many. If the entrails are to be emptied, be careful – it could get messy! Smaller cloths that you can wring with one hand while holding a squirming kitten with the other work best. I put the towels in a bucket of warm water and put the bucket where I can easily reach it.
Young kittens also don’t know how to groom themselves, and after a day or two of eating kitten formula, they become sticky from the formula that inevitably runs down their chins. Occasionally use a warm, damp cloth to wipe off the formula, but be careful not to get the kittens too wet or they will struggle to stay warm.
6. Provide a tray when they are four weeks old.
Cats have a strong instinct to use material they can scratch with when they need to empty their bladders and move their bowels. By the time the kittens are four weeks old, they will already be thinking in that direction and providing them with a litter box will help them get the idea. You may still have to help them with a towel for a while, but it won’t be long before they use the litter tray.
Kitty litter in an aluminum pie plate works well for starters. As the kittens grow, use a larger container for a litter box.
7. Start giving solid food when the kittens are about six weeks old.
Kittens that are raised by their mothers will probably start eating before six weeks of age, but you will be able to provide more milk than their mothers would have available.
Once your kittens are teething, you can start giving them solid food. If you want to feed dry food, a good quality kitten food will work well. Kitten Chow has all the nutrients and protein they need to keep growing. Kitten chow is also made into small, bite-sized pieces. To tempt their appetite and give them a “treat”, you can also try some canned cat food. Be sure to also provide fresh water for your kittens to drink. And until the kittens are eating solid food regularly, supplement their caloric intake with kitten formula. At this point, you don’t need to feed them with a syringe. You can put the formula in a small dish and once they figure out where it is and what it is, they drink it on their own.
8. Prepare to be surprised and amazed.
Kittens grow up very quickly, and some days you’ll think they’re growing up right before your eyes.
Kittens open their eyes when they are about 10 days old.
They will start purring when they are just 6 days old.
Kittens will begin other “kitten behaviors” such as shaking their heads, trying to groom themselves, and picking up rear food to scratch behind their ears when they are two to three weeks old.
Young kittens will sometimes hiccup (!) while you feed them.
Young kittens are like human babies, in a way. Their days consist of eating, sleeping and emptying their bowels and bladder. After the kittens have had enough to eat and their bodily functions have been taken care of, when you put them back in the “nest” they will sleep or rest quietly until you are ready to feed them again. If they are restless and crying and meowing, they may need a little more to eat, or they may need to empty their bladder or move their bowels, or they may feel cold.
As the kittens grow, they will be awake for longer periods of time and eventually start playing with each other.
By the time the kittens are four weeks old, you will most likely need to move them to a bigger box, if not sooner, because the first one will be too small and will know how to get out on its own!
If you have any questions about raising orphaned kittens, you can email me at [email protected]
© 2004 LeAnn R. Ralph
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