CARING FOR ORPHANED KITTENS
by Joelle Steele
If a mother cat dies or is unable to raise her newborns, the kittens will die without human intervention. And even with the best of care, some kittens just don't make it. My late cat Twinkle was 18 when she died. I adopted her when she was 1-1/2 weeks old. Her mother cat had abandoned all but one of her kittens in a flower bed. Two died within 24 hours, probably of distemper according to the veterinarian. Charlie died at 8 weeks due to severe cystitis and a bladder infection that did not respond to treatment. Twinkle was the only one who made it, and she had many health issues throughout her life. T'ai was a 5 week old kitten when found in a gutter. He is a relatively healthy 14 year-old as of 2016, but he has had his share of health issues, particularly during his neutering when a testicle failed to emerge by the time he was 8 months old and required surgery to find and remove it. He also has congenital cataracts and melanosis.
The greatest threat to newborns is chilling. The kittens may huddle together, but that doesn't mean they are keeping sufficiently warm since they cannot yet retain their own body heat. Their temperatures drop after birth and their mother keeps them warm. During their first week, keep the floor temperature under their nest between 85-90 degrees F. Lower the temperature about five degrees each week until it reaches 70 degrees F. Shut doors and windows to prevent drafts.
Twinkle at 4 weeks.
A chilled kitten cries and crawls around, possibly sleeping apart from his mother or his littermates. With or without the mother, you must warm him. Tuck him into your clothing next to your skin, and allow him to warm gradually over a couple of hours. Do not feed him formula while he is chilled. Give him 1/2 cc per ounce of body weight of 5 to 10 percent glucose in water solution hourly. When he becomes active put him back with his mother or into the nest with his littermates.
A 20" square box makes a good nest for a litter of four. Line it with layers of newspaper on the bottom and old towels on top. Kittens cannot use a litter box until they are about four weeks old, so clean the box daily. Drape a lightweight blanket over half of the box to block light and cold. Keep the box in a quiet place away from people and other animals. Discourage children from visiting the babies until the kittens are four weeks old.
Kittens should double their birth weight in seven to ten days and should gain about 10 to 15 grams daily. To be sure you are feeding properly, weigh them daily (on a gram scale) for the first two weeks and every three or four days during the third and fourth week. You must know their exact weight to accurately feed them. They require feline formula and should not be fed cow's milk. Instructions for calculating the amount to be fed are included with the formula or you can consult your veterinarian.
Warm the formula to 100EF and feed via dropper, syringe, or baby nursing bottle. Use a feeding tube if a kitten is too weak to nurse. Keep the kitten in an upright position on his stomach so that the fluid doesn't go into his lungs. Open his mouth with your finger and insert the nipple. Feed slowly so that he doesn't choke. Tug a little on the bottle so that the kittens have to suck, but be sure the nipple hole is large enough for fluid to flow easily or they will give up eating because they have to work too hard to get the food.
Twinkle's brother Charlie (left) had health problems and died at 8 weeks of age.
After feeding, rub the kitten's back gently to burp him and expel air sucked in while feeding. Within fifteen minutes after feeding, gently massage his abdominal and perineal areas with a warm, wet cotton ball to stimulate the elimination process.
Overfeeding results in a loose yellow stool or diarrhea. Treat this by diluting the formula with two-thirds water until the stool is back to normal and then gradually return the formula to full strength. Underfed kittens cry a lot and gain little or no weight. They will probably chill and dehydrate. Warm them and give them a Ringer's lactate solution with 5 percent dextrose in water or give them Pedialyte.
During the first week, kittens require feeding every three to five hours. Cut this back gradually being sure that normal weight gain is maintained. At about three weeks most kittens can lap formula from a shallow dish, and by about four weeks you can start mixing the formula down with water and a little bit of kitten food into a watery paste that you can thicken gradually over the next weeks until you can give them a separate dish of food and a shallow bowl of water at about six or seven weeks.
T'ai at 5 weeks, eating out of the big kids' dish.
Kittens do not groom themselves and must be kept clean. Use a warm, moist cloth or cotton ball and wipe them clean daily, paying close attention to the anal area and the abdomen. If their eyes or noses are crusty, use a clean moist cotton ball to wipe them clean. Whenever you clean and feed them, hold them close and pet them. They need that love, cuddling, and comfort to become socialized.
This article last updated: 06/05/2016.
The articles on this Web site are informational only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice or treatment. Cats are not "one size fits all." They are different in terms of breed, age, health, lifestyle, and tolerance for different foods and other substances.