By Dr. Becker
If you're a cat lover or an animal caregiver, you may one day find yourself faced with the formidable task of caring for a teeny, tiny, orphaned kitten. Kittens get left behind for a variety of reasons – often the mother has died, is sick, or has rejected or abandoned her litter. In addition, feral kittens are sometimes taken from the mother for taming, because once they reach about 8 weeks of age in the wild, they are generally considered unsuitable as pets.
Ideally, kittens should be with their mother until they are at least 6 weeks old, because the longer they are fed mom's milk, the healthier their start in life. Not only is the mother cat's milk the ideal nutrition for her kittens, it also provides important antibodies that help protect the babies from disease until their own immune systems are able to.
But with all that said, feral cat experts recommend taking feral kittens from the mother at 4 weeks to begin taming them. The older they get, the more difficult it becomes to convince them of the advantages of living as indoor pets.
It's important to realize that if you have a very young orphaned or feral kitten, she isn't receiving passive immunity from her mother, making her vulnerable to disease. For that reason and others, the first thing you should do is try to find a nursing mother cat by calling around to local veterinarians, animal shelters, cat rescues, and any "cat people" you know. Nursing mother cats will often feed kittens that aren't their own, and if you find one, it can be the ideal solution for the kitten, and for you.
I say this because raising an orphaned kitten to weaning age takes a great deal of energy and weeks of non-stop care just to give the little one a good chance at survival. And the younger the kitten, the more fragile it is. Sadly, very young motherless kitties often don't make it no matter how good the care. If possible, raising two orphaned kittens together is better than one, so if you find someone else with a singleton, putting them together is a wise idea.
Assuming you've not been able to find a nursing mother cat willing to take on another mouth to feed, the rest of this article will outline what is required to hand-raise an orphaned kitten. And while the responsibility may seem overwhelming (especially if you're dealing with a litter vs. a kitten), it can also be tremendously rewarding. Not to mention fun!
First Things First: Providing Warmth, a Safe "Nest," and Veterinary Care
If your kitten feels cold, he needs to be warmed up quickly. Most of a tiny kitten's energy is spent growing and meowing for food, so there's not much left for heat generation.
Set a heating pad to low and wrap it in 2 towels or 1 towel folded over, or use a hot water bottle warmed to about 100 degrees and wrapped in a towel. Place it in half of his "nest area," which is typically a box or cat carrier. If you use a water bottle it must be changed frequently enough that the temperature does not drop. During the first week of life, your kitten should be kept in a room with a temperature between 88oF and 92oF. Weeks 2 and 3, room temperature should be no lower than 80oF. At 5 weeks, kittens can tolerate a lower room temperature.
It's important not to feed the kitty till he's warm (which is critical for digestion to occur), but you can offer him homeopathic Bioplasma (which rapidly assists in rehydration) dissolved in a little warm, pure water.
A kitten under 3 weeks of age can't control his own body temperature, so he should be kept on the heating pad (again, set on low and wrapped in towels) at all times. Make sure there's room for him to lie off of the heating pad in his nest if it gets too warm. The heating pad will be necessary until the kitten is 4 to 5 weeks old. Alternatives to a heating pad or hot water bottle can be a heat lamp, incubator, warm water pad, electrical heating pad, or a simple 25-watt light bulb suspended over one end of the nest (this isn't my favorite option because kittens need normal day and light cycles, like all mammals). But no matter what heat source you use, it's extremely important not to overheat or burn the kitten with intense, direct heat. Keep a thermometer in the kitten's nest area to monitor the temperature.
Your kitten's nest should be kept in a warm, quiet area of the house, and completely removed from other animals. Add a small towel or soft cloth to the nest, and keep it covered with a towel or blanket. You'll need to change the bedding at least once daily -- very young kittens will soil their nest. Of course, as kitty gets older, he'll need more room to run, play, and investigate.
I recommend taking your kitten to a holistic or integrative veterinarian immediately for a wellness checkup. It's a good idea to bring a stool sample along so your vet can test it for worms and parasites.
Very young kittens are at high risk for dehydration, and it can happen quickly, so your vet may recommend an injection of subcutaneous (sub-q) fluids to hydrate your little guy. He or she might also suggest that you learn to give sub-q fluids at home so that you can treat right away if your kitten becomes dehydrated. You can check to make sure he is properly hydrated by pulling up the skin at the scruff of his neck. If it bounces back nicely, hydration is good. If it doesn't bounce back, or goes back down slowly, she needs at least one dose of sub-q fluids.
Feeding an Orphaned Kitten
Cow's milk is not a good choice for kittens. Not only is it non-nutritious for them, it also causes diarrhea, which is extremely dangerous for young kittens. What you want is either a commercial kitten formula available at pet stores or online (KMR is a popular kitten milk replacer), or a homemade milk formula recipe. In an emergency, you can mix 3 ounces of condensed milk, 3 ounces of water, 4 ounces of plain yogurt (not low fat), and 3-4 egg yolks (no whites). I have also used raw, unpasteurized goat's milk in a pinch with good success.
You'll also need a pet nursing kit that includes a bottle, several nipples, and a cleaning brush.
Whether you use a commercial or homemade formula, you should only make enough for one day's feeding and store it in the refrigerator. Wash and dry the bottles and nipples thoroughly between feedings. Warm the kitten milk replacer in a pan of water to 98ºF to 100ºF before feeding, and mix well to decrease the risk of hot spots of formula.
Wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap before and after each feeding. If you have other pets in the home, you might also want to wear a designated t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, or apron just for feedings to reduce the risk of cross-contamination to and from other animals in the house (you don't know if the baby is FeLV or FIV positive at this point).
Your kitten should be fed on her stomach on a towel or other soft fabric she can knead as she would her mother while nursing. Open kitty's mouth gently with your fingertip and slip the nipple into her mouth. It's extremely important to prevent air from getting in her stomach, so hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle at all times, and pull on it ever so slightly to encourage the kitten to suck.
If she aspirates formula into her lungs and begins coughing or choking, immediately hold her upside down (gently and while supporting her body) until the choking subsides. If you discover your kitten isn't strong enough to suckle, you should seek veterinary assistance immediately.
Read formula package instructions for recommended feeding amounts and feedings per day. A kitten needs approximately 8 cc's of formula per ounce of body weight per day. The number of daily feedings depends on the age of the kitty.
When your kitten is full, she'll often have bubbles around her mouth and a larger belly. After each feeding, hold kitty upright against your shoulder and pat her very softly on the back to burp her. I have found many kittens do better with very light massage.
Take care not to overfeed, as this can cause diarrhea and other problems.
Weigh your kitten daily to calculate the amount of formula she will need – you can use a kitchen or small postal scale. As a general rule, kittens under one week should be fed every 2 to 3 hours; at two weeks, they can be fed every 4 to 6 hours; after three weeks, of age and until they are weaned, they should be fed every 6 to 8 hours. Divide their required daily intake by the number of required daily feedings to determine how much they should eat at each feeding.
Your kitty should gain about ½ ounce every day or 4 ounces a week. Weigh her at the same time every day. Lack of gain or weight loss that doesn't correct itself in 24 hours requires a visit to the vet.
Stimulation (Also Known as Helping Kitty Pee and Poop), Cleanup, and When to Introduce the Litter Box
Mother cats know to lick their kitten's abdomen and perineal area to stimulate the bowels and bladder. They also provide cleanup services.
What you'll need to do to mimic this behavior is gently rub kitty's lower abdomen, genital area, and rear end with a cotton ball or soft pad moistened with warm water. This will stimulate peeing and pooping, and you can use it to help clean him up as well. Rub only long enough to stimulate elimination, and make sure to clean him thoroughly. Watch for any skin irritation or chafing, which means you're rubbing too hard or too long, or not cleaning him well enough.
As a general rule, your kitten will urinate with each stimulation, and poop at least once a day. Urine should be a pale yellow color or clear – dark yellow or orange means he's not getting enough to eat. In this case, don't feed more at each meal, but feed him more often. Poop should be pale to dark brown and partially formed. Green stool indicates an infection, and hard stool means he's not getting enough formula. Again – feed more often, not more at each feeding. Too much food can cause bloating, gas, regurgitation, and even aspiration into the lungs.
After feedings, stimulation, and cleanup is a good time to wash kitty's fur (usually needed around the mouth) with a second clean, soft, lightly damp cloth. Use short strokes in a manner similar to how a mother cat licks her babies. This will keep your kitten's coat clean while teaching him how to do it for himself, and will also increase his feelings of well-being.
Your kitten should be eliminating on his own by about 3 weeks of age. When he reaches about 4 weeks, you can introduce a litter box. After each meal, put kitty in the box and see what happens. It may take a few tries, but he should catch on quickly.
You can begin weaning your kitten at about 4 to 5 weeks of age, but keep in mind that some little ones require a bit more time to get used to eating solid food. Signs that your kitty is ready for weaning include biting the bottle nipple, and the ability to lick formula from your finger. The next step is to get kitty to take formula from a spoon (usually rested on a table and the kitten standing on a solid surface) and then from a flat dish.
Once your kitten is lapping formula from a flat dish, you can mix her kitten formula with baby food on a spoon or dish. Use an organic, all-natural meat flavored baby food that does NOT contain onion in any form, or a commercially available raw food diet approved for kittens. Once kitty is doing well with her formula-baby food mix, you can graduate to a mixture of formula and a commercial or homemade, nutritionally balanced, raw diet or a high-quality, human grade canned kitten food. At this point, you can start gradually reducing the amount of formula until she's eating just solid food.
This should be a gradual process to help prevent temporary weight loss and digestive upset, which are relatively common symptoms in kittens during weaning. It's important to keep bottle-feeding your little one while weaning to insure she gets enough to eat. Continue to weigh the baby once daily to make sure the weaning process is not causing weight loss.
Love, Attention, and Socialization
Your kitten needs physical closeness as sure as he needs food and warmth. Pet him often and let him snuggle on you or next to you. Provide as much nurturing as you can to help him thrive.
Developing a close physical bond with your kitten almost assures he'll be a cuddly adult cat. Experts believe that hand-raised kittens have a much closer bond to their humans and tend to be loyal and affectionate throughout their lives, but you will also hear many stories of somewhat nutty "bottle babies," or singletons that aren't quite socially normal because they had no exposure to other cats early on in their lives. If possible, allowing an orphaned kitten exposure and play time with other kittens or gentle adult cats will help him form healthy kitten behaviors necessary for balanced behavior as an adult.
Playtime is also important and a bonding activity, and will help your kitten develop his motor skills.
It is important for kitty to have interaction with other members of the household at 3-6 weeks of age. He still should be handled with care, but you should start to introduce him to new noises, grooming (brushing and combing, nail clipping), and unfamiliar people. Early socialization will help your kitten build confidence and prevent future behavior problems.Once kitty is about 6 weeks old and in excellent health, he can be introduced to other healthy cats and dogs.