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How to Feed and Care for Orphaned Kittens
Over the past 15 years, I have raised nine orphaned kittens. Four of them were two weeks old when their mother was killed; three others were only hours old when their mother died; two more kittens fell out of the nest in our barn when they were only one day old.
Raising motherless kittens is not a difficult process, but it does require patience, time and lots of TLC.
Here are some tips to help you raise orphaned kittens:
1. Make a nest.
The mother cat usually spends several hours a day in the nest with the 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 their bodily functions will slow down.
To keep orphaned kittens warm, make a nest in a small box and line it with towels or old t-shirts or sweatshirts to help the babies conserve their body heat. Place a towel over the box to protect from light. Female cats choose nests that are dark. If you don’t have a heat lamp, use a small 40-watt table lamp and place it several 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 and make a nest with towels next to it. Refill the pitcher when it cools. You can also use a quart jar as a hot water bottle, except that the quart jar cools down very quickly.
2. Use a dropper or syringe to feed the kittens.
When I first fostered orphaned kittens, I found that the small feeding bottles available at vet clinics were too big. The kittens couldn’t get their mouths around the nipples. So at first I used eye drops for newborn kittens. As the kittens grew bigger, a syringe worked very well, a kind of injection syringe (without the needle, of course!). I started with a 3cc size and used larger syringes as the kittens got bigger. The tip of the syringe is about the size of a cat’s nipple, and eventually my kittens sucked on the tip of the syringe hard enough to pull the plunger down themselves. Ask your veterinary clinic if they have used syringes available or if you can buy new ones from the clinic.
Warning: Whether you are feeding through a dropper or a syringe, be careful to only give a few drops at a time. My vet told me that if kittens are given too much formula at one time (more than they can swallow) they can inhale it. Inhaling the mixture will make your kittens 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 calm down and sleep until the next feeding when they get enough to eat. Small kittens will start taking maybe 1 CC at a time. As they grow larger, they eat about 12 CCs at a time (usually in several different meals).
Kittens learn very quickly that food comes from a syringe they hold in their hand. If you have trouble getting the formula out of the syringe, let them chew on your palm for a few seconds or suck on your fingers. Then insert the syringe and let them suck on it while you push the plunger down very slowly.
3. Feed the kitten KMR or kitty mix that you have mixed yourself.
KMR, a canned cat milk substitute, is available at most veterinary clinics in either premixed or dry form. It is specially formulated for kittens to provide them with all the nutrients they need. Follow the instructions on the label. The amount of feed is determined by body weight. My newborn kittens weighed three ounces each and only needed half a drop of KMR at a time for the first few days.
My vet also gave me a prescription for “kitten formula”. After the first can of KMR, all my kittens have been raised on it.
Here is the recipe for Kitten Formula
1 cup whole milk
1 tbsp white corn syrup
1 egg yolk
a pinch of salt
Mix in a blender and premix it enough to disperse the bubbles.
Heat over medium heat. Heat the mixture until it feels slightly warm to the touch. All my kittens have refused to swallow formula if it was too cold or too warm. The same was true for KMR.
4. Feed the kittens on a regular schedule three times a day.
Mother cats nurse their kittens every few hours. The vet I consulted warned me not to feed them so often. “They’re not eating well and you’re frustrated and they’re frustrated and it’s harder for everybody,” he said. He was right. Feeding the kittens three times a day worked out very well.
5. Clean your kittens with a warm, wet washcloth and help them empty their bladders and bowels.
Young kittens cannot empty their bladders or move their bowels, so you need to help them. Use a warm, wet washcloth and wipe under their tail until they have emptied their bladder and/or moved their bowels. Be prepared to use up to four washcloths for each kitten. If they only need to empty their bladder, you don’t need as much. If they have to empty their bowels, watch out – it can get messy! Smaller washcloths that you can wring out with one hand while holding the squirming kitten with the other work best. I put the washcloths 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, which inevitably drips down their chins. From time to time use a warm, damp washcloth to wipe off the formula, but be careful not to get the kittens TOO wet or they will struggle to keep warm.
6. When they are four weeks old, give them a litter box.
Cats have a strong instinct to use material they can scratch into when they need to empty their bladders and move their bowels. When the kittens are four weeks old, they already start thinking in this direction, and providing them with a litter box helps them get the idea. You may still have to help them with the washcloth for a while, but it won’t be long before they start using the litter box.
Cat litter on an aluminum pie plate is a good place to start. As the kittens grow larger, use a larger container for the litter box.
7. Start feeding solid food when the kittens are about six weeks old.
Mother-raised kittens will probably start eating before six weeks, but you can provide more milk than their mother would have.
Once your kittens are teething, you can start feeding them solid food. If you want to feed dry food, a good quality kitten food is fine. Kitten food contains all the nutrients and proteins they need to grow. Kitten chow is also made in tiny bite-sized pieces of kitten food. You can also try a little canned kitty to tempt and “whet” their appetite. Be sure to provide your kittens with fresh water as well. And until the kittens are eating solid food regularly, supplement their caloric intake with kitten formula. By then, you won’t need to syringe feed them. You can put the mixture in a small saucer and when they discover where it is and what it is, they will drink it themselves.
8. Be prepared to be surprised and amazed.
Kittens grow very fast and some days you will think they are growing right before your eyes.
Kittens open their eyes when they are about 10 days old.
They start purring already at 6 days old.
At two to three weeks of age, kittens begin to engage in other “kitten behaviors” such as shaking their heads, trying to peck, and lifting their tails to scratch behind their ears.
Young kittens sometimes get hiccups (!) when you feed them.
Young kittens are like 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 are 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 fussing, they may need to eat a little more or empty their bladder or move their bowels, or they may have a cold.
As the kittens get older, they are 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 they will know how to get out on their own!
If you have any questions about fostering orphaned kittens, you can email me at email@example.com
© 2004 LeAnn R. Ralph
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