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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 a day old.
Raising kittens without a mother is not a difficult process, but it does require patience, time and plenty of TLC.
Here are some tips to help you raise your orphaned kittens:
1. Build a nest.
Normally, a mother cat 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 bodily 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 sweatshirts to help the babies retain their body heat. Put a towel over the box to keep out the light. Female cats choose nests that are dark. If you don’t have a heat lamp, use a small 40 watt desk 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 warm water to keep the babies warm. Place the jug in the box, then make a nest of towels next to it. Refill 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 raised orphaned kittens, I discovered that the small nursing bottles available at vet clinics were too big. The kittens couldn’t get their mouths around the nipples. So, initially, for newborn kittens, I used a dropper. As the kittens got older, a syringe worked really well, the injection type (without the needle of course!). I started with the 3 cc size and used larger syringes as the kittens grew. The tip of a syringe is about the size of a cat’s nipple, and my kitties eventually sucked hard enough on the tip of the syringe to pull the plunger down on their own. Contact your veterinary clinic to see if used syringes are available or to see 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 were given too much formula at once (more than they could swallow) they could inhale it. Inhaling formula 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 will calm down and sleep until the next feeding if they eat enough. Tiny kittens will start taking maybe 1 CC at a time. As they grow, they will eat about 12 CC at a time (usually in several different aids).
Kittens learn very quickly that food comes from the syringe you hold in your hand. If you have trouble getting them to take the formula from the syringe, let them go into the palm of your hand for a few seconds or let them suck on your fingers. Then insert the syringe and let them suck it up while very slowly pushing the plunger down.
3. Feed the kittens KMR or kitten formula that you have mixed yourself.
KMR, the canned cat’s milk replacer, is available at most veterinary clinics in either premixed or dry form. It is specially formulated for kittens to provide all the nutrients they need. Follow the directions on the label. The amount of food 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, all my kittens have grown up with it.
Here is the recipe for Kitten Formula
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon of white corn syrup
1 egg yolk
a pinch of salt
Blend in a blender and blend well ahead of time so the bubbles have time to dissolve.
Heat on medium heat. Warm the formula so that it feels slightly warm to the touch. All of my kitties refused to swallow formula if it was too cold or too hot. The same was true for 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 so 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 very well.
5. Treat your kittens with a warm, wet towel and help them empty their bladder and bowels.
Little kittens can’t empty their bladders or move their bowels, so you’ll need to help them. Use a warm, wet towel and wipe under their tail until they empty their bladder and/or move their bowels. Be prepared to use up to four towels for each kitten. If they only need to empty their bladder, you won’t need as many. If they have to empty their bowels, watch out — it can get messy! Smaller cloths that you can squeeze with one hand while holding a squirming kitten with the other work best. I put the towels in a container of hot water and put the container 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 drips down their chins. From time to time, use a warm, damp towel to wipe off the formula, but be careful not to get the kittens TOO wet or it will be difficult for them to stay warm.
6. Provide a litter box when they are four weeks old.
Cats have a strong instinct to use material they can scratch when they need to empty their bladder and move their bowels. By the time the kittens are four weeks old, they will already be thinking along these lines, and providing them with a litter box will help them get the idea. You may have to help them with a washcloth for a while, but it won’t take long for them to use the litter pan.
Kitty litter in an aluminum pie plate works well to start. As the kittens grow, use a larger container for a litter box.
7. Start feeding solid food when the kittens are about six weeks old.
Kittens raised by their mothers will probably start eating earlier than six weeks, but you will be able to offer more milk than their mothers would have available.
When your kittens get their teeth, you can start feeding them solid food. If you want to feed dry food, a good quality kitten food will work well. Kitten food has all the nutrients and protein it needs to keep growing. Kitten Chow is also made into tiny bite-sized pieces. To tempt their appetites and give them a “treat”, you can also try some canned catnip. Be sure to provide fresh water for your kittens to drink as well. And until the kittens are eating solid food regularly, supplement their caloric intake with kitten formula. By this time, you won’t need to feed them with a syringe. You can put the formula in a small saucer and once they discover where it is and what it is, they will drink on their own.
8. Prepare to be surprised and amazed.
Kittens grow up really fast, 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 cooing when they are just 6 days old.
Kittens will begin other “kitten behaviors” such as shaking their heads, trying to groom, and picking up a rear food to scratch behind their ears when they are between two and three weeks old.
Little kittens will sometimes get hiccups (!) while you feed them.
Little 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 have taken care of their bodily functions, 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 food, or they may need to empty their bladder or move their bowels, or they may feel cold.
As the kittens get older, they will be awake for longer periods of time and eventually start playing with each other.
When the kittens are four weeks old, you will probably 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 raising orphaned cats, you can email me at [email protected]
© 2004 LeAnn R. Ralph
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