Provided they are healthy and well fed most mother cats complete their pregnancies with a normal birthing followed by the nurturing and weaning of their litters. Unfortunately for some kittens, life can deal a shaky beginning due to the abandonment or death of the mother. When this happens the only real hope the kittens have is human care and feeding.
Hopefully such orphaned kittens were able to suckle and receive their mother’s first milk before losing her since their chance of survival is greatly reduced without the immunoglobulin and nutrient rich colostrum. Should you suddenly find yourself in the role of surrogate mother to a litter of orphaned kittens there are certain common sense and practical steps that must be done if such kittens are to survive.
OMG! Now What Do I Do?
First and foremost when new-born kittens are orphaned, you must provide a dry, warm bedding area for them in a draft-free place in your home. A sturdy cardboard box lined with a towel over a few layers of newspaper for absorbency works nicely for this. If the kittens are soiled then very gently wipe them clean with a soft moist sponge or wash cloth (non-alcohol baby wipes work well also). Never place the kittens in water and do not use soap or shampoo. As soon as you’ve wiped them down, very gently dry them with a soft cloth or towel (no hair dryers!) and return them to their bedding.
Next, the orphans must be fed. New-borns and kittens up to 3-4 weeks of age must be fed kitten milk replacer only. Commercial milk replacer is specifically formulated for kittens and is available at the leading pet stores. I strongly recommend using a colostrum enriched formula, whether or not you know if the kittens received colostrum from the mother cat. Generally speaking, you should feed new-borns and small or weak kittens two – three tablespoons of reconstituted replacer per four ounces body weight every three or four hours. In all cases though, always follow the label directions for the product you buy. Do not use cow or goat milk as these can cause severe digestive upset and diarrhea in the kittens. You should weigh the kittens daily to be sure they are getting enough nourishment to sustain growth, and consult with your veterinarian for specific advice on kitten health and feeding concerns you may have.
How Do I Feed Them?
Along with the milk replacer you will need to buy a new-born kitten nursing kit from the pet store of your choice. The kit will come with a washable bottle, an assortment of nipples and directions for use from start through weaning. Be sure to carefully follow the cleaning instructions with the kit so you don’t contaminate it with unhealthy germs.
You’ll need to slowly introduce the kittens to the milk replacer and sucking the bottle nipple the first time or two you attempt to feed them. Above all, be patient. Never force the nipple into a kitten’s mouth. Introduce the milk by putting a drop or two on your finger and touching it to the kitten’s mouth. This allows them to taste and smell the milk and will stimulate their sucking response. At this time gently put the nipple to the kitten’s mouth allowing him to react to it. The kitten will usually take the nipple in at this point.
You may also want to purchase a small feeding syringe to have on hand. Some new-borns will simply not suckle a nipple the first couple of days and it is imperative they receive nourishment. However, go slow and use caution when syringe feeding as the kitten must not aspirate the liquid into the lungs. Never allow a child to feed kittens in this manner.
How Much Milk Replacer Do I Feed?
Again, a general guide is to feed the liquid milk replacer every three – four hours at a rate of two – three tablespoons per every four ounces of body weight. However, the mixing and feeding rates may vary between products so always adhere to the label directions. As the kittens grow you will need to increase the amount you feed accordingly with their weight and age. After the first week, if the kittens are strong and growing at a healthy rate, you may be able to change the feeding schedule to every six – eight hours.
Once the kittens have opened their eyes and begin to move about steadily on their feet you can introduce them to bowl feeding in addition to bottle feeding. Bowl feeding the liquid milk replacer is a prelude to weaning the kittens. Put the amount equal to one feeding into a small, shallow bowl. Place your finger into the liquid, allow the kitten to lick it and then guide the kitten to the bowl with your finger. Do not push the kitten’s face into the bowl as he could easily aspirate liquid through his nose which could result in pneumonia. Once he begins to lap the milk replacer he will eagerly drink at each feeding thereafter.
How and When Do I Wean The Kittens From Milk Replacer?
Generally speaking, you can begin weaning bottle-fed kittens at three – four weeks of age. This does not mean you can discontinue feeding the replacer at this point. It simply means you can begin introducing the kittens to solid food. They must continue receiving their replacer just as before until they are fully weaned, usually eight – ten weeks of age. (You should also understand that the kittens must be fully weaned i.e., relying solely on canned or dry food for their nutrition before considering giving any or all of them away to new homes.)
Because you have already introduced the kittens to lapping their replacer from a bowl it becomes quite easy to transition them to solid food. Start out at three – four weeks of age by hand mixing an equal amount of liquid replacer with a high quality dry or canned kitten food. As the kitten becomes used to the taste and texture of the moist solids you can gradually lower the amount of milk replacer and increase the amount of solid food. By eight weeks of age, the kittens should be eagerly consuming the solid kitten food and have lost their nutrient dependency on the milk replacer. Remember, the duration of the weaning period may be ten weeks for those kittens who started out weak or small.
Above all, be patient in this process. Not all kittens in the litter will transition to solid food at the same pace. Some will likely play with and step in the new food before they realize it is something good to eat. Be sure to gently clean their paws and faces when this happens, but don’t worry, they will catch on to the new food in a hurry.
Lastly, remember that the orphaned kittens must learn to play and socialize without the benefit of their mother’s teaching. For this reason always keep the litter mates together so they can interact with each other and follow their feline instincts for play and exploration.
By following these common sense guides, the directions on the product labels and your vet’s advice your orphaned kittens should survive, wean successfully and mature into wonderful pets.
Wayne Morrison has a master’s degree in animal science with over 40 years experience in raising cats and dogs.