Feeding Orphaned Kittens

Updated: November 29, 2013
Published: January 25, 2013
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"Hey Doc, someone just left a box of kittens outside the front door and drove away."

That’s how one of my more memorable days in veterinary practice started. When the clinic’s receptionist uttered those fateful words, I was already up to my armpits in patients and didn’t have time to give the new arrivals a once over. A technician took a quick peek inside, estimated that the kittens were around 7-8 weeks old, and put the box in a cage in our isolation ward with food, water, and a litter box.

At the end of a day, I remembered the kittens. I went into isolation to figure out what they needed in the way of testing, vaccines, deworming, etc. and found four 7-8 week old kittens and, tucked into a corner under a towel, one tiny newborn. He couldn’t have been more than two or three days old. I guess the guilt I felt for leaving the little guy high and dry for most of the day is one of the reasons I ended up taking him home and bottle-feeding him.

With hindsight, I should have tried harder to find a foster mom (of the feline variety) that could have raised the kitten. Bottle-feeding kittens is not ideal. They have to eat every two or three hours from the moment you wake up until your head hits the pillow at night. Thankfully, if they eat this frequently during the day you do not have to wake to feed them at night and the frequency of feedings can be gradually decreased as they are able to take in more at each meal.

Kitten milk replacer is adequate but isn’t a perfect substitute for mom’s milk. This is particularly true if a kitten is unable to suckle colostrum during the first 24 hours of life. In these cases, injections of serum from a healthy, vaccinated, adult cat can help protect the youngster from infectious disease while her immune system is maturing.

Buying several bottles and nipples designed specifically for kittens helps ensure you always have a clean one on hand. Powdered milk replacer should be mixed with warm water immediately before feeding. Premixed varieties can be warmed to body temperature by placing the container in a cup of warm water. Let the kitten nurse until her rate of suckling slows.

Young kittens also need help urinating and defecating. After every feeding, wipe the area around the anus and urogenital opening with a warm damp cloth and then use the same cloth to clean them up after they’ve gone.

Kittens usually become more self-sufficient around three or four weeks of age. Once they begin chewing on the nipple of the bottle, start offering a little high-quality, pureed canned kitten food mixed with a little milk replacer. Once the kitten is eating the canned food well and drinking water from a bowl, you can dispense with the bottle.

Ideally, kittens should stay with their mother (or a foster mom) and littermates until they are at least eight weeks of age. This time is crucial, not just for nutritional reasons but also for socialization. If you ever find yourself bottle-raising a kitten, consider enrolling her in a kitten socialization class when she is old enough. Many bottle-fed kittens (including mine) turn into tyrants as they get older, probably because they were never put in their place by their mom and siblings.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Margo Harrison / via Shutterstock