The Essential Care Guide for Fostering Kittens

Fostering kittens is a huge task and, depending on the reason the kittens were orphaned, can be difficult to do. But with the right tips, tricks, and “don’t forgets,” you’ll be set up for success as you hand-raise a kitten.

Setting Expectations for Fostering Kittens

First and foremost, it is important to remind you that no one—not even the most devoted of owners—can raise a kitten as well as a mother cat can. Cats not only take care of all basic needs of their kittens, but they also teach them the skills they need to know to be a cat—and that is something we are not able to do when fostering kittens.

We can try to guide the kittens in the right direction and set realistic expectations, but in reality, we simply speak a different language from our feline friends. Imagine someone trying to teach you a new task in a foreign language; hand signals can only go so far.

But with successful fostering, kittens are still able to grow and thrive.

How Long Should Kittens Stay With Their Mother?

Ideally, kittens would be with their mother until they’re at least 8 weeks old. Many people feel that kittens should be left with mom even longer; 10 weeks is a common age cited by many.

Where to Find Foster Kittens Near You

But sometimes kittens are forced to be apart from their mother at an age that’s earlier than what’s ideal. If you’re looking to foster kittens, contact your local animal shelters and rescues—these organizations are often looking for families capable of fostering. 

How to Take Care of a Kitten

When a mother cat can no longer tend to her kittens, it’s up to human caregivers to foster them until they’re independent.

Newborn Kittens to 4 Weeks Old

Newborn kittens up to the age of 4 weeks are the most challenging to care for. At this age, they are almost completely helpless and dependent on the care of their mother. The most important factors at this age are:

  • Proper feeding

  • Keeping the kitten warm

  • Helping the kitten eliminate

To foster a newborn kitten, you need to be detailed-orientated and learn from a professional, whether that’s a veterinarian or someone from your local shelter.

Heat Source:

Newborn kittens need to be kept at temperatures near 90 degrees Fahrenheit around the clock. You can use a gentle heating pad with towels placed over it, and there are also kitten-specific incubators you can keep them in. By the time they are around 4 weeks old, they can handle a room temperature of around 75 degrees Fahrenheit.


Young kittens need to be fed every two to four hours in the first weeks of life. It helps to have a formula they like and bottles that are easy for you to use, since feedings must continue around the clock. Kitty moms certainly don’t get any time off until the babies begin weaning, so prepare to set your alarm throughout the night.

Feed young kittens a kitten milk replacer (KMR) that has already been rehydrated, such as the PetAg KMR liquid. The powder version—the PetAg KMR powder—is good for older kittens, but the liquid version is much easier to use and better digested by younger kits.

To feed the kitten, you’ll need a high-quality bottle, such as the Four Paws pet nursers. The formula should flow readily from the nipple with gentle pressure but not drip out.

Daily weight checks are the best way to see if a kitten in getting enough food. Young kittens should gain around ½-¾ of an ounce (15-20 grams) each day. Talk to your veterinarian if their growth is slower than this.


Mama cats help their kittens urinate and defecate by grooming them, which stimulates them to eliminate. Now that you have taken over the role of mom, it will fall on you to take care of this important task.

After you feed the kitten, wet a cotton ball or paper towel with warm water and use it to gently “dab” at the kitten’s genital area. Most kittens will readily urinate as soon as they are stimulated, and after a few moments they will also defecate.

The first month of a kitten’s life is really all about staying warm, eating, peeing/pooping and sleeping. As they near the 4-week mark, they will weigh about 1 pound and will start doing some exploring—but remember, they still very much need their kitty mom (that’s you).

Kittens 4 to 6 Weeks Old

At this age, kittens are beginning to explore their world—and look for trouble. Much of Mom’s time is still spent feeding them, but now she is also teaching them skills such as washing, using a litter box, and eating solid foods.

Heat Source:

Kittens will still need some source of heat—but at this age, it is possible to provide it as a supplement, as opposed to a kitten essential. Keep part of the kitten’s environment near 80 degrees Fahrenheit so the kittens can access it if they feel chilly.


Kittens 4–6 weeks old should still be fed KMR, although a transition to the powdered form is certainly appropriate. By the 6-week mark, many kittens are starting to learn to lap the KMR from their cat bowl, which is an important step towards weaning.

Weaning is a very stressful time in the life of a kitten. It’s important not to push them towards eating on their own, even if you’re exhausted from weeks of frequent feedings. Kittens will learn this important skill in their own time.

At around 4 weeks of age, start introducing a high-quality canned kitten food mixed with some KMR so that it forms a gruel. Good options include:

Do not feed dry food to younger kittens, as they may have difficulty chewing it. Dry food is also higher in carbohydrates than the same amount of wet food, and kittens need all of the protein they can get while growing.

As kittens begin to wean, they will walk through their food. This creates a lot of waste and a big mess, but it’s just part of the kitten weaning process. Small, flat bowls, such as the Van Ness Ecoware cat dish, make it easier for kittens to access.


Kittens will need to learn to groom themselves. After each meal, take a dampened face cloth and mimic a “grooming” motion on the kitten’s face and feet. This will help give the kitten the idea to clean up after each meal. Most kittens catch on to this pretty quickly and will happily begin cleaning themselves.

Around this age, kittens will also start to use the litter box to eliminate on their own. Use a small box like the Puppy Pan dog, cat and small animal litter pan, so kittens can get in and out easily. Place them into the litter box after each meal, and move any stools they leave elsewhere to the box as well. Within a few days, most kittens figure out what the litter box is used for.

Kittens 4–6 weeks old start to be much more alert and interested in their environment. Teaching them how to be a cat and helping to keep them out of trouble tend to be the focus at this stage.

Kittens 6+ Weeks

Once kittens reach 6 weeks old, they weigh about 1.5 pounds and are starting to fine-tune their skills. Most have mastered washing, are using the litter box, and have moved on to learning to hunt as well as gaining balance and agility.


Kittens should be able to eat canned food by the time they’re 8 weeks old. When they’re between 6-8 weeks of age, gradually reduce the amount of KMR you add to their meals. You can still leave a little KMR out in a shallow bowl for them to drink, but most kittens are ready to drink water by this age.


Kittens in this age category are active and curious. They need lots of cat toys and stimulation—including toys to teach them to climb, stalk, hunt and generally build all of the skills an independent cat would need.

Also remember that if your kitten hasn’t already been to the veterinarian for a health check, this is the age when starting preventative health care is recommended for most kittens.

Although raising a kitten is best done by a cat mom, with proper care and attention, humans can also raise a healthy, inquisitive and active kitten. With a few critical cat supplies and some attention to detail, you too can step in and save some adorable kittens.

Featured Image:

Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP


Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP


Sandra Mitchell is a 1995 graduate of the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine. Since graduation, she has worked in many fields...

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