Image via iStock.com/Meadowsun
By Dr. Sandra Mitchell
Fostering kittens is a huge task, and depending on the reason the kittens were orphaned, can be difficult to do successfully. Knowing which kitten supplies will keep you heading in the right direction can be a huge help while you foster kittens! Here are some tips, tricks and “don’t forgets” as you prepare to 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 cat can. Cats not only take care of all of the 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.
How Long Should Kittens Stay With Their Mother?
Kittens must be left with their mother (if she is able to raise kittens) until they have reached 8 weeks old. This is not only a practical guideline, but actually a rule put forth by the federal government—in essence, the law. Many people feel that kittens should be left with mom even longer; 10 weeks is a common age cited by many.
No matter how mature that kitten seems, please do the best thing for the kitten—leave her with the mother until she has reached 8 weeks of age. At that age, the kitten will weigh approximately 2 pounds. A kitten smaller than that should be left with the mother cat.
How to Take Care of a Kitten
Now, if the mother cat has been killed or severely injured and the kittens are orphaned, the story changes, and we are off and running to do our best feline imitations as we foster the kittens.
Newborn Kittens to 4 Weeks
Newborn kittens up to the age of 4 weeks are the most challenging to rear. 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 and helping it to eliminate.
The details of hand-rearing a newborn are important, and I would recommend spending an hour with your veterinarian to be sure you understand how to take care of a kitten properly.
I like to use a nice heating pad with towels on top of it. Kittens that are newborn need to be kept near 100 degrees Fahrenheit around the clock—so gentle heating units that provide heat with no risk of burns are best.
My recommended food of choice for these young kittens is a kitten milk replacer (KMR) that has already been rehydrated, like the PetAg KMR liquid. The powder version—the PetAg KMR powder—is good for older kittens, but I find the liquid version much easier to use and better digested by the younger kits, even though it is a bit more expensive.
As far as how to best feed the formula to the kittens, you will 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.
Young kittens need to be fed every two to four hours in the first weeks of life—so it helps a lot 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 are weaned!
Mama cat helps the kittens to urinate and defecate by grooming them and stimulating the reflex 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 I am finished feeding the kitten, I will dip a cotton ball into a warm glass of water, and use it to gently “dab” at the genital area. Most kittens will readily urinate as soon as they are stimulated, and in a few moments, 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 a pound and will start doing some exploring—but remember, they still very much need their kitty mom.
Kittens 4 to 6 Weeks
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 some skills, such as washing, using a litter pan, and eating some solid foods. She also spends a lot of time trying to keep them out of trouble!
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. I recommend keeping an area of the kitten cage near 80 degrees Fahrenheit so that the kittens can access it if they are feeling chilly.
Kittens should still be primarily fed KMR at this stage, 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 first step towards weaning!
Weaning is a very stressful time in the life of a kitten—it is very important not to push them towards eating on their own, even though you are exhausted from all of the weeks of frequent feedings! Kittens will learn this important skill in their own due time.
Once the kitten is lapping the KMR from a bowl, it is time to start to introduce a high-quality canned kitten food. I like Hill’s Science Diet liver & chicken kitten food, Iams Perfect Portions chicken recipe kitten food and Royal Canin canned kitten food for just starting out.
I do not recommend feeding dry cat food to kittens at all, but especially not the younger kittens who 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 they are growing.
Kittens spend a lot of time walking through their food—and a lot of it is wasted, but this is just part of the process. Small, flat bowls, such as the Van Ness Ecoware cat dish, make it easier for them to access, but are also messy to use. They will outgrow it.
Kittens will need to learn to wash. After each meal, taking a dampened face cloth and mimicking a “grooming” motion on the face and feet will help to give the kitten the idea that after each meal, it is time to sit down and clean up.
Most will catch on to this pretty quickly and are quite happy to wash themselves rather than have you chase them down to groom them! (“I’ll do it myself, mom!”) Kittens of this age are also starting to use the litter pan, like the Puppy Pan dog, cat and small animal litter pan, to eliminate on their own.
Putting them into the pan after a meal will sometimes help give them the idea—as will putting a small amount of stool from the kitten into the proper location in the box. Within a few days, most figure out “where to put it” on their own.
Small cat litter boxes make it easier for the kitten to get into and out of. Using a litter that will not hurt the kitten if ingested is important, since kittens do put everything in their mouths!
Kittens that are 4 to 6 weeks of age are starting to be much more alert and interested in their environment. Teaching them the ways of being a cat and helping to keep them out of trouble tend to be the focus at this stage. They will weigh about 1.5 pounds at 6 weeks of age.
Kittens 6+ Weeks
Once kittens have reached this age, they are starting to fine-tune their skills. Most have mastered washing and using the litter pan, and have moved on to learning to hunt as well as gaining balance and agility.
These can be some of the harder skills for owners to teach, since acquiring these skills are complicated, and it is easy for the kitten to overshoot and play too rough, which can be painful for the human caretaker!
I aim to try to have kittens weaned by about 8 weeks. They tend to do this voluntarily after they discover the joys of self-feeding canned food. Some kittens do still enjoy nursing past 8 weeks, and I do not force them to wean. All kittens will wean when they are ready.
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 we recommend starting preventative health care 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!