By D.L. Smith-Reed, DVM
Feeding a newborn orphaned kitten is a challenge but can be fun and rewarding. Here are some guidelines to follow when assisting orphaned kittens.
If you are sure the mother cat is unable to care for them, congratulations…you have a new and challenging responsibility!
We first need to determine how old they are before we try to start feeding them. Kittens’ eyes generally open between days 7 through 14. If the eyes are still closed, the kittens are quite young and you have a lot of work ahead of you. Fortunately, it is very rewarding work to see these little kitties grow and thrive.
Have your veterinarian check them over as soon as possible to determine their health status and age. Any noticeable health problems such as skin lesions, crusty eyelids, or presence of dehydration can be addressed by your veterinarian and appropriate treatment started.
It's unfortunate and sad that not all kittens and puppies receive the nurturing and security of a mother.
If you are committed to helping the newborn kittens and become their surrogate mother, then you will need to provide a safe, warm home for them. You can use a box or small crate with plenty of dry, clean bedding. Make sure you change the bedding frequently so it doesn’t get too soiled.
Place the new "den" in a warm, quiet place free from drafts, but be careful not to overheat them either. Don’t put them next to a heating or air conditioning vent. Heating pads under a box can be helpful. The kittens should be in an environment that approaches 92 degrees; monitor the air temperature around the kittens frequently.
Once they become 2 weeks old, they will be better equipped to generate their own body heat and their surrounding air temperature becomes less critical.
For very young kittens, you will need to acquire kitten milk replacer and some feeding devices. Many veterinarians will use an ordinary eye dropper or a small syringe as a means of dispensing the milk replacer to the kitten.
Most pet stores or veterinary clinics have nursing bottles, too, but be alert to the fact that some kittens cannot suck the contents through the small nipple. You may need to actually squeeze the milk out for the kitten while having the nipple in the kitty's mouth. Warm it up a little, too, under the hot water faucet.
If it is after hours at your local animal hospital, your short-term solution will be to mix an egg yolk with a can of evaporated milk (make sure it is not the sweetened condensed milk). This is only a temporary "solution" and should only be used for a couple of feedings.
At the first few feedings, the kittens will probably only consume a few cc’s worth of milk. (There are 5 cc's in a teaspoon.) You will need to feed every couple of hours at first and gradually build up time between feedings as they begin to eat more at each meal. Start by offering a small amount. If the kitten won’t eat readily from the nipple and bottle, try an eyedropper or syringe and drip a little in the mouth, adding more at the kitten's pace. Make sure that the milk is just above room temperature; try not to microwave it since you can cause hot spots in the milk.
Follow instructions on the milk replacer for mixing and storage. Contact your veterinarian if the kitten does not eat for more than six hours, as hypoglycemia can occur quickly in young kittens who are not getting nutrition. Once they get the hang of it, the kittens should consume the milk replacer greedily. You can stop the feeding when the kitten begins to slow down the consumption or becomes disinterested.
When the orphaned kittens reach about 3 weeks of age, you can start providing watered-down meat-based kitten food for them to nibble on. Mix the wet food with water until it achieves a soupy consistency, and consider warming the mixture before serving. Make sure you keep a fresh supply and not too much at one time. It’s also important to monitor the kittens while they are eating, as they are unsteady and can fall head first into the food. Once they start eating food as it comes from the can, you can leave out dry kibble for them to munch on, too. A kibble with good protein and fat levels is recommended.
Keep in touch with your veterinarian if you notice any health problems or "poor doers.” A "poor doer" is a kitten or puppy that lags behind the other littermates in body size, alertness, or activity level. The earlier any problems are detected and addressed, the better the chance for recovery.
One other thing you will need to do, since mom isn’t there to clean up after the kittens, is to stimulate the kittens to eliminate waste during or after each feeding. You can accomplish this by using a warm, wet paper towel to gently massage the anal and urinary openings. Your kitten should immediately urinate and/or defecate. Afterward, gently pat the area dry to avoid irritation and infection.
As the kittens get older and more mobile and exploratory, you can provide a low-sided cardboard box with a small amount of litter for the kittens to get used to. It is generally instinct for them to scratch in something for their elimination habits. Once they start urinating and passing stool on their own (generally by 3 weeks of age), you will be able to give up that particular job of assisting them.
Some things to monitor over the course of the next few weeks are appetite, activity level, and growth. You will need to call the veterinarian if a kitten won’t eat or stops eating. Bathroom habits should be predictable, and you should talk to your veterinarian if urinating or defecating changes, or if the kitten’s attitude or activity level also changes. Other health concerns include upper respiratory infections that create sneezing and eye and nose discharge.
Many times the eyes will get so much discharge, the eyelids will gum up and stick together. Wet a cotton ball with warm water and hold it on the eyes for a few seconds to moisten the discharge. Then, very gently wipe one to two times to remove the softened crust and open up the eyes until you can contact your veterinarian.
A number of different parasites are a concern and can weaken a young kitten. Your veterinarian should treat fleas, mites, lice, and intestinal parasites. Don’t use over-the-counter medications without consulting your veterinarian since very young kittens may not be able to tolerate some of these products.
Many types of problems can be determined at the time of the first visit. Your veterinarian may suggest that you drop off a stool sample at 4 weeks of age to check for intestinal parasites.
By 6 weeks of age, kittens should be well on their way to eating, drinking, and exploring on their own and be quite the entertainment focus. Have your veterinarian check them over, and discuss vaccination recommendations. Depending on the veterinarian, vaccinations will be started between 6 and 8 weeks of age. Also, viral testing will likely be run to rule out feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus.
Oh, and good luck giving them up to new owners. It will be very difficult to let these little orphan kittens go off to their new homes without you.
Image: Vladimer Shioshvilli / via Flickr