The first step in dealing with newborn kittens is to determine whether or not they have actually been abandoned. Mother cats often disappear from their litters for hours at a time; they need to eat like everyone else, and won’t risk bringing food near their kittens. The food might alert other cats or predators nearby of the kitten’s location. A mother cat might also range if she needs to find a new home for her litter–she may even be in the process of moving the kittens when you found the litter.
In order to determine if the kittens are abandoned, keep a good distance away from the nest to watch it; 35 feet or more is necessary to keep the mother cat feeling safe and unobserved. If she suspects human involvement she may decide to abandon the kittens after all. It may even be necessary to leave the area for a few hours…but if that’s the case, first consider: are there stray dogs nearby? Do you know of any people in the area who have a history of animal abuse? Do you suspect other predators, such as coyotes, of roaming the area? Are the kittens in any other form of immediate danger? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you may consider going ahead and removing them to a less hostile environment.
While each situation is different, please keep in mind:
- Newborn kittens have the best chance of survival with their mother.
- The kittens will need their mother’s influence to be properly socialized. If at all possible they should be kept with their mother for at least 8 weeks. If not, they need to at least be kept with their litter mates or integrated into another litter as quickly as possible.
- If you do bring the kittens (and mother, potentially) home, keep them separated from any animals of your own until they can be thoroughly examined by a vet. If the kittens were abandoned, there may have been a health related reason.
Once you remove them they are your responsibility. Unless the mother cat is particularly friendly to humans–and sometimes not even then–she will likely never touch them again for fear of coming near you. You must be committed to bottle feeding these kittens for the next few weeks.
An alternative is to leave food for the mother, and shelter if possible, somewhere near the original nest. They cannot be too close together–remember the 35 foot range as a rule of thumb–but a cardboard box and some old blankets goes a long way.
Turning Them Over to a Shelter
Shelters will not take newborn kittens. While there may be exceptions, the majority of shelters are overworked and overburdened already. Newborn kittens turned over to them will almost always be euthanized on the spot unless they can find an experienced bottle feeder who isn’t already overrun with kittens to care for. During certain times of the year this can be especially hard, as those who are willing and able may already be caring for two or three litters.
They may also be able to place the kittens with another mother cat who is already nursing. Even so, they may also not be willing to risk the nursing mother’s health, and the health of her current litter, by introducing kittens which could be sick. As newborn kittens would not survive the quarantine wait required by most shelters, you may need to bottle-feed and care for the kittens yourself until they are eight weeks old.
Bottle Feeding kittens is a difficult but rewarding task.
- Remember to gather bottle feeding supplies before removing the kittens from their known environment. They will likely need to eat as soon as possible after being removed, so it’s important to have all needed supplies on hand.
- DO use specialized kitten-formulated milk replacer. This can be found in most pet-care sections of major store chains, feed stores, and at specialized pet stores. Goats milk is also a good substitute. Avoid using cow milk. This is hard to digest, lacks the required nutrients, and causes diarrhea.
- You will need a small formula bottle, syringe, or an eyedropper. These can also found at the listed stores.
- Make sure the kitten is warm when you feed them. Feeding a kitten who is cold can only make matters worse. See below for details about cold kittens; how to tell, and how to warm them up.
- Any instance of diarrhea can be fatal. The kitten should immediately be taken to a veterinarian.
Start this process by determining the kitten’s age. While we do not endorse buying kittens from anyone, Boutique Kittens does offer a comprehensive set of pictures that could help you determine the approximate age of the litter.
Each litter is unique, as are each kitten in a litter. Their needs will vary, but as a general rule litters of newborn to three-week-old kittens will need to be fed approximately every two hours, around the clock. This will mean a lot of missed sleep! Between weeks four and five, the time period between feedings may extend up to four hours. As we mentioned, each litter and kitten will be different; if they are mewling and pawing restlessly around the chances are they need to be fed. Underfeeding and overfeeding can both result in diarrhea which, again, can be fatal.
When you are feeding them they need to be kept level so they do not aspirate. Kittens also may not understand how to “latch on” to a rubber nipple, so a syringe or eyedropper may be the better feeding instrument. Always remember to keep a towel wrapped around them. The leading causes of death among bottle-feeding kittens are aspiration and cold.
Kittens also cannot excrete on their own, and will need their genitals stimulated (by rubbing their butts with a damp, warm cloth) after every feeding until they defecate. They will also need to be bathed. If you are unsure how to do this, ask your local vet or shelter staff–they will almost always have someone who can teach you.
After five weeks you can usually begin weaning them onto a gruel made by mixing milk-replacer and wet food, warmed and set into a shallow dish. The weaning process is gradual, and after a few days you can begin shifting them into more and more solid wet food, and finally on to dry as they hit six- to seven-weeks-old. Even though they should be able to function on their own at this point, it is imperative they stay with their litter (and mother) until eight weeks of age, if at all possible.
Remember, each kitten grows at its own pace. Experienced bottle-feeders have had kittens weaned as early as four-weeks, and kittens who are still being bottle-fed at six. Both extremes are perfectly normal, and you should refrain from rushing any stage as well as holding kittens back who are ready to move on.
Keeping Kittens Warm
As mentioned before, another aspect to caring for kittens is keeping them sufficiently warm. Young kittens have a hard time maintaining any body heat, especially in small litters or when abandoned alone. A proper nest for them can be a cardboard box or travel crate with a heating pad (set to a low heat) at the bottom, covered by two old towels. Make sure there are holes to allow fresh air in, but not low enough that the kittens can crawl out of the box. A thin blanket over the top of the crate (or box) will help to trap heat in with them.
Before putting them in, determine the current temperature of the kittens. You can do this by feeling the pads of their feet, or the inside of their mouth. If they are cool to the touch, the kittens’ body heat is too low. You must warm them slowly. Wrap them in a towel (polar fleece are the best) and hold them against your body, rubbing them continuously for 1-2 hours. You can make their new nest while doing this. Some people put the bundled kittens inside their shirts for added warmth. Once their paw pads and mouths are warm, you can transfer them into the nest.
For more on the care of newborn kittens, see our comprehensive guide (coming soon.)
As always, if you need help or advice at any stage you may call our shelter at 409-833-0504, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We might not be able to take the newborns, but we have many experienced bottle feeders on staff who can surely answer any questions you might have.