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Warmth, proper feeding, and cleanliness are the keys to successfully hand-raising orphaned kittens. (Photo by Janell Granier)

Warmth, proper feeding, and cleanliness are the keys to successfully hand-raising orphaned kittens.

Photo by Janell Granier

NYC Eartips: Spring 2009

Help for Orphaned Kittens

by Jill Richardson, DVM

Caring for orphaned kittens is truly rewarding, but it can be quite a challenge. Knowing what to do can make the difference between life and death during the first crucial hours.

The most important first step is to make sure the kitten is warm. This can be accomplished by using a towel or T-shirt and your own body heat. Wrap the kitten in the towel or T-shirt and place securely under your shirt to warm her. Many times the kitten is crying and the immediate thought is to offer food. That can be a big mistake since feeding a kitten with a low body temperature can result in death. Remember: stabilize the kitten first!

If a local veterinarian's office is open, stop there next. They can check the kitten's temperature and offer guidance on how best to proceed. If the office is closed and you are on your own until the next day, put some old towels or a blanket in an open-topped container (a laundry basket or box will work) in an area away from any other animals in your household. Place a heat source, such as a hot water bottle, on top of the towels and then put an additional towel on top of the heat source. Make sure that there is enough space in the container for the kitten to crawl away from the heat source in case she becomes a little too warm when directly on top of it. Never use a microwave to heat water for the hot water bottle because the water might get too hot. Electric heating pads are usually not recommended for use with pets.

While the kitten is warming up, make a quick shopping trip to your local pet store or large suburban supermarket. You'll need to purchase some kitten milk replacement formula and a bottle or feeding syringe for feeding her. With very tiny kittens, a feeding syringe is often easier to use than a bottle.

Very young kittens need to be fed every three hours. (Photo by Janell Granier)

Very young kittens need to be fed every three hours.

Photo by Janell Granier

Never offer a kitten cow's milk — it doesn't contain taurine, which is necessary for a kitten's development. There are several brands of kitten milk replacer, including KMR and Hartz. Both contain taurine, and are available in most pet stores and in some large suburban supermarkets. If stores are closed and you are unable to locate the kitten milk replacer right away, you must have something to feed the kitten immediately. Locate a jar of chicken baby food that is 100 percent chicken — with no added vegetables or seasonings, especially onion. Mix the baby food with some warm water to make a very thin formula, and feed that mixture to the kitten. As soon as stores re-open, however, purchase kitten milk replacer and begin feeding it to the kitten.

The Internet provides many recipes for making your own kitten formula — do not use them. Some of the recipes contain ingredients that can be very harmful to a kitten's undeveloped digestive system.

When feeding a kitten, go very slowly. Let the kitten's stomach rest in your palm. Gently place the syringe in the side of the kitten's mouth. Squeeze the tip of the syringe and let a drop or so go into the kitten's mouth. Continue to squeeze slowly so that the kitten has time to swallow the formula. The goal is to keep the milk from dribbling out of the kitten's mouth.

Tiny kittens need to be fed a small amount of warm milk replacement every three hours. In general, a kitten needs about 8 cc of formula for every ounce of body weight each day. (One teaspoon is about 5 cc.) So, if your kitten weighs four ounces, feed a total amount of 32 cc (or about 6 teaspoons) of milk replacement over the course of a 24-hour period. Different milk replacement products will have different dosage guides, so check the label for more information. As the kitten grows and learns to suckle from the bottle or syringe by herself, she will let you know when she is full by turning her head away from the nipple tip.

Cleanup after feeding is very important. A small first-aid gauze pad works very well since it resembles the texture of a mom cat's tongue. Dampen the pad with a little warm water and wipe off any milk replacement formula that ended up on the kitten's fur.

You will know your kitten is thriving if he or she gains a little weight every day. (Photo by Krista Menzel)

You will know your kitten is thriving if he or she gains a little weight every day.

Photo by Krista Menzel

Very young kittens do not have the muscle control necessary to eliminate body waste on their own. In nature, their mothers lick them to stimulate urination and defecation. Orphaned kittens will need some help with this, and the best time to try is immediately before feeding. If you're unsuccessful then, try immediately after feeding. Take a large-size cotton ball and moisten one edge of it with a few drops of warm water. Gently rub across the kitten's genitalia. More than likely the kitten will begin to urinate and, with continued gentle cotton-ball stimulation, will do so until her bladder is empty. Don't worry if the kitten doesn't defecate for a couple of days — tiny kittens on an all-milk replacement diet often go a couple of days before producing any feces. If, however, the kitten shows signs of pain, excessive vocalization, food refusal, or excessively swollen stomach, bring her to your veterinarian for an evaluation. Also, watch for diarrhea. Normal stool is often very loose, but should not be watery.

How do you know if your newborn kitten is thriving in your care? The easiest way to obtain feedback is to use a digital scale (a kitchen scale is perfect). Weigh the kitten at the same time each day and record the results. The kitten's weight should increase a little bit each day. If you see a downward trend in the kitten's weight, she's not eating enough food. Either increase the frequency of feedings or the amount fed at each feeding.

Rescue groups around the city often are at full capacity and cannot take in another bottle-feeding baby kitten. However, most will be willing to put you in touch with an experienced volunteer to offer you guidance as you're learning how to be a good feline foster mom. Don't hesitate to contact a rescue group and ask if they have someone who can answer feline bottle-feeding questions for you.

Several kitten books offer wonderful guidance as well. The Guide to Handraising Kittens by Susan Easterly and Kittens for Dummies by Dusty Rainbolt both contain great advice.

About the Author

Dr. Jill Richardson, DVM, is a renowned pet safety expert and has appeared on many national and local television shows, including the CBS Early Show, The Mike and Juliet Show, and Fox News. Dr. Richardson is a member of both the Cat Writers' Association and the Dog Writers' Association of America and has lectured all over North America on the topic of pet safety. She lives in Northern New Jersey and has two dogs, a cat, and a horse.