Bottle – Feeding Orphaned Kittens

Ron Hines DVM PhD

A newborn kitten like me  will look as mature as my calico sister in about two weeks

The stages of feline labor here

 Why is my kitten a runt?

Motherly love is a very strong bond in domestic cats. So it is quite rare for a well kept momma cat to abandon its offspring.

But feral homeless cats have very tough lives. They struggle on the borderline of starvation, live in unnaturally dense groups and suffer from diseases that pampered house cats never face.

Often, their first litter arrives when they are little more than kittens themselves. It is quite common for inexperience and the stresses of pregnancy to exhaust them to the point where they become ill and abandon their kittens.

Another reason readers get to this page is when they are faced with a cat’s litter that contain one or more star-crossed runts that can not survive unless you hand raise them yourself.

How Old Do You Think This Kitten Is?

Kittens 1-14 days old haven’t opened their eyes yet. (never attempt to open a kitten’s eyes manually) Their ears are also folded over and closed.

Kittens 2-3 weeks old have their eyes open and they are able to move around shakily. By the time kittens are 3 weeks old, their ears have become erect and they can walk about well.

What Supplies Will I Need?

You will need to have a warm, snugly nest box for the baby or babies. Since the infants will soil their container, I usually look around for a small cardboard box that I can readily replace when I need to ,to keep the baby in – a shoe box works well.

You will need a heating pad unless you live in the tropics. I usually pick up the heavy-duty model from Walmart. Then I go to their aquarium section and purchase an aquarium thermometer. In the same section you will find pet nursing bottles and, if you are lucky, cans of PetAg’s  KMR™ Many feel that this product has a short shelf life. Buy it from stores that have the most rapid turnover. The canned product is less economical over time, but it is ready to warm and serve. The canisters of powder are more economical, but preparation time is longer and, once diluted with water, it takes several hours for the lumps to completely dissolve, the grittiness to dissipate and for for the liquid to assume a smooth consistency.

(I do not have any ties to Pet-Ag. Its just that their products are usually easiest to find. The Fox Valley line is just as good – some say better.)

Pick up a small food scale so you can keep track of the kitten(s) growth and a notebook to record it in. Buy a few boxes of white, unscented Kleenex-type tissues and a few roles of paper towels.

If the kitten is weak you may need to tube feed it. If so, pick up a 3-milliliter syringe and an 18 gauge butterfly infusion tube (needle snipped off) from a veterinary hospital or human medical supply center for tube feeding and ask an experienced kitten rehabber to show you how it is done, or, better yet, watch videos on how it is done on YouTube. Never attempt to tube feed an infant kitten (or anything else) until you have been taught how to do it right. Its not like feeding a human baby. A tech at your favorite animal hospital or cat shelter is usually quite willing to show you how to properly tube feed an infant kitten at no charge. Call ahead. Their is more on tube feeding below.

The Nest box

Mother cats always seek out small confined spaces in which to place their kittens. Your nest box does not need to be elaborate. It needs to be just big enough for the kitten(s) to turn around but not much bigger. Line it with crumpled Kleenex tissue.

Before you place kittens in the box, examine them closely for fleas. Pick those off with eyebrow tweezers and drop them into a jar of rubbing alcohol or vodka. Those little pests can quickly suck kittens dry of blood. If there were many fleas and the kittens gums are pale (anemic), a drop of pediatric vitamins with iron per day should be helpful. (read here)

Warmth is especially important the first 14 days of a kitten’s life because they have not yet developed the ability to control their body temperature (thermoregulate).

During the first two weeks, kittens cannot shiver when they are cold. They will rely on your heating pad for warmth. Keep the pad under one side of the box and set it only on its lowest setting. Wrap the pad with sufficient cloth towels so that the inside of the box stays at 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 C) but no higher. With only one side of the box heated, the kitten(s) will be able to crawl away from the heat source if it gets too warm. This is very important because more rescued kittens die from overheating than from chill.

Place the box in a draft free location. Be sure the sides of the box are at least six inches tall so the kitten can not fall out. Make sure that area is safe from your other pets and children. Children are fascinated with kittens and will love them to death. Besides, many of these kittens are a source of ringworm that spreads to children very easily. (Your veterinarian can screed them for ringworm with a black light.)

As the kitten matures, the temperature in the box can be gradually lowered. When the kitten reaches the end of its first month of life it can tolerate room air at 70-75 F.

Bottle Feeding

Always slightly underfeed rather than over feed the kitten. It is always safer to give more frequent, smaller feedings than a few large ones. Over-feeding leads to colic and bloat. Large feedings also greatly increase the chance of aspiration pneumonia.

Since I always have KMR powder in my fridge, I mix my milk formula just before I use it. Even the powder does not keep fresh nearly as long as advertised. A good kitten-nursing bottle holds 2-4 ounces of formula. They generally come without holes punched in the nipple. I use a flame-heated needle to melt two small holes in the cap. The holes should be only big enough so that a few drops of milk drip out when the bottle is pointed down and vigorously shaken. If too many holes are punched in the cap, the kittens will inhale the formula rather than swallow it.

If you are using canned product, dilute the first few feeding 50-50 with Pedialyte™. If you are using the powder, mix it half-strength with boiled water or pedialyte for the first few feeding and then gradually, over the next 24-36 hours, bring it up to full strength. Mix it really well so there are no lumps.

Let it cool until it is slightly above room temperature. Feed kitten while they are resting on their stomachs. Never feed them upright as you would a human infant. Wet the outside of the nipple with milk formula to give it flavor. Then, gently insert the nipple into the kitten’s mouth using a prying motion while you apply pressure to the sides of the bottle to release a drop or two of milk. From then on your kitten should suck on its own. I am sure you will find plenty of videos about it on You-tube as well.

Some experienced kitten rearers add a bit of plain yogurt or Bene-Bac™ by Pet-Ag to the Formula. If you do so, add it after the formula cools. I generally only find it necessary when a litter of kittens is star crossed or stunted or when conditions where they are kept can’t be kept as sanitary – as in animal shelters and group homes. But it is a good idea for any kitten.

We all have a tendency to over feed kittens. As I said, it is much safer to give them a little less than they desire than all they want. Over feeding can lead to pneumonia when milk is inhaled into the lungs rather then swallowed to the stomach and it can cause bloat and diarrhea.

If milk bubbles out of the kittens nose it is flowing too rapidly from the bottle, you are holding the kitten wrong, or it is too weak to suckle normally. Most of the time, it is due to too large a hole(s) in the nipple or over feeding. I microwave a bowl of water and set the bottle in it to heat the formula to 99-100 degrees Fahrenheit before use. Be sure to always check the formula’s temperature by shaking a drop or two onto your wrist. Never put the bottle directly in the microwave to heat.

Some owners find it easier to feed newborn kittens from a one or three milliliter syringe and switch to a bottle when the kitten is two weeks old. (of course, the needle needs to be removed first)

During the first week, feed the kitten every two hours. During the next three weeks, feed them every three hours. When the kittens are four weeks old, they can be fed every six to twelve hours depending on how much solid food they are already eating. No two folks use exactly the same feeding schedule and many are quite certain that their’s is the very best. What is important are the results. If you are fortunate enough to have access to an experienced cat person, follow their advice instead of mine. Look for one – even if you are confident right now. I can’t be there to help you with problems if they occur – but they can.

Boil nursing bottles and syringes between every use. Kittens that did not nurse on the mother for their first 48 hours did not receive the first milk or colostrum. After that time window, they can not absorb it through their intestines even if you give it to them. These kittens are more susceptible to infections and diarrhea, so wash your hands well and beware of sour formula. That is why it is almost always safer to leave the kittens with the mother for at least a few days. If the kittens did not get their mom’s antibodies through colostrum, I often add antibiotic powder to their formula for a week or so.

When I lived in a part of the World where kitten milk replacement was unavailable, I feed a mixture of 1 cup of evaporated cows or goat milk, one tablespoon corn oil, three egg yolks and three drops of pediatric multivitamins.

For reasons that are unclear, evaporated milk seem to cause less diarrhea and bloat than fresh whole cows milk. Kittens have a limited ability to digest the lactose or milk sugar in cow’s and goat milk. You can help with this problem by adding lactase enzyme (Lactaid™) to the formula if it is available in your part of the world. There are more specific instructions on that in an article of mine on raising orphaned wild cats. You can read it here.

How Much Should I Feed?

Newborn kittens during their first week need to consume about 32 cc of formula per day. That is based on an average kitten weighing 120 grams. Because normal kittens range in weight at birth from 85 to 120 grams, the amount of formula they should drink is going to vary.

That amount should be spread out into about ten feedings, spaced about every 2 and-a-half hours round the clock. If the kitten is weak or stressed, it is even more important to give it more frequent feeding throughout the day and night.

During their second week, an average kitten consumes about 55 cc per day of formula. You can already cut back on the number of feedings if the kitten is steadily gaining weight.

By week three, the kitten should be consuming about 80 cc of formula per day; by four weeks 100 cc/day, and by 5 weeks about 125 cc/day. By four weeks , the amount of formula the kitten consumes per feeding should have risen so that you get by with 5-7 feedings per day.

Kittens that are hungry and need feeding will cry continuously, move their heads from side to side and suckle on each other or on objects in the nest box.

Burping The Kitten

After each feeding hold the kitten upright with its tummy against your shoulder and pat it gently until it burps, releasing trapped air. Nursing bottles that do not release enough milk lead to more air being trapped as the kitten nurses. If the kitten should bloat or become colicky add a few drops of infant anti colic drops (simethicone/simeticone, eg Equate Infants’ Gas Relief, Walmart Stores Inc.) to the formula and experiment with a new nipple, another feeding technique or different brand of formula.

Normal Weight Gain

Birth weights of kittens range from 85 to 120 grams. Their weight should double in their first 1 to 2 weeks. Kittens average about ten grams of additional body weight per day. Although this is a good average, they tend to grow in spurts. Seek a veterinarian’s advice if the kitten does not double its weight in 8 to 12 days.

Helping The Kitten Eliminate

Normal kitten stools are yellowish brown with a jam-like consistency. After every feeding, gently massage the anus and urinary orifice with a cotton ball or Kleenex moistened with warm water until they urinate and defecate.

Be very gentle when you do this and don’t worry if no urine or stool is produced after every feeding. By the time the kitten is three weeks old it should be able to get by without your help.

Problems That Can Arise

Kittens that have been abandoned are often chilled, dehydrated and hypoglycemic (low blood sugar). If a kitten is cold and lethargic, giving it Karo syrup is not a good idea. It needs an injection of glucose from your favorite veterinarian.

Normal rectal temperature for a newborn kitten is 92-99 F (33.3-37.2 C). These little kittens can not regulate their body temperature well. That’s why they need the heating pad or hot water bottle you provide. By their second week rectal temperature should be 97-100 F (36.1-37.8 C). By their fourth week normal rectal temperature should be 100-102 F (37.8-38.9 C) the same as adult cats. The first thing to do is to warm them up very slowly and carefully to ninety degrees.

If the kittens are still too weak to nurse they may also need sterile subcutaneous solutions, like Ringers or D5W. This is best done by a veterinarian or veterinary nurse. A newborn kitten can receive approximately three milliliters (cc) of fluid subcutaneous. It can be repeated as soon as the bubble of fluid under its skin has dissipated. I usually use 1/2 ml  U-40 insulin syringes. They are an over-the-counter non-prescription item at many pharmacies. 

Watery yellowish or greenish stools are sometimes caused by feeding too much or too quickly. If they occur, try diluting the formula 50-50 with Pedialyte until the stools return to normal consistency. You can also give the kitten 2-3 drops of kaopectate just prior to each feeding. (for a while, not indefinitely)

Overly hard stools that are clumped and cheese-like are sometimes due to feeding the formula too concentrated. When kittens strain to defecate and pass overly-hard stools, increase the frequency of feeding and dilute the formula. These impacted (bound up) kittens also have a bloated abdomen. You can give them a few drops of mineral oil or cat hairball paste to help them evacuate the stool and I like to gently massage their tummies. If they still remain bound up they may need a warm water enema. This is best done at a veterinary hospital. Never use phosphate enemas – such as Fleet, on a cat.

Dehydration is most common in newly acquired kittens that have not had access to milk for 24-48 hours. Dehydrated kittens are very weak and inactive. Their skin does not spring back when pinched but instead has a clay-like consistency. These kittens are best treated with sterile sugar-saline containing fluids injected under their skin.

It is a good idea to worm your kitten with pyrantel pamoate when it is six weeks of age (or earlier if your veterinarian suspects intestinal parasites) . You can purchase this worming medicine at all Walmart Stores. It is labeled for dogs but works equally well in cats for removing roundworms and hookworms. It will not help with coccidiosis, a common cause of diarrhea in weakened kittens. The only treatment for coccidiosis are certain antibiotics and generous amounts of oral fluids. A soothing salve on their inflamed rear ends will help make them feel better. These kittens need your veterinarian’s care.

If kittens are kept isolated from other cats, their first vaccinations can be given at 12 weeks of age. If other unvaccinated cats come in contact with the kitten the first vaccine should be administered earlier.

If the kitten did not receive its mothers milk during its first 48 hours of life, it is much more susceptible to all infections and needs to be carefully isolated from other cats and kittens until it does receive its vaccinations. Remember, vaccinations take a week or before they become effective.

The vaccine should immunize against feline panleukopenia (cat distemper), feline rhinotracheitis (herpes 1) and feline calicivirus. At 12 weeks it should receive a rabies vaccination and at 12 and 18 weeks the kitten should also be vaccinated against feline leukemia. Do not use cheap or improperly stored vaccines. The best vaccines are made by Zoetis, Boehringer Ingelheim/Merial, or Merck. After its first year-end boosters, it does not need additional vaccinations for many years – despite what is written on the box. How you deal with local rabies vaccination ordinances is something you must decide for yourself. Read about all cat vaccinations here.

When you take your kittens in to your veterinarian for the first time, the vet may run a feline leukemia – feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) test. Do not panic if either are positive. Often these are antibodies that were in the momma cat that are being detecting in the kitten – particularly in the case of FIV. If the kitten appears healthy and none of your other pets will be exposed to it, have the kitten re-tested in 2 months to see if its FIV/FeLV antibody titer is dropping. However if the kitten is visibly ill, it probably does have the disease and will not thrive.

Tube Feeding

I mentioned a bit about tube feeding earlier. I tend to do a lot of tube feeding. That is because I take in orphaned animals and my assistants and I have so many to care for that we cannot spend all our time patiently coaxing one weak infant to nurse. Hopefully, you will not be in that situation. Never feed by tube when you have the ability to feed an infant patiently and frequently by mouth. However, kittens that are too weak to nurse need to be tube fed if one is to save them. It is difficult to explain this process in writing. As I said, the best way to learn how to tube feed correctly is to have someone experienced in the technique do it with you the first time.

To tube feed, I fill a 1 or 3 cc (cc = ml) syringe with heated formula being careful that no air bubbles are present. Then I attach an eighteen-gauge infusion (butterfly) set to the syringe. I cut off the needle and fill the remaining tubing with milk. I lay the tube along side the kitten and make a mark with an indelible pen on the tube when the tip is alongside the kittens last rib. If the kitten is at all dehydrated, I lubricate the tube with KY jelly.

Then I gently open the kitten’s mouth and begin to thread the tubing over the kitten’s tongue very slowly. This gives the kitten time to swallow the tubing rather than have it go into the windpipe.

If you are accidentally in the windpipe the kitten will squirm and fuss. When I think the tube is correctly placed, with my thumb and index finger, I carefully palpate the kitten’s neck to feel two tube-like structures. One, in the center of the neck will be the windpipe (trachea). The other will be the catheter tube. If I only feel one structure I remove the tube and reinsert it again until I am certain I am in the esophagus and not in the trachea. Then I slowly inject the contents of the syringe. When tube feeding, feed no more than 75% of what the kitten would have taken orally so that it does not regurgitate the formula.

Weaning – You Are Almost There!

Begin to offer your kitten sold foods when it is three and a half weeks old. By four and a half weeks, the kitten should be weaned. Purchase some cans of gourmet cat food in chicken and beef flavors and smear a bit on the cat’s pallet. It will soon get the idea.

I do not feed young cats fish-flavored foods. I believe it leads to latter fussy eating and a reluctance to eat anything else. Besides, there seems to be a connection between fish flavors and later thyroid problems. (read here) Another problem is that the fish that ends up in canned and dry cat food tends to be rancid fish that lay too long on the dock. The ones not fit for human consumption. I reserve human-grade tuna and salmon juice for critically ill cats that desperately need nutrition and will eat nothing else.

This is the same time you should begin to offer the kitten formula in a bowl. The earlier a kitten eats on its own the better. If you use strained meat baby foods be sure they contain no onion powder. I do not suggest you get your kitten hooked on human baby foods because they are way too low in calcium and vitamins. Kittens love them, but it can cause them to develop bowed legs and soft teeth. If you give those human baby foods, be sure there is another adequate source of calcium and vitamin D3 in their diet. Too much vitamin D must also be avoided. 

Although many kittens will eat solid foods as early as four weeks of age, some make take an additional two to three weeks before they express interest in solid food. Slowly substitute moistened kitten chow or canned cat food. As soon as kitten chow is offered keep a dish of water available at all times for the kitten. By the time the kitten is 10 weeks old it should be receiving some dry kitten chow or canned cat food. As a lifetime diet, there are pros and cons to dry versus wet commercial diets or a home-prepared diet. A cat’s food preferences forms very early in its life – so its not too soon to think about that. The pros of a dry kibble diet are convenience and also regard the cat’s teeth and gums. (read here) The cons regard a dry diet are its possible effects on the kitten’s long term kidney and urinary tract health. (read here

Best Wishes and good luck, RSH

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