Caring for Neonatal Kittens

Overview

Kittens aged 0-4 weeks are extremely fragile – if possible, it is best to keep them with mum or find a nursing queen to accept some new babies. A mother’s milk is nutritious and filled with colostrum, which protects kittens against sickness – something which is difficult to replace!

If you can’t find a mother, here are some top tips on caring for neonates.

Hygiene

Orphaned kittens require you to pay strict attention to their hygiene for optimal health and development. Follow these best practices for proper kitten hygiene:

  • Bottles and nipples should be cleaned and then boiled in water to sterilize them between uses.
  • Use formula within 24 hours and always keep it refrigerated.
  • Discard formula after 1 hour if left at room temperature.
  • Keep kittens clean by gently washing them with a warm damp cloth, especially around their mouth after feeding time.
  • Wash hands thoroughly before and after handling.
  • Keep other household pets away to prevent germs passing between them.
  • Limit the amount of people in contact with the kittens to lower the risk of passing germs.
  • If you are caring for more than one litter, keep them separate and wash hands thoroughly in between handling.

Diet

Don’t:

  • Feed cow’s milk. Cats are lactose intolerant – this can cause diarrhoea, which can be deadly for young kittens. Goat’s milk is also not recommended as it is far too low in protein and fat.
  • Feed a kitten whilst she is lying on her back (like a human baby would eat) as this can cause the kitten to inhale fluid into the lungs. Kittens should be fed in a natural, belly down position.

Do:

  • Feed specialized kitten milk replacer, or “KMR”, formula.
  • Provide supplemental colostrum to kittens separated from mum at birth (without receiving milk). This will protect the kittens against germs – without it there is a very high risk of death as their immune system is not developed. You can find colostrum sachets in pharmacies.

Weight

Every neonatal kitten caregiver should have a scale. Kittens should be weighed 1-2 times a day at least, to ensure that they are gaining weight. A healthy kitten should be gaining weight every day (except when she is transitioning to solid food which may cause her to plateau for a bit), and weight loss can be one of the first indicators that something is wrong. Even the loss of 30g is substantial for a 300g kitten.

Using the bathroom

Neonatal kittens can’t pee or poop on their own. Usually, the mother would lick their genital area after each feeding – you can simulate this by using a warm damp cloth or wet wipe, gently rubbing until they have finished peeing.

At 4 weeks old you can introduce a shallow litter box. Leave a soiled tissue there so they can smell and learn that is where to pee and poo!

Heat

Kittens under 4 weeks of age cannot regulate their temperature, and therefore rely completely on an external heat source to keep their body warm. Usually, kittens rely on their mothers for bodily warmth, but when orphaned, they must always have a heat source to keep them warm. You should use a heating pad or hot water bottle with soft blankets or towels layered on top to protect the kitten from burns.

If you find a cold kitten, they should be completely warmed up before feeding. Check the heat source at each feeding time to ensure it is still warm.

Fading kitten syndrome

Unfortunately, neonatal kittens are extremely fragile, and no matter what you do they simply just fade. It is important to know that you did a good job regardless, and although it’s sad, you gave them the best chance at life.

Some signs to look out for:

  • The kitten stops growing/loses weight
  • They stop eating/nursing
  • Can’t stay upright
  • Cry continuously

If kitten becomes lethargic / gasping for air:

  • Wrap kitten in heat source (warm water bottle with blanket)
  • Make a sugar water mixture & carefully force feed by syringing slowly into the mouth
  • Separate from other kittens
  • Call your local vet

Weaning – 4 weeks

If you have reached this stage – CONGRATULATIONS CAT MAMA! The hard part is over, and you can enjoy watching your babies reach their milestones.

To begin weaning a kitten, mix the kitten food with bottle formula so they recognise the taste. Smear the mixture around their mouth with your finger and let them lick it off. Once they get used to the taste, they’ll seek it out elsewhere, and you can then introduce them to lapping from a bowl.

Monitor them so they don’t lap too fast, and never push their face into the bowl, which could cause them to inhale the mixture and develop pneumonia.

You should also closely monitor food intake at this stage – kittens will “suck” and these “eating sounds” can often lead to carers mistakenly thinking they have eaten a lot, when in fact nothing has been consumed. It is therefore a good idea to have separate bowls for kittens, so you can clearly see who has eaten, and who has not.

A general schedule for kitten weaning might be:

Weeks 4-5: Give wet kitten food, mixed with formula to form a slush. Supplement with formula if the kitten is not taking to the new food, to make sure they get enough calories.

Weeks 5-6: The weaning kittens should start to nibble on the dry food, slightly moistened with water. You may also continue with wet kitten food.

Weeks 6-7: By now, the kitten weaning process is complete, and they should be eating all solid food by week seven.

Socialisation

The primary socialization window for kittens occurs from 2-7 weeks of age. Kittens that are actively socialised are less fearful in unfamiliar situations and adapt better to changes in their environment.

Those without adequate socialisation frequently develop behaviour problems such as play aggression, inappropriate play behaviour and fear aggression.

Kittens who are handled gently in their first 7 weeks are more likely to develop larger brains, are more exploratory, playful, and better learners.

Next, check out our Caring for Kittens Guide.

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