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How to Raise Orphaned Kittens

Mom's gone, and you're taking care of her orphaned kittens. Here's what to do.

By Willow Polson | Posted: Fri Apr 27 00:00:00 PDT 2001

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rescued kittenAn unfamiliar noise caught my attention when I was cleaning out the attic recently. My husband heard it, too, and we looked at each other and asked, "Where's that coming from? I know I heard something."

We found the source of the little squeaks. It seems a feral cat that was seen hanging around our neighbor's yard had given birth in the middle of my craft supplies. The kittens looked to be about 3 days old, so we left them there for the mother to come back to. She never did. The next day the kittens were still there, weaker than before. We knew we had to do something for the helpless creatures or they would starve to death.

Do you know what you would do if the litter was in your attic? Anywhere feral cats abound, so do feral kittens. A cat ready to give birth will look for the most comfortable, quiet place available to have her litter, and that sometimes means on top of your softest storage items.

If you hear those little squeaks and mews, you need to act fast if the mother is unable to care for her little ones. You can take them to the animal shelter or a humane organization, but, otherwise, their lives are in your hands.

First Things First
Once you've decided to meet the challenge (and rewards) of raising orphaned kittens, keep them quarantined and take them to your veterinarian for an initial exam as soon as possible, especially if you have other cats in the house.

"Get the little newcomers checked for diseases, parasites and overall health," said James Richards, DVM, director of the Cornell Feline Health Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "They should be vaccinated at the first opportunity and tested for contagious diseases. Fleas can cause anemia if they're really bad on a small kitten, so be aware of that, too."

Back at home, prepare an emergency kit for your orphaned kittens. Gather a large cardboard box (for holding the kittens), an adjustable heating pad, some old towels, powdered or liquid kitten formula, as many little feeding bottles as there are people to hold them and plenty of toilet paper.

Ideally, choose a heating pad with at least three heat settings low, medium and high. If the kittens are less than a week old (eyes open at about 10 days), set the pad on high and cover it with a folded towel to prevent them from being exposed to too much direct heat. A kitten that urinates directly onto a hot pad could be scorched by the heated liquid. Turn the setting to medium or low for kittens older than 1 week. Be sure to check often to see if they're huddled on the pad or avoiding it that's your temperature gauge. The pad should have a removable, washable cover because you'll need to wash it often. Make sure that the kittens never have direct contact with a heating pad or hot water bottle; this could burn or even kill them if the pad or bottle is too hot.

Keep the kittens' box in a draft-free area and drape a towel over the top, but leave a slot open for fresh air. The darkness helps them get to sleep after eating and keeps their little bedroom warm while they snooze. If you have a stuffed animal made from natural cotton and free of any loose parts that could injure a kitten, put it in the box for the litter to cuddle with as a surrogate "mom."

Ideally, kittens should have had at least one meal from their mother's milk because the colostrum in her milk contains vital antibodies they need to fight diseases. Colostrum can only be absorbed during the first 24 hours, meaning that a kitten's first meal is vital in a very short time period. Once the mama cat is gone, however, you'll need to buy kitten formula. Several varieties are available on the market, either in liquid or powdered form. The liquids are basically the same as the powders, but you're paying for the convenience of having it premixed. Ask your veterinarian to recommend a formula.

In an emergency, you can use Similac or another human baby formula, or even warmed cow's milk, but both may give kittens diarrhea and should be given for the shortest amount of time possible. Unflavored Pedialyte, available in drug stores, helps fight dehydration in emergency cases, and a little corn syrup rubbed on the gums can elevate the blood sugar of very weak kittens to help them make it to the veterinarian.

You'll also need feeding bottles, which are typically available where kitten formulas are sold (well-stocked feed stores or your veterinarian). They have tiny rubber nipples with screw-on caps. You'll need to make holes in the nipples to let the formula out, so heat a large needle (holding it in pliers) and make a hole in the center of the nipple. Test it by filling the bottle with water and giving a little squeeze. The liquid should drip out very quickly, not squirt out or only drip. If in doubt, make the hole a little larger rather than too small, as it will frustrate the kitten if it can't get the volume of food it wants.

The toilet paper in your kit is for what you probably already suspect. The mother cat licks her kittens to stimulate passage of urine and stool, and as the surrogate "mom," you must take over this task. Cradling the kitten in your hand with its belly exposed, use a small wad of tissue to gently "tickle" the kittens' back ends, catching any urine or feces produced. Keep going until they're done. Kittens that are very small probably won't produce much feces until just before their eyes open. If they don't begin producing a little every three to four days, bring them to your veterinarian to make sure there's no intestinal blockage.

What If They Won't Eat?
If your kittens continually refuse the bottle, getting them to eat may be as simple as pushing the nipple farther into their mouths. Kittens feed with the nipple deeper than you might think, so hold it in while giving the bottle a very gentle squeeze to give them a kick-start. Once they get used to the idea of the rubber nipple, they should go for it on their own, and you should only serve as a bottle holder while they nurse.

In an extreme case in which a kitten refuses to eat, consult with your veterinarian about using a stomach tube, a technical procedure that, if used improperly, can cause a kitten to die from aspiration.

Elizabeth Newell, a volunteer with the nonprofit rescue agency Town Cats in Morgan Hill, Calif., has done her share of tube feeding.

"Several years ago, a man brought me two little kittens that had been dumped in his driveway," Newell said. "They were only a few days old, and after four days one of them started to fail. That's when I learned how to tube feed. Everyone said she'd die, that there was no hope for her, but little Taun Taun made it and went to a good home. She's my favorite of all time."

When the kittens start nursing from the bottle, keep a careful eye on their weight and how much they're eating. A 3-day-old kitten should weigh about 2 ounces and eat about a tablespoon of formula at a sitting. Feed the kittens four times a day (or every two to four hours) for the first week, then three times a day for the next three weeks, then twice a day when they're weaned at four weeks.

Bottle feeding a kitten requires a special, patient technique. Begin by draping a towel over your lap. Hold the kitten in one hand so it's "standing" upright on it's hind legs and plug in the bottle with your other hand. Once the kitten is going on the bottle, let it relax on its stomach in your lap or empty hand until done. If the kitten starts to slow down when only half of the formula is gone, try giving the bottle a gentle little half twist, which will disengage the kitten's tongue to let air into the bottle, but not make it spit out the nipple.  

Out of the Danger Zone
When the little darlings are about 3 weeks old, introduce a small litterbox made from a shoebox lid or other shallow, disposable container. If you can "tickle" them right over the box and leave a little bit of urine or feces in the litter, it will encourage them to get the idea. The burying instinct is, fortunately, a real instinct, so you don't have to teach them much here.

The kittens' demand for formula will increase as they and their stomachs grow and at about 3 weeks you should add some baby food to the kitten formula. Use the finest ground meats and stir in with the formula until it's completely mixed. You'll have to enlarge the nipple holes to accommodate the change.

Weaning kittens isn't difficult. Begin by spreading a mixture of their favorite baby food and a little formula in a pie tin and let them go at it. Afterward, you'll need to bathe them with a very warm, wet washcloth and put them on their heated blanket to dry. Soon they'll get the idea and you can begin to add a little mashed canned kitten food to the mix. Don't be too hasty with this step as too much new solid food may cause constipation.

This is also the "sensitive period for socialization," Dr. Richards said. "Socializing little ones is important, getting them used to both humans and other cats. The sensitive period is around 2 to 7 weeks of age where positive human contact, especially with different individuals, will make them friendly to everybody [later in life]."

Now that they're on their way to eating solid food and are socialized, you can finally relax, knowing that they'll make it just fine. Congratulations! You have saved a few little lives and ensured a litter of very human-friendly kittens.

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How to Raise Orphaned Kittens

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Reader Comments

Helen    East Greenwich, RI

5/20/2013 7:12:56 PM

Thanks for the helpful information!
Helen
Boomers, Markets & Money

Galadriel    Lothlorien, ME

4/13/2013 11:19:22 PM

Great advice.

momo    anaheim, CA

2/26/2011 11:04:33 PM

Great information.

Charlotte    Struthers, OH

10/10/2010 3:33:02 PM

should kittens for,in the house only, be declawed or not?

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