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The First Thing to Do if You Find an Orphaned Kitten
By Dr. Becker
If you're a cat lover or an animal caregiver, you may
one day find yourself faced with the formidable task of
caring for a teeny, tiny, orphaned kitten. Kittens get
left behind for a variety of reasons often the
mother has died, is sick, or has rejected or abandoned
her litter. In addition, feral kittens are sometimes taken
from the mother for taming, because once they reach about
8 weeks of age in the wild, they are generally considered
unsuitable as pets.
Ideally, kittens should be with their mother until they
are at least 6 weeks old, because the longer they are
fed mom's milk, the healthier their start in life. Not
only is the mother cat's milk the ideal nutrition for
her kittens, it also provides important antibodies that
help protect the babies from disease until their own immune
systems are able to.
with all that said, feral cat experts recommend taking
feral kittens from the mother at 4 weeks to begin taming
them. The older they get, the more difficult it becomes
to convince them of the advantages of living as indoor
It's important to realize that if you have a very young
orphaned or feral kitten, she isn't receiving passive
immunity from her mother, making her vulnerable to disease.
For that reason and others, the first thing you should
do is try to find a nursing mother cat by calling around
to local veterinarians, animal shelters, cat rescues,
and any "cat people" you know. Nursing mother
cats will often feed kittens that aren't their own, and
if you find one, it can be the ideal solution for the
kitten, and for you.
I say this because raising an orphaned kitten to weaning
age takes a great deal of energy and weeks of non-stop
care just to give the little one a good chance at survival.
And the younger the kitten, the more fragile it is. Sadly,
very young motherless kitties often don't make it no matter
how good the care. If possible, raising two orphaned kittens
together is better than one, so if you find someone else
with a singleton, putting them together is a wise idea.
Assuming you've not been able to find a nursing mother
cat willing to take on another mouth to feed, the rest
of this article will outline what is required to hand-raise
an orphaned kitten. And while the responsibility may seem
overwhelming (especially if you're dealing with a litter
vs. a kitten), it can also be tremendously rewarding.
Not to mention fun!
First Things First: Providing Warmth, a Safe "Nest,"
and Veterinary Care
your kitten feels cold, he needs to be warmed up quickly.
Most of a tiny kitten's energy is spent growing and meowing
for food, so there's not much left for heat generation.
Set a heating pad to low and wrap it in 2 towels or 1
towel folded over, or use a hot water bottle warmed to
about 100 degrees and wrapped in a towel. Place it in
half of his "nest area," which is typically
a box or cat carrier. If you use a water bottle it must
be changed frequently enough that the temperature does
not drop. During the first week of life, your kitten should
be kept in a room with a temperature between 88oF and
92oF. Weeks 2 and 3, room temperature should be no lower
than 80oF. At 5 weeks, kittens can tolerate a lower room
It's important not to feed the kitty till he's warm (which
is critical for digestion to occur), but you can offer
him homeopathic Bioplasma (which rapidly assists in rehydration)
dissolved in a little warm, pure water.
A kitten under 3 weeks of age can't control his own body
temperature, so he should be kept on the heating pad (again,
set on low and wrapped in towels) at all times. Make sure
there's room for him to lie off of the heating pad in
his nest if it gets too warm. The heating pad will be
necessary until the kitten is 4 to 5 weeks old. Alternatives
to a heating pad or hot water bottle can be a heat lamp,
incubator, warm water pad, electrical heating pad, or
a simple 25-watt light bulb suspended over one end of
the nest (this isn't my favorite option because kittens
need normal day and light cycles, like all mammals). But
no matter what heat source you use, it's extremely important
not to overheat or burn the kitten with intense, direct
heat. Keep a thermometer in the kitten's nest area to
monitor the temperature.
Your kitten's nest should be kept in a warm, quiet area
of the house, and completely removed from other animals.
Add a small towel or soft cloth to the nest, and keep
it covered with a towel or blanket. You'll need to change
the bedding at least once daily -- very young kittens
will soil their nest. Of course, as kitty gets older,
he'll need more room to run, play, and investigate.
I recommend taking your kitten to a holistic or integrative
veterinarian immediately for a wellness checkup. It's
a good idea to bring a stool sample along so your vet
can test it for worms and parasites.
Very young kittens are at high risk for dehydration,
and it can happen quickly, so your vet may recommend an
injection of subcutaneous (sub-q) fluids to hydrate your
little guy. He or she might also suggest that you learn
to give sub-q fluids at home so that you can treat right
away if your kitten becomes dehydrated. You can check
to make sure he is properly hydrated by pulling up the
skin at the scruff of his neck. If it bounces back nicely,
hydration is good. If it doesn't bounce back, or goes
back down slowly, she needs at least one dose of sub-q
Feeding an Orphaned Kitten
Cow's milk is not a good choice for kittens. Not only
is it non-nutritious for them, it also causes diarrhea,
which is extremely dangerous for young kittens. What you
want is either a commercial kitten formula available at
pet stores or online (KMR is a popular kitten milk replacer),
or a homemade milk formula recipe. In an emergency, you
can mix 3 ounces of condensed milk, 3 ounces of water,
4 ounces of plain yogurt (not low fat), and 3-4 egg yolks
(no whites). I have also used raw, unpasteurized goat's
milk in a pinch with good success.
You'll also need a pet nursing kit that includes a bottle,
several nipples, and a cleaning brush.
Whether you use a commercial or homemade formula, you
should only make enough for one day's feeding and store
it in the refrigerator. Wash and dry the bottles and nipples
thoroughly between feedings. Warm the kitten milk replacer
in a pan of water to 98ºF to 100ºF before feeding,
and mix well to decrease the risk of hot spots of formula.
Wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap before
and after each feeding. If you have other pets in the
home, you might also want to wear a designated t-shirt,
long-sleeved shirt, or apron just for feedings to reduce
the risk of cross-contamination to and from other animals
in the house (you don't know if the baby is FeLV or FIV
positive at this point).
Your kitten should be fed on her stomach on a towel or
other soft fabric she can knead as she would her mother
while nursing. Open kitty's mouth gently with your fingertip
and slip the nipple into her mouth. It's extremely important
to prevent air from getting in her stomach, so hold the
bottle at a 45-degree angle at all times, and pull on
it ever so slightly to encourage the kitten to suck.
If she aspirates formula into her lungs and begins coughing
or choking, immediately hold her upside down (gently and
while supporting her body) until the choking subsides.
If you discover your kitten isn't strong enough to suckle,
you should seek veterinary assistance immediately.
Read formula package instructions for recommended feeding
amounts and feedings per day. A kitten needs approximately
8 cc's of formula per ounce of body weight per day. The
number of daily feedings depends on the age of the kitty.
When your kitten is full, she'll often have bubbles around
her mouth and a larger belly. After each feeding, hold
kitty upright against your shoulder and pat her very softly
on the back to burp her. I have found many kittens do
better with very light massage.
Take care not to overfeed, as this can cause diarrhea
and other problems.
Weigh your kitten daily to calculate the amount of formula
she will need you can use a kitchen or small postal
scale. As a general rule, kittens under one week should
be fed every 2 to 3 hours; at two weeks, they can be fed
every 4 to 6 hours; after three weeks, of age and until
they are weaned, they should be fed every 6 to 8 hours.
Divide their required daily intake by the number of required
daily feedings to determine how much they should eat at
Your kitty should gain about ½ ounce every day
or 4 ounces a week. Weigh her at the same time every day.
Lack of gain or weight loss that doesn't correct itself
in 24 hours requires a visit to the vet.
Stimulation (Also Known as Helping Kitty Pee and Poop),
Cleanup, and When to Introduce the Litter Box
Mother cats know to lick their kitten's abdomen and perineal
area to stimulate the bowels and bladder. They also provide
What you'll need to do to mimic this behavior is gently
rub kitty's lower abdomen, genital area, and rear end
with a cotton ball or soft pad moistened with warm water.
This will stimulate peeing and pooping, and you can use
it to help clean him up as well. Rub only long enough
to stimulate elimination, and make sure to clean him thoroughly.
Watch for any skin irritation or chafing, which means
you're rubbing too hard or too long, or not cleaning him
As a general rule, your kitten will urinate with each
stimulation, and poop at least once a day. Urine should
be a pale yellow color or clear dark yellow or
orange means he's not getting enough to eat. In this case,
don't feed more at each meal, but feed him more often.
Poop should be pale to dark brown and partially formed.
Green stool indicates an infection, and hard stool means
he's not getting enough formula. Again feed more
often, not more at each feeding. Too much food can cause
bloating, gas, regurgitation, and even aspiration into
After feedings, stimulation, and cleanup is a good time
to wash kitty's fur (usually needed around the mouth)
with a second clean, soft, lightly damp cloth. Use short
strokes in a manner similar to how a mother cat licks
her babies. This will keep your kitten's coat clean while
teaching him how to do it for himself, and will also increase
his feelings of well-being.
Your kitten should be eliminating on his own by about
3 weeks of age. When he reaches about 4 weeks, you can
introduce a litter box. After each meal, put kitty in
the box and see what happens. It may take a few tries,
but he should catch on quickly.
You can begin weaning your kitten at about 4 to 5 weeks
of age, but keep in mind that some little ones require
a bit more time to get used to eating solid food. Signs
that your kitty is ready for weaning include biting the
bottle nipple, and the ability to lick formula from your
finger. The next step is to get kitty to take formula
from a spoon (usually rested on a table and the kitten
standing on a solid surface) and then from a flat dish.
Once your kitten is lapping formula from a flat dish,
you can mix her kitten formula with baby food on a spoon
or dish. Use an organic, all-natural meat flavored baby
food that does NOT contain onion in any form, or a commercially
available raw food diet approved for kittens. Once kitty
is doing well with her formula-baby food mix, you can
graduate to a mixture of formula and a commercial or homemade,
nutritionally balanced, raw diet or a high-quality, human
grade canned kitten food. At this point, you can start
gradually reducing the amount of formula until she's eating
just solid food.
This should be a gradual process to help prevent temporary
weight loss and digestive upset, which are relatively
common symptoms in kittens during weaning. It's important
to keep bottle-feeding your little one while weaning to
insure she gets enough to eat. Continue to weigh the baby
once daily to make sure the weaning process is not causing
Love, Attention, and Socialization
kitten needs physical closeness as sure as he needs food
and warmth. Pet him often and let him snuggle on you or
next to you. Provide as much nurturing as you can to help
Developing a close physical bond with your kitten almost
assures he'll be a cuddly adult cat. Experts believe that
hand-raised kittens have a much closer bond to their humans
and tend to be loyal and affectionate throughout their
lives, but you will also hear many stories of somewhat
nutty "bottle babies," or singletons that aren't
quite socially normal because they had no exposure to
other cats early on in their lives. If possible, allowing
an orphaned kitten exposure and play time with other kittens
or gentle adult cats will help him form healthy kitten
behaviors necessary for balanced behavior as an adult.
Playtime is also important and a bonding activity, and
will help your kitten develop his motor skills.
It is important for kitty to have interaction with other
members of the household at 3-6 weeks of age. He still
should be handled with care, but you should start to introduce
him to new noises, grooming (brushing and combing, nail
clipping), and unfamiliar people. Early socialization
will help your kitten build confidence and prevent future
Once kitty is about 6 weeks old and in excellent health,
he can be introduced to other healthy cats and dogs.
NOTE: This article is for information only. See your
veterinarian for medical advice.
Bottle Kitten Photo: By 1970 Lincoln Continental [CC BY
2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via
Wikimedia Commons, Alvesgaspar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0
Wikimedia Commons and By Seraphim?Whipp 18:39, 18 July
2008 (UTC) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia
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