an orphaned kitten can be a rewarding experience. However,
kittens are very fragile, and raising them can be difficult,
time consuming, and not always successful.
kittens need to be hand reared?
kittens have their environmental and nutritional requirements
met by their mother. However, a number of different situations
may lead to kittens requiring extra care, eg, death of the
queen (female cat), rejection of the kittens by the queen,
ill health in the queen, or the production of too large a
litter for the queen to care for.
the queen is only temporarily ill, the kittens may only need
to be hand fed for a few days, while in other situations the
kittens may need to be fed by hand until they are weaned.
In the case of a very large litter, where the kittens are
gaining some milk from their mother, they will only need supplemental
any kittens not be hand reared?
some circumstances the breeder may be faced with a decision
to have kittens euthanased at birth. Apart from agonising
decisions over sheer numbers, or where the queen is unwell
or unwilling to look after the kittens, there are some cases
where a kitten needs to be euthanased to prevent a crippled
existence. No list can be exhaustive, but as soon as possible
a check should be made with the following defects in mind:-
hydrocephalus as shown by enlargement of the skull.
or generalised oedema (water-logging of the tissues).
palate. If severe this will lead to the inability to suck
and dribbling of milk down the nose.
anus. This may be obvious with the entire absence of an
exit for the bowel, or occult (when the exit leads into
a blind sac within the body). An affected kitten may live
some weeks but will fail to thrive and will never be seen
to pass a motion. In the occult case, the true condition
can only be found on close examination by a veterinary
or incomplete development of the body wall. A small ringed
umbilical hernia is a slight defect, but some kittens
have virtually no abdominal musculature and should not
bifida or incomplete development of the back.
deformity or absence of limbs.
serious inherited abnormalities are not obvious at birth,
and abnormalities of sight and hearing fall into this category.
Suspected abnormalities of joints and limbs should be viewed
with caution unless utterly self-evident, such as severe shortening
of a limb. Joints at birth are very incomplete structures
and most apparent double-jointedness or rotation of limbs
right themselves by the time the kitten is really mobile.
most difficult decision usually concerns the kitten persistently
rejected by its mother, despite its apparent normality to
the human eye. The choice in this case lies between hand rearing,
fostering or euthanasia. The decision can only be made by
the breeder after full consideration of the circumstances.
An additional consideration is that the rejected kitten may
well be a defective kitten (mother may know best) in which
case hand rearing may not be successful.
hand reared kittens develop normally?
kitten reared in total isolation from other cats is at risk
of developing psychological abnormalities, including nervousness,
aggression and a reduced ability to cope with strange surroundings,
people or animals. Kittens hand reared in the presence of
other cats are less likely to be affected, since they can
develop by watching the other cats. Because completely hand-reared
animals are at a behavioural disadvantage they should not
be used for breeding. It may also be more difficult to find
them suitable homes.
are the basic considerations when hand rearing kittens?
are several basic functions to be addressed when hand rearing
kittens. These include the provision of a suitable clean,
warm environment, a suitable feeding regimen, attention to
urination and defecation (emptying of the bowels), and attention
to general health. The major problems encountered when trying
to hand rear kittens are chilling, dehydration and starvation
(resulting in hypoglycaemia - low blood sugar levels).
These three conditions are interrelated and close observation
is necessary if they are to be noticed, and if occurring,
for prompt action to be taken in time. Kittens are very fragile,
hence they can become ill and die very quickly.
dedication and commitment is required by the carer at all
kittens need up to 10 feeds in each 24 hour period.
life-style will need to be flexible. Kittens like babies
need to be with you at all times, wherever you may be.
should not exceed the allotted interval between feeding
when hungry, will move about in search of milk. If left
they will soon get tired and fall asleep again. This is
undesirable and certainly not to be recommended. It is important
they are fed on time.
should I keep the kittens?
the kittens are being fed by their mother then they should
be kept with her. If no mother is around then for the first
three weeks of life it is useful to use a small cat-carrying
basket with lots of cosy Vetbed plus a soft toy to snuggle
up to. As they grow and become mobile, use a kitten pen or
convert a baby's travel cot/play-pen. Use a velcro safety
net to stop young kittens climbing and falling out.
should I keep the kittens warm?
is a primary essential for the new-born. A kitten cannot react
to cold by shivering and cannot control its own body temperature.
In nature, warmth is obtained by direct body contact with
the mother and conserved by the enclosed kittening bed. A
new-born wet kitten loses heat very rapidly, hence it is important
that they are dried quickly. Kittens can be kept warm by lying
them in contact with a warm, well-covered hot water bottle,
an electric vinyl heat pad or a microwave heat pad. Heat can
be conserved by covering them with a blanket. Great care must
be taken not to inflict contact burns by having the bottle
alternatives are veterinary heating pads, and infra-red lamps.
The disadvantages of the lamps are that many cats dislike
the open bed required for their use, and they may overheat
rectal temperature of new-born kittens ranges from 95-99 °F (35-37.2 °C) in the first week, to 97-100 °F (36.1-37.7
°C) in the second and third weeks, and reaches normal adult
levels of 100-102 °F (37.7-38.9 °C) by the fourth week.
If the rectal temperature drops below 94 °F the kitten is
likely to die. It is important to warm up kittens slowly,
since too rapid warming can be fatal.
temperature in the kitten box (with no queen) should initially
be maintained at 85-90 °F (29.4-32.2 °C), but the box should
be large enough for the kittens to move away from the heat
if they become too hot. If the litter is large, the temperature
can be reduced since by huddling together the kittens generate
extra heat. The temperature can be gradually reduced to 80
°F (26.7 °C) by 7-10 days and to 72 °F (22.2 °C) by the
end of the first month.
to maintain room ambient temperature of 75 °F. Kittens' bodies
should be relaxed whilst asleep and feel pleasantly warm to
the human touch. You should notice gentle body jerks as they
rest. Keep control by using a maximum/minimum thermometer
in the kitten(s) nest. Remember adjustments must be constantly
considered throughout the day as nest temperature is directly affected by the room's ambient temperature.
humidity affect the kittens?
a low environmental humidity is combined with a lack of regular
liquid intake the kittens are at risk of dehydration. An environmental
humidity of 55-65 % will prevent the kittens' skin from drying
out. Signs of dehydration include loss of skin elasticity
and sticky mucous membranes (gums).
makes a good nest for the kittens?
easiest way to provide a clean, safe and warm nest is to take
a cardboard box, line it with Vetbed, use either hot water
bottles or a heating pad for warmth, and placing it away from
draughts. Vetbed can be easily cleaned, is warm and comfortable.
If this is not available terry nappies or old towels can be
used. Some people use plastic plant propagators as incubators;
however, care should be taken to ensure the temperature within
them is adequate.
have heard that kittens cannot urinate or pass motions without
assistance, is this true?
is necessary to stimulate kittens of less than two weeks old
to urinate and defecate. The voiding reflex is normally initiated
by the queen licking the kitten's ano-genital region (the area under the tail). Where
the queen is not available, urination and defecation must
be maintained by the carer for approximately four weeks or
until the kitten is independent. It is quite normal for a
distressed cry to be heard prior to defecation; on evacuation
the cry should cease. It may be useful to use fragrance-free
wet wipes for new-born babies and soft tissue. Stimulate the
ano-genital area gently both pre- and post-feeding, as they
feed better with empty bladder/bowels.
three weeks of age the reflex should begin to be triggered
while the kitten is placed on the litter tray. Leaving a small
amount of soiled litter within the tray will serve as a reminder
to the kittens of where to perform.
signs might indicate that the kittens are unwell?
kittens should eat or sleep for 90% of the time for the first
2 weeks of their lives. If they cry excessively, or fail to
suck, they are usually ill or receiving insufficient milk.
Since kittens can die very quickly, they (and their mother,
if still present) should be examined by a veterinary surgeon
as soon as possible to ensure nothing serious is going wrong.
should I be feeding?
not use cow/goats milk as protein and fat levels are too low.
Only use a replacement queen's milk formula, eg, Cimicat
(PetLife) or similar, available from veterinary surgeries or pet shops. Useful to have in hand, for kittens which have not received
any natural colostrum within the first eight hours of life,
is Kitten Life Line Pack for new-born kittens (Nutri-drops
plus a tub of first life kitten colostrum). Available from
Net-Tex Ltd, Priestwood, Harvel, Nr Meopham Kent DA13 0DA, telephone 01474-813999, fax 01474-812112, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.net-tex.co.uk
much milk replacement should I be feeding the kittens?
the milk supply is inadequate, supplemental feeding is recommended.
Where the kittens have been orphaned or the queen is unable
to feed them, they will need total replacement feeding. There
are several commercial formulae available which are designed
specifically for kittens. Make up milk replacement solution
as directed using a level measure, not heaped. They should
be made up and used as per instructions, but a reduced volume
is needed if the kittens are still gaining some milk from
their mother (give perhaps 1/2 to 1/3 the volume). The amount
on the label is usually given as 'per 24 hours'. The quantities
should therefore be divided into a number of feeds. Kittens
less than 2 weeks of age should be fed every 3-4 hours, while
kittens of 2-4 weeks of age can usually be fed every 6-8 hours.
The milk should be warmed to 95-100 °F (35-37.8 °C) before
feeding (about the same temperature as the skin of the human
the warmth of the milk on back of your hand. It takes just
a few seconds to warm milk to blood heat.
do I get the milk into the kittens?
Baby bottles can be bought which are specially designed for
kittens. The size of the hole in the nipple is critical. If
when the bottle is turned upside down the milk drips from
the nipple, the hole is too large, and you risk drowning the
kitten. If when the bottle is turned upside down the milk
only comes out after considerable squeezing of the bottle,
the hole is too small, and its use may result in the kitten
becoming discouraged and refusing to nurse. The correct size
hole allows the milk to drip from the nipple with minimal
squeezing of the bottle. As nipples are used the holes tend
to enlarge, so new ones must be introduced. Kittens tend to
become fixated upon one particular nipple, so when changing
from an old one to a new one they may show reluctance to feed.
As the kittens grow the size of the hole in the nipple can
be gradually enlarged.
feeding and dropper feeding
Spoon feeding is slow and requires great practice. Each spoonful
must be gently poured into the kitten's mouth. The kitten's
head must not be elevated since new-born kittens do not have
a well developed gag reflex, and the lungs can easily be filled
feeding is similar to spoon feeding, but a little quicker
Syringe feeding may be considered but must be done properly
and with care as it can be potentially lethal. The problem
arises when the plunger sticks and then gives way suddenly,
squirting a large volume of milk into the kitten's mouth,
using a syringe, practise first using water - you need to feel
confident at dispensing milk into a kitten's mouth. Fill a
10 ml syringe, place the index and middle finger each side
of barrel wings and the plunger head into the palm of your
hand. Gently depress the plunger with the palm to give drip-by-drip.
This allows the kitten time to swallow and breathe. It is good
practice always to check the smooth running of a syringe this
of the syringe is important! The hub of the barrel should
be uppermost and inserted into the roof of the kitten's mouth.
This allows the kitten's tongue to 'wrap' around the hub.
This emulates the sucking of a nipple. This way the kitten
does not take in unwanted air.
the other hand hold the kitten over the back and raise the
kitten under the fore-limbs at an angle of approximately 45°.
This is comfortable and secure for the kitten and is a good
natural angle for it to take the milk from a bottle/syringe.
kitten will naturally cease sucking when full and will pull
away from the teat/syringe. Do not force a kitten to take
extra milk: it would be at risk of lung inhalation resulting
in drowning. Remember consumption guidelines are a guide only.
Often kittens will consume more; like us they all are individuals,
and will let you know when they are full.
Tube feeding is perhaps the cleanest and most efficient method
of hand feeding. However, it requires proper equipment and
technical skill. It is a particularly useful technique when
a kitten's 'suck reflex' is poor, or when kittens
fail to suck properly. Some breeders tube feed kittens routinely
but there are several dangers in this. Firstly, as the kittens
have no control over how much they are fed, they can easily
be given too much or too little. Secondly, kittens with a
strong suck reflex, if deprived of nursing, may suck on each
other, and this can lead to the development of large sore
areas of skin.
tubes must be soft, flexible, blunt-ended and not more than
2-3 mm wide. A premature human infant feeding tube is ideal,
but short, soft canine urinary catheters can also be used.
The tube must be measured to the correct length (from the
kitten's nose to just behind the point of the elbow), and
a mark made on the tube at this point. The tube should be
lubricated with K-Y jelly before use.
place the tube the kitten's mouth must be opened by pressing
gently at the corners, and, keeping the head flexed downwards,
the tube is slid along the roof of the mouth and down the
back of the kitten's throat into the oesophagus. The tube
is passed down until the mark on the tube is level with the
nose. The other end of the tube will then be in the stomach.
A syringe containing pre-warmed milk can then be attached,
and the milk can be delivered slowly to the stomach.
the kitten's head is kept flexed forward, it is quite difficult
to miss the oesophagus and so pass the tube into the airway
by mistake. Many kittens mew loudly throughout the whole procedure,
and it is useful to note that they cannot do this if the tube
is in the airway. However, anyone unsure of the technique
should ask their veterinary surgeon to demonstrate it for
O-2 weeks: 10 feeds in 24 hours at 2 - 2.5 hour intervals.
2-4 weeks: 7 feeds in 24 hours at 2.5 - 3.5 hour intervals
4-5 weeks: 5 feeds in 24 hours at 3.5 -5 hour intervals.
hygiene precautions do I need to take with the utensils?
is of the utmost importance, both in terms of all the kittens' feeding and
measuring equipment and the carer's personal hygiene in preparing
feeds and toileting kittens. Orphaned kittens are very prone
to infections so they must always be kept clean, and utensils
used for preparing or administering the milk must be sterile.
kittens be weighed regularly?
is advisable to monitor the kittens' growth rates by weighing
them regularly. It is best to weigh the kittens daily at the
same time, as in all cases daily increments will vary from
kitten to kitten. It is good practice to keep daily records.
They should double their birth weight in the first 7 to 10
days, then continue to gain weight steadily.
are the signs of hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar)?
results from inadequate or infrequent feeding. It can cause
severe depression, muscle twitching and occasionally lead
to convulsions. If a kitten ever refuses to feed, do not delay;
prompt action and veterinary care is required. Kittens have
no reserves and will go downhill rapidly. Quick response can
save a kitten's life. Use your intuition: an hour could mean
life or death!
a kitten is showing signs of hypoglycaemia, a few drops of
glucose syrup placed on the tongue can be life saving. This
should then be followed by feeding a small amount of glucose
solution, and increasing either the amount and/or frequency
of routine feeding.
should the kittens be weaned onto solid food?
should begin at three to four weeks of age. Initially the
kittens should be offered milk replacer diluted 1:1 with water,
in a flat shallow dish. At three weeks introduce either moistened
dry growth diet or tinned growth diet mixed with a small amount
of milk solution. Again holding the kitten, use a very small
spoon and introduce the semi-solid food to the kitten, using
the spoon tip only. Gradually lower the spoon to encourage
and tempt the kitten to eat from a shallow dish. Only try
a few very small mouthfuls at first until the kitten gets
established on its own. This is continued until the kittens
are taking just solid food. They can be fed either wet or
dry diets, but it is best to feed only diets designed especially
for kittens. Dog food and human baby foods should not be fed
since they are deficient in nutrients essential for cats.
do I do if a kitten becomes constipated?
is a very common problem in hand reared kittens, due to the
difficulty in stimulating defecation sufficiently frequently.
Normal faeces have the consistency of toothpaste. If the faeces
become very hard, making the kitten strain excessively, or
if a kitten does not pass any motions for 2-3 days, small
doses of liquid paraffin or 'Katalax' should be
given (about 0.5 ml per feed for 2-3 days should have the
desired effect). Severe cases require veterinary attention.
do I do if a kitten gets diarrhoea?
is a serious condition. It may be caused by overfeeding, giving
too concentrated a solution of milk replacer, or result from
infection (usually caused by poor hygiene). Treatment must
be swift as dehydration can then develop very rapidly, followed
by collapse and death soon afterwards.
cases respond well to dilution of the milk 1:1 with boiled
water, which should be given until the diarrhoea stops. Severe
cases should be given no milk at all. Instead they should
be given 5-10% glucose, glucose-saline, or isotonic electrolyte
solution (eg, 'Lectade'; Pfizer), all of which can be obtained
from a veterinary surgeon. These solutions should be given
until the diarrhoea stops; milk diluted 1:1 with water, and
finally full strength milk can be resumed 12-24 hours later.
kittens become collapsed and dehydrated they need immediate
veterinary attention if they are to survive. Kittens in a
collapsed state become chilled very rapidly. They will usually
be given subcutaneous fluids by the veterinary surgeon.
they have been warmed up and given fluid therapy they must
be allowed to recover quietly. Feeding can only be begun once
the kitten is warm and able to suck. Stomach tubing is not
helpful here, since when a kitten is cold and collapsed its
intestines stop functioning, so stomach contents can be easily
regurgitated, and then aspirated into the lungs.
soon as the kitten is able to suck, it should be given isotonic
glucose or Lectade solution (at about 1ml per 100g body weight),
given every 15 minutes until the kitten is rehydrated and
can urinate when massaged. If all goes well, diluted milk
can then be introduced after 24 hours, and full strength milk
24 hours after that.
kittens be given antibiotics to keep them well?
a bacterial infection is known to be present, and antibiotics
have been prescribed by the veterinary surgeon, they should
not be given. Antibiotics severely disrupt the process of
normal colonisation of the gut by harmless bacteria, and can,
because of this, produce diarrhoea. Antibiotics cannot be
used as a substitute for colostrum. If hygiene standards are
good, antibiotics are simply not needed.
do kittens' eyes usually open?
birth the kittens' eyes are closed; they usually open within
1-2 weeks. If the closed eyelids become swollen or matted
with pus the kitten should be taken to a veterinary surgeon
for immediate treatment. In some breeds, eg, Siamese and
Orientals, the eyes may be partially open at birth and open
completely within a few days.
kittens be wormed regularly?
intestinal parasites ('worms') are common in kittens,
all kittens should be treated with drugs to kill the parasites
from about 3 weeks of age. Before each dosing the kittens
should be accurately weighed, since if too little wormer is
given it may not be effective, and if too much is given it
may make the kittens ill. In many kittens the worms cause
no clinical signs, while in others they can result in poor
body condition, soft or bloody stools, loss of appetite, a
pot-bellied appearance and weight loss. Some worms can be
transmitted through the stools of infected cats, while others
are carried by fleas. Good hygiene and flea control are therefore
a small litter tray at first from about three weeks. It is
safer to use wood-chip type litter as opposed to bentonite type to
start with whilst learning as some kittens will try to consume
the litter. Stand the kitten in the tray and then massage the ano-genital area with a wet wipe. They very
soon get the hang of things.
should kittens be vaccinated?
gain some protection from disease in the form of maternal
antibodies passed in the queen's colostrum (the milk excreted
in the first few hours after the birth). To ensure that the
queen has sufficient antibodies to pass onto her kittens,
it is important that she is well vaccinated prior to mating.
The protective effect of maternal antibodies lasts for only
a few weeks. The kittens' vaccination programme should therefore
start from about 8 weeks of age, although the exact timing
and content of the vaccinations can be tailored to the needs
of the particular cattery, as determined by the veterinary
surgeon. If the kittens were orphaned, and hence never received
colostrum, they will have gained no protective immunity from
their mother, and so may need to be vaccinated early, perhaps
from 2-3 weeks of age. Most cats are vaccinated against feline
enteritis and the viruses that cause cat flu. Others are
also vaccinated against feline leukaemia virus infection and/or
is extremely important for well adjusted kittens. Introduce
the kittens to other animals as soon as possible. Obviously
never put any animal at risk of danger. Remember, when other
animals are present, you must talk to and where possible touch
them as much as possible. This scenario is the same as bringing
the new baby home to the existing toddler. Do not create your
own problem by causing a jealous situation to arise.
all enjoy the experience while it lasts. It is an extremely
intensive and demanding time condensed into a short period
of your life. The rewards of your labours far exceed your
For more information on breeding go to Feline parturition - when to wait and when to worry.
Updated November 2008