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Your Role as a Surrogate Mother
Raising newborn kittens is both challenging and time-consuming; it can be intensely rewarding and heartbreaking, as well. If you don’t have the time or the emotional stamina to deal with the potential of losing kittens, you might leave the job to trained professionals. However, if your bleeding heart is ready to take on the challenge of stray babies, then go for it. Just make sure you can find a home for them all.
Birth Mother or Surrogate?
If the kittens are stray, yet being cared for by the mother cat, she will do the work. Just schedule a quick veterinary checkup to make sure everyone’s healthy. Then, provide the mother cat with fresh water and food and monitor her nursing and attention to the kittens’ cleanings. The rest is up to her.
If your kittens came without a mother, however, things are more complicated. Now you are the mother and must provide the kittens’ basic needs to ensure their survival. This requires round-the-clock care, at first, as if you just brought home a newborn baby.
First Trip to the Vet
Your veterinarian should examine stray newborns as soon as possible. Litters from ferals can suffer from fleas and other parasites and do not have the natural immunity of vaccinated mother cats. Orphaned kittens may need immunizations as soon as two to three weeks. And, any kitten showing signs of distress—such as prolonged chilling, watery eyes, runny nose, lethargy, or failure to eat—should be seen immediately by a veterinarian.
Building a Nest
Next up on your surrogate to-do list is building a nest for your kittens. You can use an oversized cat bed with bumper sides or even just a cardboard box lined with clean towels. Either way, make sure your nest has sides so that the small babies won’t tumble out. This also encourages the litter to stay together to generate the warmth they would traditionally get from their mother.
Since chilled kittens can die very quickly, make sure that the nest is located in a warm space in your home. For the first few weeks, you may have to provide supplemental heat in the form of a heating pad set on low. Wrap this pad in a thick towel and place it in the bottom of the nest. Make sure the nursery has an unheated section, as well. Instinctively, the cats will migrate to this section, should they become too hot.
Care for Newborn Kittens
Feeding Newborn Kittens
For the first few weeks, you will need to bottle feed the entire litter several times a day. Purchase formula made particularly for kittens, as well as kitten bottles and nipples, or an eyedropper. Follow the directions on the kitten formula for feeding by weight.
Tiny babies will need as many as twelve feedings around the clock, so set your alarm for night feedings and recruit a family member to help. Bottle feedings can be performed in a comfortable chair with a kitten on your lap, wrapped in a warm towel. Situate him on his belly, and then present the nipple to encourage him to suck. Feed each kitten until they are no longer interested and have had enough.
At three weeks, the babies are ready to eat food from a dish. Place canned kitten food and formula into your blender and process it until it’s the consistency of a thick liquid. Prime each kitten by putting a bit of the mixture onto your fingertip, and then lead them to the saucer.
As the kittens start to enjoy their mush, gradually reduce the amount of formula in the mixture until they are eating soft, canned food as is. At this point, your kittens can also drink water from a bowl. But don’t be surprised if there is a little water play before the litter decides to drink it.
Eventually, your kittens will graduate to a premium brand of dry kitten food. Since their tummies are small, offer them four or five small meals a day.
Nurturing Newborn Kittens
The mother kitten performs various tasks that both ensure the health of her kittens, as well as promote bonding. If you’re the head honcho, these tasks fall on you.
Mother cats encourage newborns to move their bowels by washing their bums with her tongue. You can encourage the same elimination pattern by holding each kitty (put a towel over your lap first) and gently stroking its body with a warm washcloth. Do the same thing with its abdomen and butt. Soon, you will be rewarded with a bowel movement after every meal and will not need to give this assistance.
Grooming and massaging your newborn kittens replicates the bonding activities the mother cat usually performs. A soft baby brush or towel can be used to stroke your kittens down their backs, on their tummies, and to clean any dirt or defecation from their bodies. Soft-touch and massage help kittens adapt more easily to your presence and their new home.
Kittens take to the litterbox as quickly as ducks to water. Use a low-sided box for training—the lid to a shoebox works perfectly. A non-clumping, pellet litter works best for untrained newbies, as the clumping-type causes digestive upset if they eat it.
Once the kittens start eating on their own, place each one in the box fifteen minutes after eating. Scratch the litter with your finger to show them what it’s all about. When they hop out, put them back in a few times, then leave them alone. If one has an accident on the floor, pick up a small amount of poop with a shovel and put it into the box to show him where it belongs.
How Do I Feed a Newborn Kitten?
A mother cat’s milk provides everything a kitten needs during the first four weeks of life. If you have newborn kittens who’ve been separated from their mother, consult with a veterinarian, shelter or experienced foster care giver who can help you find a new mother cat with a small litter-she may be able to nurse the orphaned babies.
If you cannot find a foster mother, please consult with your veterinarian about the proper way to bottle-feed with a commercial milk replacer. Please do not offer regular cow’s milk to cats of any age. It is not easily digestible and can cause diarrhea.
What Do Kittens Eat Besides Milk?
When the orphaned kittens are three to four weeks old, begin to offer milk replacer in a shallow bowl, then introduce a moist, easily chewable diet. You can make gruel from warmed milk replacer and a high-quality dry or canned kitten food. Serve it in a shallow bowl and feed the kittens several times each day. By five weeks old, they should be getting used to their new diet.
By six to seven weeks old, they should be able to chew dry food and you’ll no longer need to moisten it. Kittens are typically fully weaned by around eight weeks of age.
Kittens need large amounts of energy–about two to three times that of an adult cat. Food for your kitten should contain at least 30% protein. Make sure the food you offer is specifically formulated for kittens.
How Often Should a Kitten Eat?
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The following is a general eating schedule for newborns and young cats:
- Newborn kittens may nurse about every 1-2 hours.
- At about three to four weeks old, they can be offered milk replacer from a bowl and then small amounts of moistened kitten food four to six times a day.
- Kittens from six to 12 weeks old should be fed four times a day as you gradually decrease their access to milk replacer.
- Kittens from three to six months old should be fed three times a day.
How Do I Keep a Newborn Kitten Warm?
If the kitten in your care has been orphaned, it is essential that you keep the young one warm. A heating pad or a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel works well. The heat source should be positioned so that the kitten can move away from it at will. Please consult your veterinarian about ideal temperatures, and do take care to monitor the heating pad, if you are using one, to ensure it is functioning properly.
How Much Should a Newborn Kitten Weigh?
An average birth weight for kittens is about 3 ½ ounces, depending on breed and litter size. During the first weeks of life, a kitten’s body weight may double or even triple. Gaining ¼ to half an ounce daily until they are weaned is considered healthy. Kittens who don’t gain adequate weight during this early period may not survive.
Can I Hold the Kitten?
Kittens who are with their mother should not be over-handled, especially not during their first week of life-this may upset the mother. If the kitten in your care is younger than one week old, please consult your veterinarian. In order to properly socialize a young feline to humans, start to handle him from the second week on through the seventh week-this is considered an important time for socialization.
Please note, kittens are prone to injury if handled roughly-anyone who handles the little ones in your care will need to be very gentle. Young children in particular should be supervised.
How Do I Teach a Kitten to Go to the Bathroom?
After feeding, a mother cat will groom her babies, paying special attention to the anal area. This stimulates excretion, which kittens can’t do on their own until their second or third week. If your kitten is no longer with her mother, dip a soft washcloth or a piece of gauze in warm water and gently massage the anal and urinary regions. The warmth, texture and movement mimic a mother cat’s tongue.
When the kittens are four weeks old, you can teach them to use a litter box by placing them in the box after their meals. Cutting one side down will make it easier for the kittens to go in and out.
10 Crucial Steps to take to Save an Abandoned Newborn Kitten
1. Assess the situation.
Don’t assume that a litter of kittens is orphaned just because you don’t see the mom. It’s common for the mother to leave her babies, so give the kittens a bit of distance and see if the mom returns. If she does – great! The mom is the best suited to care for them, so leave them with her (unless you’re able to take the whole family in and care for them.) If the mom does not return within an hour or two, it is time for you to step in and help.
2. Don’t take the kittens to a shelter.
Unless your local shelter specifically has a program for neonatal kittens, bringing an orphaned kitten to a shelter is a death sentence. The majority of shelters do not provide care to unweaned kittens, so if you want them to have a shot, it’s going to be your responsibility to help them yourself, or to find someone who can.
3. Don’t panic – but do act quickly.
When it comes to orphaned kittens, time is of the essence. Panic never helped anyone, but you do need to treat this as a situation that cannot wait. Gather the kittens and quickly make a plan for the next 24 hours of care – you can always change your plans later on, but right now you just need to think about their immediate needs. If you observe any serious health concerns such as gasping for air or bleeding, take the kitten to a veterinarian.
4. Gather the appropriate supplies.
You’re going to need to quickly gather supplies so you can get them warm, stable, hydrated, and fed. Check out my “Preparing for Fostering” supply checklist to find out what supplies you’ll need. Set up a cozy, safe space for the kittens away from any potential hazards.
5. Get them stable.
Before you can do anything else, you want to make sure the kitten is not hypothermic or hyperthermic. Kittens cannot control their body temperature, so help them regulate their body temperature before trying to feed them – especially if they have been exposed to cold temperatures. A heating pad on low, a warm water bottle, or even a sock filled with rice and put in the microwave can all provide a steady but mild heat source to a cold kitten.
6. Feed the kittens.
If it’s your first time bottle feeding, don’t panic! You can do it, but you’ll want to know some tricks so you don’t hurt them. Watch my YouTube video on How to Bottle Feed a Kitten for tips on proper preparation and feeding posture. And please, never feed cow’s milk to a kitten, as this is extremely dangerous to their health and can lead to death. Instead, you will need to purchase kitten milk replacer, sold at most pet stores or feed stores.
7. Stimulate the kittens to go to the bathroom.
It comes as a surprise to some people that newborn kittens actually do not go to the bathroom on their own – their mother licks them to stimulate elimination and urination, and to keep them nice and clean. You will need to mimic this behavior by stimulating the kittens with a warm, wet cloth at each feeding. Watch my video on How to Stimulate Kittens to see how it’s done.
8. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Orphaned neonatal kittens require around-the-clock care, so you’ll want to establish a routine of care every 2-4 hours (the younger they are, the more frequent the intervals.) Between feedings, it’s normal for the kittens to sleep, just make sure they are in a safe and confined space.
9. Foster for success!
Fostering kittens is fun, rewarding, and lightning-fast if you do it right! Plan on caring for them until they are old enough to be neutered – right around eight weeks old. In the meantime, search for the perfect forever home, get them all their standard veterinary care, and enjoy watching them grow. It’ll be over before you know it!
10. Spay and neuter any cats in the area.
Don’t forget – if you found kittens in an alley, that means there are unsterilized cats around the corner. Search for a local TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) group to help you get what you need to sterilize any free-roaming cats so that you can prevent the next round of kittens!