Today we’re inviting our vet Greg to write a series of articles about the nursing of newborn kittens. In part 1 Greg covers looking after kittens up to the age of about four weeks.
(After roughly four weeks, kittens enter the second stage of growth where they transition to eating solid foods. Looking after them becomes a little different, so we decided to cover that in another article)
- When should I intervene to help a queen and kittens?
- Hand-rearing a kitten: What should I think about before raising a kitten?
- Raising Orphaned Kittens: What do I need to take care of newborn kittens without a mother?
- My cat gave birth: How do I take care of kittens 1-4 weeks old with a mother?
- What health issues should I look for when caring for kittens?
In general, cat-Moms (queens) will take superb, full-time care of their kittens, and in most cases, litters of kittens are born and raised without issue. However, problems can occur with both mother and babies, and you may find yourself having to help a queen raise her kittens, or raise orphaned kittens or single stray kittens on your own. Taking care of kittens is no easy task, but most kittens thrive when looked after this way.
When should I intervene to help a queen and kittens?
If at all possible, it’s best for kittens to be brought up by their mother. They’ll get the right nutrition, the right socialization, and everything else they need to grow into healthy and well-rounded adult cats without any human intervention. In some cases, the queen is unable to fully look after her offspring, and so owners may need to take care of the kittens or lend her a hand.
This can happen if the queen has a very large litter, or a traumatic birth experience (long, complicated, or requiring a caesarian section surgery). Cats can also develop mastitis, and this means that it is painful and difficult for them to feed their kittens. In all of these cases, the kittens can usually be left with mother but may need some supplemental care. If your queen is not bright, happy, eating, and feeding her kittens, seek professional veterinary advice at an early stage.
In rare cases, kittens can be born with problems. Usually, this will mean that, despite mum’s best care, the kittens aren’t growing or thriving as they should. These kittens will need lots of extra help, and it is worth seeking a professional veterinary opinion at an early stage if you suspect a birth defect that could be causing problems for your kittens.
At worst, the queen may abandon the litter, or she may die before they are fully weaned. Strays may also be found from a very young age. These kittens can be considered orphaned, and they will not survive without care. In these cases, the kittens need full hand-rearing to ensure they survive and thrive.
Hand-rearing a kitten: What should I think about before raising a kitten?
Where kittens are stray or abandoned and you do not know the background of the kittens, it is important to seek professional veterinary advice first. The veterinarian can tell you more about the state and age of the kittens and how best to proceed.
When hand-rearing is being considered, it is important to remember three things.
- It may not be ethical to hand-rear a kitten with severe problems, and it is important to seek advice from a veterinarian in these cases.
- Hand-reared kittens do not receive the natural feline experiences that they would from their mother, and so are more at risk of behavioral problems later in life. This might make them hard to look after or re-home as adults.
- Hand-rearing is extremely hard work – the kittens will require full-time dedication and commitment.
If you’re still keen to go ahead and take care of the kittens, then read on. If not, consider reaching out to a local shelter for help.
Raising Orphaned Kittens: What do I need to take care of newborn kittens without a mother?
The most important elements to consider for kittens aged 1-4 weeks without a mother are as follows:
- Giving them a clean, warm, and dry environment
A suitable enclosed bed or nest is essential to keep the kittens safe and together. A queening box or large cat carrier work well. You’ll need to keep them safe and away from other animals, as they’re incredibly vulnerable. Maintaining a comfortable temperature is important, as kittens are very vulnerable to cold. The nest temperature should be 85 to 90 °F (29 to 32 °C) in the first 2 weeks. This can be reduced to 27°C at 2 weeks, then 22°C at 4 weeks. Heat should be provided by a covered hot water bottle, heat pad, or heat lamp, and maintained by blankets and covers. Ensure the heat is not excessive, and that the kittens have a space to escape the heat if they need to. Use a thermometer to monitor the nest. Bedding should be used to make it comfortable, but take care not to use too many blankets, which can tangle kittens. A soft pet bed is better.
- Feeding your kittens regularly and with the correct products
Young kittens need 8-10 feeds in each 24 hour period, typically every 2-3 hours day and night. It is important to seek professional veterinary advice on what milk replacer to use and how best to use it. Always follow the instructions on the product to the letter, as incorrect mixing can cause digestive problems. You should also ensure the product is made and kept at the right temperature.
Be careful and gentle when feeding kittens. There are a number of different methods, so do your research and follow product instructions. Under-feeding, over-feeding, and incorrect feeding can all be dangerous. If kittens inhale milk or it goes down the wrong way, it can lead to a lung infection (pneumonia) or drowning. Persian kittens and similar breeds with flatter faces are most vulnerable to this. Your local veterinary practice will be experienced in raising kittens and will be willing to show you how to safely feed them, or a nearby shelter may be able to help.
- Keeping equipment clean to prevent disease
Equipment used for feeding kittens should be regularly cleaned and sterilized, just as they would for a human baby. Infections are a serious risk so hygiene is key. Follow the instructions for your kitten bottle and other equipment, as different materials should be sterilized differently. Boiling water, microwave ovens and sterilizing tablets may all be recommended.
- Helping orphaned kittens to toilet
Kittens are not able to go to the toilet (either urinating or defecating) by themselves until about 2-3 weeks old. Usually, their mother will stimulate them to toilet by licking their bottoms under the tail. When kittens have no mother, it’s important that you do this for them, otherwise they’ll become seriously ill.
To help an orphaned kitten to toilet, you should gently rub a damp soft tissue or cotton wool around the bottom. It is worth doing this before and after each feeding. Again, your local shelter or veterinary practice will be able to show you how to do this if you are unsure.
From around 3 weeks of age, kittens should learn to go to the toilet by themselves. You can start training them to use litter at this point- carefully place them in the tray when they’ve finished feeding. For the first few times, place them in the litter tray and then stimulate them as before. After a while, they’ll work it out on their own, although a small amount of soiled litter may remind them what they need to do!
My cat gave birth: How do I take care of kittens 1-4 weeks old with a mother?
Luckily, if mum is still present your job is a lot easier. Ensure mum has a safe space to raise her kittens, keeping them away from other animals in the house. A box with high sides to prevent the kittens from falling out in the first couple of weeks is important- as for orphaned kittens, a large carrier or specially made queening box is fine. After she has given birth, she should clean and dry the kittens herself- if she does not, a quick rub with a dry towel may be helpful. Keeping the room temperature warm helps, too.
You should keep a watchful eye and make sure all kittens are feeding properly. Weighing them regularly to ensure weight gain is a good way to make sure everybody is getting enough nutrition. Where there are problems with feeding, seeking veterinary advice is important to identify and correct underlying problems such as mastitis or cleft palate. You may simply need to ‘top-up’ the kittens with a little milk replacer if the queen is struggling.
What health issues should I look for when caring for kittens?
In the first few weeks, normal kittens should eat or sleep for 90% of the time, and be generally relaxed and comfortable. If you are concerned at all, it is important to consult a veterinarian at an early stage as kittens can deteriorate very quickly. One good tip for raising kittens is to weigh them regularly: they should double their birth weight in the first week or so, then continue to gain weight steadily. The umbilical cord should dry and shrivel and fall off after a few days. Their eyes will open at 1-2 weeks old.
Low Blood Sugar in Kittens
If kittens are not receiving enough food, they can develop low blood sugar, which appears as severe depression, muscle twitching, and convulsions. Kittens have no reserves of energy and deteriorate quickly, so seek veterinary help urgently if they are not feeding. Sugary solutions placed on the tongue may help in an emergency, but the underlying problems need to be corrected if your kitten is going to survive.
Constipation in Hand-Reared Kittens
Constipation is very common in hand-reared kittens, as it is hard to replace their mother’s regular stimulation to toilet. It appears as very hard feces (normal feces are more like toothpaste) and excessive straining. If the kitten does not poop for more than 2-3 days, small amounts of laxative will be needed to help. It’s best to talk to your veterinarian about this to determine the best product to use- and how to administer it.
Diarrhea in Kittens
Diarrhea in kittens can be very serious and may be caused by a number of different problems. Again, it is very easy for kittens to develop low blood sugar and dehydration with a bout of diarrhea, so treatment must be speedy – seek veterinary help! Fake antibiotics and out-of-date antibiotics can cause problems, so antibiotics should only be used if there is an infection, and should only come from a veterinarian on their advice.
What else do I need to consider as my kittens get older?
As your kittens open their eyes and start to move around, you’ll notice them become much stronger and more active. You’ll need to start giving them space to explore, especially if their ‘nest’ is quite small.
All kittens need regular worming from 3 weeks old, and then vaccination as they get older. Ask your local veterinary clinic for their advice as to product and frequency.
Kittens also need socialization for proper behavioral development, so it is worth introducing them to different handling, sights, sounds, and smells as regularly as possible. Kittens with mothers learn skills from their mother and siblings, but orphaned kittens can struggle to learn to ‘speak cat. This is especially true if raising a single kitten alone. Socialization should include introducing them to other people and animals- but make sure all meetings are safe for everybody, and positive. Raising a puppy and kitten together through careful meetings in the first 2-7 weeks of their lives should teach them to tolerate one another for the rest of their lives.
A Vet’s Advice for Hand-Rearing Kittens
Hand-rearing kittens, whether to help their mother or to replace her entirely, is a big commitment to make and should not be taken lightly. There are lots of bases to cover and problems to watch out for. However, it can be done very successfully and in most cases, the reward for your hard work and lack of sleep is highly worthwhile! Seek professional veterinary advice if you are in any doubt. And, if you’ve made it this far, well done! Your kittens are now weaning! Check out part two of this article series for more information on caring for kittens after 4 weeks.