Vet Greg is here to guide you through the next critical phase in your kitten’s life. In part 2 of the series (which started with this article), we now set out to guide you through the process of caring for young kittens between 4 and 8 weeks old. Whether you’ve got this far from hard work, or you’ve just taken on an orphaned kitten that’s four weeks old, your aim now is to raise your kitten(s) towards becoming an increasingly self-sufficient, healthy, well-rounded adult cat.
Caring for kittens without a mother present
Mothers (Queens) typically do an excellent job of raising their litter and where possible it’s best for kittens to be brought up by their mother to give them the right nutrition, socialization and care. Where kittens are stray or abandoned and you do not know their background, it is important to seek professional veterinary advice first. The advice below applies to all kittens, whether with or without a mother, but is much more important to stick to if Mom isn’t there. See the first article for guidance on choosing when to hand-rear kittens.
Kittens still need a clean, warm environment to live in.
Kittens at 4-8 weeks old are starting to explore their world and become curious adventurers. They still need a bed or nest but also now a safe space to explore and play in, such as a child’s play pen. It is important that they cannot hurt themselves or be hurt by other animals. They are still sensitive to cold and will need to be kept at an average temperature of 20-22°C until 8 weeks old.
Kittens start to wean at about 4 weeks, transitioning slowly from all milk to all solids over several weeks. You can start by putting their milk into a shallow bowl and encouraging them to drink from it by placing a little on their lips first. Over time, you can add a small amount of wet kitten food to the milk and slowly reduce the amount of milk until the kitten is just eating solids. You can then introduce biscuits/kibble- you may need to soak it to begin with. Kittens still need feeding regularly – small amounts 6-8 times a day are ideal.
What food is best for kittens?
A common problem among people taking care of kittens is they’re not sure how to get a food that has the right nutrients in the right amounts – imbalances can lead to unwanted developmental problems. Kittens need adequate protein and calcium- but not too much.
You should feed your kitten a commercially available kitten wet food from a reputable supplier, as these producers have done the research and are legally required to provide a complete, balanced diet. Homemade diets run the risk of imbalances which may be impossible to correct later on.
You may find a specific weaning diet to be helpful if you’re feeding kittens at 4 weeks. Royal Canin make ‘Babycat’ mousse, which is great for weaning kittens. Once these kittens reach 8-12 weeks, they can go onto a normal kitten food.
Keeping your kitten lean
Throughout the first months, it’s important to keep your kitten lean in order to keep the risk of future health problems as low as possible, as high body fat is a marker for a number of diseases. Be aware that neutering (also known as spaying) lowers the amount of calories your kitten needs to grow.
Kittens are very susceptible to infections which can give them tummy upsets and diarrhea. It is important that their environment and all equipment used is kept clean and regularly disinfected.
Changing toileting needs
From 4 weeks, kittens should be ready and able to start using a litter tray. Placing them in the litter tray and then gently stimulating their bottoms with damp tissue or cotton wool will encourage them to use that area for toileting. Having some soiled litter in there already will remind them what to do. Ensure the litter trays are readily available, hygienic, and not too high-sided!
Between 4 and 12 weeks old, kittens enter a period of socialization, where their minds are open to a whole range of new experiences and learning. Anything they learn or become used to in this period will stay with them for life, so this is a great time for them to explore the world. This period is essential for producing well-rounded adults and will reduce behavioral problems later in life.
Kittens should be exposed to sights, sounds, smells, people, and animals in a safe and reasonable manner, so that they accept these things as adults. For example, if raising a puppy with a kitten, this is a great time to (carefully) introduce them so that they learn to accept and tolerate each other.
From a veterinary point of view, it is useful to get kittens used to being touched all over so that they don’t feel as much stress at being handled. You should also try to play your kittens noises such as firework sounds, quietly at first, so they get used to scary noises occurring, and show them things like vacuum cleaners.
Socialization is especially important if you are raising single and/or orphaned kittens, as they will not get normal experiences from their mother and other litter mates.
Common health issues in kittens at 4 weeks old
See my first article about taking care of newborn kittens for several common health problems to watch out for. After 4 weeks, the kittens should become increasingly energetic and confident in their activity and play but will still sleep for much of their time! If you are concerned by their health at all, it is important to consult a veterinarian at an early stage as all kittens can deteriorate very quickly.
Some things to keep in mind as your kittens grow:
- Weighing kittens regularly is still a great way of monitoring health, as happy kittens will gradually and consistently gain weight as they develop.
- All kittens need regular worming from 3 weeks old, typically done every 2-4 weeks.
- It is also recommended that kittens receive their first course of vaccinations from about 6-8 weeks old, to protect them from several nasty viral diseases. Speak to your local veterinary clinic for tailored advice on these topics.
The 4-8 week stage of rearing kittens is still a big commitment for a carer, but you will start to see result of your hard work. During this time kittens are increasingly becoming confident cats, and start to explore the world. This is the point where you can see that your efforts have produced happy, healthy, well-rounded cats, which is one of the most rewarding things a cat owner can experience.
That said, seek veterinary advice early if you have any concerns and stick to reputable sources of information, such as the iCatCare website. Good luck!