Bottle Feeding Orphaned Kittens
Parental instincts are strong in housecats and it is quite rare for a well kept cat to abandon its offspring. But feral or homeless cats have more difficult lives. Often their first litter arrives when they are little more than kittens themselves. It is quite common for inexperience and the stresses of pregnancy to exhaust them to the point where they become ill and abandon their kittens. Other times domestic cat's litters contain one or more star crossed runts that will not survive unless we hand raise them ourselves.
How Old Is This Kitten?
Kittens 1-14 days old still have their eyes closed. Their ears are also folded over and sealed. Kittens 2-3 weeks old have their eyes open and are able to move around shakily. By the time the kitten is 3 weeks old its ears have become erect and it can walk about well.
Supplies You Will Need:
You will need to have a nest box for the baby or babies. Since the infants often soil their container I usually find a small cardboard box that I can readily replace to keep the baby in - a shoebox works well.
You will need a heating pad unless you live in the tropics. I usually pick up a heavy-duty model from WalMart. Then I go to the aquarium section and purchase an aquarium thermometer. In the same section you will find pet nursing bottles and Hartz Advanced Care Kitten Milk Replacement powder. You can also purchase KMR powdered kitten milk by Pet Ag (Borden's) at veterinary offices and pet stores. A small food scale is also nice to have to weigh the infant(s). If the kitten is weak you may want to tube feed it. If so, pick up a 3-milliliter syringe and an 18Guage butterfly infusion tube from a veterinary hospital or human medical supply center to tube feed.
The nest box does not need to be elaborate. It needs to be just big enough for the kitten to turn around but not much bigger. Line it with crumpled Kleenex tissue.
Warmth is especially important the first 14 days of the kitten's life because they have not yet developed the ability to thermoregulate. During the first two weeks they can not shiver when they are cold. They will rely on the heating pad for warmth. Keep the pad under one side of the box only on its lowest setting. Wrap the pad with sufficient towels so that the inside of the box stays at 90 degrees Fahrenheit but no higher. With one side of the box only heated the kitten will be able to crawl away from the heat source if it gets too warm. Place the box in a draft free location. Be sure the sides of the box are at least six inches tall so the kitten can not fall out. As the baby matures the temperature in the box can be gradually lowered. When the kitten reaches the end of its first month of life it can tolerate room air of 70-75F.
I mix my milk formula just before I use it. A good kitten-nursing bottle holds 2-4 ounces of formula. They generally come without holes punched in the nipple. I use a flame-heated needle to melt two small holes in the cap. The holes should be only big enough so that a few drops of milk drip out when the bottle is vigorously shaken. If too many holes are punched in the cap the kittens tend to inhale the formula rather than ingest it. Add two volumes of boiled water to one volume of powder. Mix it well so there are no clumps. Let it cool until it is slightly above room temperature. Feed kitten while they are resting on their stomachs. Never feed them upright as you would a human infant. Gently insert the nipple into the kitten's mouth using a prying motion while you apply pressure to the sides of the bottle to release a drop or two of milk. From then on the kitten should suck on its own.
We all have a tendency to over feed kittens. It is much safer to give them a little less than they desire. Over feeding can lead to pneumonia when milk is inhaled into the lungs rather then swallowed to the stomach. It is much safer to feed smaller amounts more frequently than larger amounts less frequently. If milk bubbles out of the kittens nose it is flowing too rapidly from the bottle. This is usually due to too large a hole(s) in the nipple or over feeding. I microwave a bowl of water and set the bottle in it to heat the formula to 99-100 degrees Fahrenheit before use.
Some owners find it easier to feed newborn kittens from a one or three milliliter syringe and switch to a bottle when the kitten is two weeks old. During the first week feed the kitten every two hours. During the next three weeks feed them every three hours. When the kittens are four weeks old they can be fed every six to twelve hours depending on how much solid food they are already eating.
Boil nursing bottles and syringes between every use. Kittens that did not nurse on the mother their first 72 hours did not receive the first milk or colostrum. These kittens are more susceptible to diarrheas so wash your hands well too.
If you live in a part of the world where kitten milk replacement is unavailable then feed a mixture of l cup of milk, one tablespoon corn oil, three egg yolks and three drops of pediatric multivitamins. For reasons I do not know, reconstituted powdered milk or reconstituted evaporated milk seem to work better than fresh whole cows milk. Kittens have a limited ability to digest the lactose or milk sugar in cow's milk. This can lead to bloat and diarrhea problems. This problem can be solved by adding lactase enzyme to the formula if it is available in your part of the world.
How Much To Feed:
Each day the average kitten needs 30-32b milliliters of formula for every 4 ounces of body weight. During week one give about 15 ml for every 100 grams (3.5 ounces) body weight. During week two give 15-18 ml for every 100 grams body weight. During weeks three and four give 20 ml for every 100 grams body weight.
How Often To Feed:
Feed very young kittens every four hours or six feeding a day. It is best if you stay up to give them a midnight feeding. By the time the kitten is three weeks old five feedings per day are sufficient. At four weeks of age the kitten should be eating some solid foods. At this age feed it two to three times a day if at all. Kittens that are hungry and need feeding will cry continuously, move their heads from side to side and suckle on each other on objects in the nest box.
Burping The Kitten:
After each feeding hold the kitten upright with its tummy against your shoulder and pat it gently until it burps releasing trapped air. Nursing bottles that do not release enough milk lead to more air being trapped as the kitten nurses. If the kitten should bloat or become colicky add a few drops of infant anticolic drops (simethicone, Equate Infants' Gas Relief, WalMart Stores Inc.) to the formula.
Normal Weight Gain:
Birth weights of kittens range from 85 to 120 grams and should double in the first 1 to 2 weeks. Kittens average about ten grams of additional body weight per day. Although this is a good average, they tend to grow in spurts. Seek a veterinarian's advice if the kitten does not double its weight in 8 to 12 days
Helping The Kitten Eliminate:
Normal kitten stools are yellowish brown with a jam-like consistency. After every feeding, gently massage the anus and urinary orifice with a cotton ball or Kleenex moistened with warm water until they urinate and defecate. Be very gentle when you do this and don't worry if no urine or stool is produced after every feeding. By the time the kitten is three weeks old it should be able to go without your help.
Problems That Can Arise:
Kittens that have been abandoned are often chilled, dehydrated and hypoglycemic. Normal rectal temperature for a newborn kitten is 92-99F. By their second week rectal temperature should be 97-100F. By their fourth week normal rectal temperature should be 100-102F. The first thing to do is to warm them up very slowly to ninety degrees.
If the kittens are still too weak to nurse they may need subcutaneous dextrose solution. This is best done by a veterinarian or veterinary nurse. A newborn kitten can receive approximately three milliliters of fluid subcutaneously.
Watery yellowish or greenish stools are sometimes associated with feeding too much. If they occur, try diluting the formula 50-50 with Pedialyte until the stools return to normal consistency. You can also give the kitten 2-3 drops of kaopectate just prior to each feeding.
Stools that are clumped and cheese-like are sometimes due to feeding the formula too concentrated. When kittens strain to defecate and pass overly hard stools increase the frequency of feeding and dilute the formula. These impacted kittens also often have a bloated abdomen. You can give them a few drops of mineral oil or cat hairball paste to help them evacuate the stool. If they still remain bound up they may need a warm water enema. This is best done at a veterinary hospital.
Dehydration is most common in newly acquired kittens that have not had access to milk for 24-48 hours. Dehydrated kittens are very weak and inactive. Their skin does not spring back when pinched but instead has a clay-like consistency. These kittens are best treated with sugar-containing fluids injected under their skin. Dehydrated kittens will also be hypoglycemic that is low in blood sugar. So feed them a 10% dextrose solution until the problem is resolved.
It is prudent to worm your kitten with pyrantel pamoate when it is six weeks of age. You can purchase this worming medicine at all WalMart Stores. It is labeled for dogs but works equally well in cats for removing roundworms and hookworms.
If the kittens are kept isolated from other cats their first vaccinations can be given at 12 weeks of age. If other unvaccinated cats come in contact with the kitten the first vaccine should be administered at 6-8 weeks. The vaccine should immunize against feline panleukopenia (cat distemper), feline rhinotracheitis and feline calicivirus. At 12 weeks it should receive a rabies vaccination and at 12 and 18 weeks the kitten should also be vaccinated against feline leukemia.
Kittens that are too weak to nurse need to be tube fed. It is difficult to explain this process in writing. The best way to learn how to tube feed is to have someone experienced in the technique do it for you the first time.
To tube feed, I fill a three or six-milliliter syringe with heated formula being careful that no air bubbles are present. Then I attach an eighteen-gauge infusion (butterfly) set to the syringe. I cut off the needle and fill the remaining tubing with milk. I lay the tube along side the kitten and make a mark with an indelible pen on the tube when the tip is alongside the kittens last rib. Then I gently open the kitten's mouth and begin to thread the tubing over the kitten's tongue very slowly. This gives the kitten time to swallow the tubing rather than have it go into the windpipe. If you are accidentally in the windpipe the kitten will squirm and fuss. When I think the tube is correctly placed, with my thumb and index finger I carefully palpate the kitten's neck to feel two tube-like structures. One, in the center of the neck will be the windpipe (trachea). The other will be the catheter tube. If I only feel one structure I remove the tube and reinsert it again until I am certain I am in the esophagus and not in the trachea. Then I slowly inject the contents of the syringe. When tube feeding feed no more than 75% of what the kitten would have taken orally so it does not regurgitate the formula.
Weaning - You Are Almost There!
Begin to offer your kitten sold foods when it is three and a half weeks old. By four and a half weeks the kitten should be weaned. Purchase some cans of gourmet cat food in chicken and beef flavors and smear a bit on the cat's pallet. It will soon get the idea. Do not feed it fish flavored foods or it will become a fussy eater. This is the same time one should begin to offer formula in a bowl. The earlier a kitten eats on its own the better. If you use strained meat baby foods be sure they contain no onion powder. I do not suggest baby foods because they are too low in calcium and vitamins. Although many kittens will eat as early as four weeks some make take an additional two or three weeks before they express interest in solid food. Slowly substitute moistened kitten chow for baby foods or canned cat food. As soon as kitten chow is offered keep a dish of water available for the kitten. By the time the kitten is 10 weeks old it should be receiving kitten chow dry.
Article submitted by: Ron Hines DVM PhD (Original Article