As a volunteer fostering unweaned orphan kittens, you have taken on a difficult but very rewarding project. Your efforts will give the orphans in your care the chance to live a full and happy life. Without you, they might have died or been euthanized. Community Concern for Cats is truly grateful to you for your commitment to saving these little lives.
This effort is a lot of work, but you are not alone! CC4C members are here to provide support and to answer the questions that will undoubtedly arise. Please don’t hesitate to ask for help by calling us at 925-938-CATS.
The guidelines below will give you the basic information you need to raise unweaned kittens.
The first three topics below are the most important:
WARMTH, FEEDING, and HYGIENE
- Keeping the kittens warm is crucial. Those under about 3 weeks old are unable to generate much body heat on their own. They depend on their mother and litter mates for heat. Without her, they chill easily and can die.
- A chilled kitten should be warmed up before feeding. Your body warmth is a good substitute for the mother while you prepare a heating pad. Tuck the kitten against your skin under your clothing, holding it in place with your bra or arm.
- Keep the kittens in a place in your home that is warm, draft-free, and isolated from small children and your own pets, particularly cats. Place the kittens on a heating pad on the low setting under a heavy towel. Be VERY careful to place adequate padding between the kittens and the heating pad to avoid burns. Be sure to tuck the towel under the pad so the kittens cannot crawl between the towel and the pad.
- Place kittens and pad in a box, cat carrier, or other confinement that is large enough for the kittens to move off the pad if they become too warm.
Mixing the formula
- Supplies for bottle feeding (bottles, nipples, formula, etc.) are available at pet stores.
- Under 4 weeks of age, feed only KMR (Kitten Milk Replacement), available at pet stores, either premixed in a can (expensive but fast in an emergency) or powdered in a can. Mix the powdered KMR as directed on the container, based on the kitten’s weight.
- Weigh the kitten using a kitchen scale or pet stores usually have a digital scale they’ll let you use.) A kitten needs approximately 8 cc’s of formula per ounce of body weight per day.
|Age (weeks)||Weight (oz.)||Feedings
(cc of formula)
(# feedings per day)
|Note: 15 cc = 1 Tbsp|
- A plastic water bottle (such as the 16 oz size) is perfect for shaking/mixing the formula, storing the day’s supply in the fridge, and also for ease of pouring into the small nursing bottle.
- Both powdered KMR mixed with water and an opened can of premixed KMR is to be stored in the refrigerator.
- The opened can of powdered KMR should be refrigerated as well; it is good for 3 months if kept cold. If kept in the freezer, an opened can of powder lasts 6 months.
- HOMEMADE FORMULA’S FOR KITTENS ARE NOT ADVISED UNLESS INSTRUCTED BY A VETERINARIAN, HOWEVER IN AN EMERGENCY GOATS MILK IS A SHORT-TERM SUBSTITUTE.
- To save time, make up a 24-hour supply and keep it refrigerated. Any formula left over after 24 hours should be thrown out.
- Formula should always be fed warm (approx. 101 degrees F). Warm the formula in the bottle in a pan of water.
- Do not microwave the formula; although you may microwave the water in a glass cup before placing the bottle in the water. Test a few drops on the back of your hand to make sure it is warm but not hot.
- DO NOT ALLOW THE FORMULA TO BOIL. Any formula that boils must be thrown out, as the protein has been destroyed.
- Only heat as much formula as you think the kittens will drink. ANY HEATED FORMULA REMAINING SHOULD BE DISCARDED. Reheated formula can cause a bacterial infection.
Feeding the kittens
- Kittens under 4 weeks old should be fed every 3-1/2 to 4 hours during the day. Nighttime feeding is not necessary as long as the kittens are fed at least 4 to 5 times during the day. However, feed as late in the evening as is convenient and as early in the morning as possible.
- Nipples come without holes. Take care in creating a nipple hole. Use the smallest cuticle scissors you have and start small; once the hole is cut too big, it cannot be corrected. The hole is perfect when you hold the bottle upside down and it goes drip – drip – drip. Gushing out might cause the kitten to aspirate the formula; a hole too small will keep the kitten from getting any formula at all.
- If the kittens are asleep at feeding time, wake them gently by holding and stroking them. Aside from feeding time, allow them to sleep at will.
- To feed your kitten, place it stomach down on a towel or other textured surface to which it can cling. This is similar to the position when nursing on the mother.
- Grasp the kitten gently under its armpits. Gently open its mouth with the tip of your finger, then slip the nipple between its jaws. You may have to wiggle it, and squeeze out a bit of milk so the kitten gets the idea. NEVER TURN THE KITTEN ON ITS BACK TO FEED. KEEP BOTH THE KITTEN AND THE BOTTLE IN AS UPRIGHT A POSITION AS POSSIBLE. Hold the bottle at 45-degree angle, keeping a light pull on the bottle to encourage vigorous sucking.
- If the kitten is sucking effectively, the ears move in rhythm to the sucking.
- Take your time; some kittens nurse slowly.
- The kitten will let you know when it has had enough simply by refusing more. Or bubbles will form around its mouth. Burp the kitten on your shoulder (like a baby), tapping with your finger on its back. Try the bottle twice more to see if the kitten will take more after burping.
- Sometimes the kitten will get a grip on the nipple and the nipple will collapse in its mouth. Then gently twist the nipple to release the kitten’s grasp, which will then allow air to enter and the nipple to expand again.
- If the kittens are not eating, they may have become dehydrated. They will need fluids under the skin (lactated ringer’s solution). Call a CC4C member to get help.
- Before and/or after each meal, place a cotton ball, facial tissue or soft towel over the kitten’s genitals and jiggle gently to stimulate urination and a bowel movement. DO NOT RUB; this will cause the area to become raw and sore. (The mother typically cleans this area herself before they’re litter trained.)
- By about 3 weeks of age, a kitten should be able to eliminate without help. (See LITTER TRAINING below.)
- Weigh the kittens daily to be sure they’re gaining weight, and keep a record. Weight gain may skip a day or two, then jump a bit. They should gain about 4 oz. per week.
- A kitten’s instinctive need to suckle (frustrated by the lack of a mother’s nipple) may cause the kitten to suckle its littermate’s ears, tail or genitals, causing irritation. Try to satisfy this oral need by caressing each kitten’s mouth with your finger or a soft cloth.
- When kittens reach 12 ounces (about 3-1/2 to 4 weeks of age), feed every 6 hours. It is now about time to wean the kittens off the bottle and onto solid food. (See WEANING below.)
As with all newborns, hygiene is extremely important. The spread of germs is an ongoing threat to kittens. To keep this spread to a minimum, make cleanliness a high priority:
- If you’re feeding more than one litter, keep the litters separate from each other – preferably in different rooms. Feed each litter with separate bottles and nipples. Use different lap towels for each litter. Wash your hands before you handle each litter. You might also want to change shoes when you enter each room, and use a separate apron or other garment for each.
- KEEP ALL FEEDING EQUIPMENT EXTREMELY CLEAN! Sterilize all utensils before each feeding.
- Wash bottles, nipples, storage bottle and bottle brushes, etc., in hot soapy water and rinse well. Bottles and nipples can also be placed in a pan of boiling water to sterilize them.
- BE SURE TO CLEAN THE PLASTIC MIXING/STORAGE BOTTLE THOROUGHLY EACH 24 HOURS. If a film appears inside the bottle, use either a bottle brush made specifically for kitten bottles, or put 10-15 grains of dry rice in the bottle, with a drop of dishwashing liquid and a small bit of water; shake vigorously. The rice against the bottle will remove the film.
- Keep the kittens clean and dry. The mother cat keeps them scrupulously clean. THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR A KITTEN THAT HAS FECES ON IT. Do not be afraid to give a kitten a bath or wipe with a warm damp washcloth. Use a sinkful of warm water, or run warm water from a faucet. Use a mild soap (Dawn is especially good). Clean the kittens gently but thoroughly. Rinse and IMMEDIATELY DRY THE KITTEN COMPLETELY with a towel and a blow dryer on low. Be sure to keep your hand between the kitten and the dryer to avoid burning. A kitten must be completely dry before putting it back in the box. Chilling is a major cause of death in kittens.
- The towels in the kittens’ box should also be kept clean. You might not notice soiling on the towels, but the kittens will urinate and they should not lie in urine-soaked beds. Sometimes you will need to change the towel with each feeding. You might find you will be doing more laundry for the kittens than your own family, but cleanliness is important to the health of these babies, so KEEP THE TOWELS CLEAN!
(4) LITTER TRAINING
At about 3 weeks of age, a kitten should be able to eliminate without help, and you can start litter training.
- Set up a shallow litter tray that the kittens can climb in and out of easily – like an aluminum one-use baking rimmed cookie sheet.
- Clay litter is best; but clumping litter is OK if it is the wheat or corn versions. When kittens climb in and out of the litter tray with feet wet from water or food, the clumps get between their toes and can be ingested. The corn or wheat won’t hurt them; the minerals can.
- If the kittens poop outside the box, pick it up and put it in the box for training.
- After feeding, place kittens in a clean, shallow litter tray. Encourage them to scratch in the litter.
- Leave a litter pan available to them at all times at this age.
Start weaning the kittens off the bottle at 4 or 5 weeks of age. Individual kittens in the same litter may wean at different times, so don’t be discouraged if one or two refuses to leave the bottle at first. Some take up to 8 weeks – often those kittens who crave the one-on-one attention they get from the bottle.
- Offer food in a shallow bowl or saucer with a big towel underneath to catch the inevitable mess.
- Start offering a good quality canned kitten food (your pet store can recommend one) mixed to a thin paste with KMR and/or Gerbers or Beechnut baby food (chicken or turkey).
- To get them started, use your finger to put some of the mixture directly into their mouths.
- When they respond to the taste of the food on your finger, lead their faces down to the food saucer with your food-laden finger.
- The kittens will climb in the food at first, and will end up with food all over their faces – and you, so be prepared. KMR left on the skin can cause irritation. Clean their feet and faces with soft damp cloth, being careful not to dry them well.
- You’ll need to continue KMR feedings as the kittens get used to the saucer. As they eat more often from the bowl, reduce the bottle feedings. You can also offer KMR in a saucer.
- When the kittens are eating only solid food, eliminate the KMR.
- Plain fresh water should be available at all times to the kittens, starting at 4 weeks.
(6) SICK KITTENS
Sick kittens can go downhill very quickly. If you see any of the following symptoms, call a CC4C member or your vet IMMEDIATELY:
- Diarrhea (very dangerous in tiny kittens)
- Constipation (no stool for 2 or 3 days)
- Breathing difficulty
- Refusal to eat; missed more than one feeding
- Eye discharge or runny nose
Somewhere between 2 and 5 weeks, the kitten might develop bloody diarrhea. This is usually coccidian, very common in kittens. This is a treatable parasite (not a worm) and it must be treated quickly to avoid dehydration.
- Take both a stool sample and each kitten in the litter to the vet for a medication called Albon (dosage by weight, once a day for 7-10 days).
- It is imperative during this time to keep the kittens extremely clean, because the diarrhea can cause their rear ends to become sore and raw.
- You will probably need to bathe them at each feeding. Then treat their rears with Bag Balm or Desitin (for diaper rash).
- Helping them to urinate and defecate under running water using a mild soap will alleviate the pain for them.
- KEEP THEM CLEAN DURING THIS TIME.
Constipation can be helped by adding a few drops of Karo syrup to the KMR, or by thinning the KMR a bit.
Never hesitate to call a CC4C member if you have any concerns about the kittens in your care. No question is too stupid or inconsequential. Please ask for help!
When a kitten dies: Sadly, however hard we all try, some kittens inevitably die, or become so ill the veterinarian will recommend euthanasia. Sometimes no specific reason can be known – what is called “fading kitten syndrome.” (NOTE: One experienced cat breeder has had success in overcoming this syndrome. When a kitten stops eating and shows no upper respiratory symptoms, give an antibiotic such as amoxicillin. It’s worth a try.) Whatever the reason, it is extremely difficult emotionally to lose a kitten you have nursed with loving care. We understand this and sympathize with you.
(7) SPECIAL ISSUES
(a) Vaccinations and Tests:
The kittens should receive a series of 3 vaccinations (called FVRCP or distemper) beginning at 8 weeks of age. Shots 2 and 3 of the series should be given 3 – 4 weeks apart. This vaccine protects them from distemper (airborne, contagious and can be a killer) and upper respiratory. This is especially important for bottle babies, who don’t have the advantage of antibodies from mother’s milk. Kittens should also have a feline leukemia test at 8 weeks.
You need to check your kittens for fleas soon after you receive them. Flea anemia can be severely detrimental to their heath, and in extreme cases, cause death.
- Fleas may be obvious on the body or may be hiding under legs or armpits. Or you may see the evidence as little black specks on the kitten’s body. If the kitten’s fur is too dark to see this, place it on a white sheet of paper and rub the fur backwards; black specks will show up on the paper.
- It is not safe to use commercial insecticides or topical flea treatments on kittens under 6 weeks.
- Comb the kittens gently with a fine-toothed flea comb. Have next to you a small bowl of warm with a few drops of Dawn dish-washing liquid. Any fleas caught in the comb can be flicked into the soapy water where they will drown.
- If the infestation is severe, bathe them very gently in warm water with Dawn dish-washing liquid. Start by gently lathering the head and work downward. (If you start by placing the rear in the water first, the fleas will run to the head, making it harder to get at them.)
- Wet fur also makes the adult fleas easier to spot and remove with the comb.
- As with bathing instructions above, rinse and IMMEDIATELY DRY THE KITTEN THOROUGHLY in a soft towel and with a hair dryer on a low setting (making sure to keep your hand between the hot air and the kitten).
- If you’re concerned about bathing the kittens, call a CC4C member for instructions or help.
- Even after the bath, comb the kittens daily because some fleas will inevitably escape the bath.
Most kittens have tapeworms (intestines) and/or roundworms (stomach) from their mothers. Worming medication can be given at about 1-1/2 pounds of weight. A gentle wormer (Pyrantel) be given to younger kittens; a veterinarian or a CC4C member can give you the dosage.
(d) Raising a Single Kitten
CC4C encourages volunteers to take at least 2 kittens at a time, since almost all kittens have siblings. If a kitten must be raised alone, use the following tips:
- Provide the kitten with a surrogate mother or sibling, such as a stuffed toy to snuggle up to or artificial fur to sleep on. You will find that the kitten will knead this like it does its mother.
- Kittens need emotional closeness. Hold the kitten after feeding for a while until it drops off to sleep.
Let the kitten snuggle against your warm skin.
- Rub and pet the kitten with short strokes, as its mother would with her tongue. Talk to it for several minutes.
- Mothers and siblings help a kitten learn discipline and socialization. Introduce the lone kitten to other kittens as soon as possible so they learn to interact and play.
- Most bottle fed kittens are very affectionate toward people. But if a kitten starts to become a biter at about 8 weeks, hold it in your hand and firmly tell it “NO!” Then put it down and withdraw your attention for some minutes.
Kittens can be adopted when they are 8 weeks old and weigh at least 2 pounds.
- They will be independent enough to feed from a dish, will be thoroughly box trained, and will have had their first vaccination and leukemia test.
- At this time, CC4C will accept them into the adoption program at one of our pet store sites. Your CC4C contact can arrange for cage space. You will bring the kittens to the store as the adoption period starts.
- It’s best if you can stay with the kittens, at least at first, to be sure they’re comfortable and to answer the questions of potential adopters. If you cannot stay, leave pertinent information about personality and socialization. Then pick them up at the end of that day’s adoption period.
- Or CC4C may have been able to arrange another foster for the kittens.