Hand rearing kittens

Young kittens may need to be hand-raised for many reasons including:

  • The kittens are orphaned or abandoned
  • The mother develops a medical condition (eg. mastitis, eclampsia) or requires medication which is not safe to kittens
  • A large litter
  • The mother has inadequate milk supply
  • The mother is aggressive towards the kittens or refuses to nurse
  • The kitten has a medical condition (eg. cleft palate)

How do I feed my kitten?

Bottle feeding hand-reared kitten

Bottle/ Syringe Feeding

Ideally a bottle and teat designed specifically for kittens is the best form of feeding, however, a syringe can also be used. Squirrel teats (available from the USA) are particularly good for small kittens and attach easily to a 5 or 10 ml syringe. Making a note of the amount taken per feed is important to establish that the kittens are having the right amount of formula per day.

Tube Feeding

Tube feeding can be performed in order to save time, and is very useful if kittens do not have a strong suckle reflex. Be sure to ask a vet or vet nurse to show you how to tube feed your kitten safely.

Use a size 8 French infant catheter and connect a suitably sized syringe with formula. Prior to insertion of the tube, lay the catheter alongside the kitten and mark the spot which reflects the distance from the mouth to the stomach. Then hold the mouth open and pass the catheter over the tongue, allowing the kitten to swallow the tube. Hold the tube in place and syringe the formula directly into the stomach. It is very important not to overfill the stomach to prevent reflux and aspiration pneumonia. 

When and how much do I feed?

Generally speaking, the longer a kitten is able to feed from their mother (and therefore get much needed colostrum), the easier it will be to raise a litter of healthy kittens.

Syringe feeding hand-raised kitten

Use an appropriate formula at the correct dilution to ensure kittens do not get diarrhoea or constipation. Biolac and Divetelact are the most commonly available formulas and are cost effective. Work out the amount required per day and divide it by the amount of feeds (e.g. 12-16 feeds per day over the first week) so you know how much is required per feed.

Feeding must be in small, regular amounts. Initially, every 1-2 hours (including overnight) is appropriate but this can be drawn out as the kittens get older and stronger. Excessive amounts fed infrequently can lead to diarrhoea. Do not force the formula in, rather let the kitten suck it out, in order to help prevent aspiration pneumonia.

Once kittens start on solids, time between feeds will generally lengthen as solid food is more filling and requires a longer time to digest.

My kitten is not putting on weight

Kittens should be weighed daily (at the same time each day) and their weights recorded. This can easily be done on a graph and should show an exponential curve of growth.

Address the issue of weight loss immediately, whether by increasing the frequency or amount of feeding or by seeking veterinary attention. It is normal for kittens to drop below their initial birth weight in the first 24-48 hours but their weight should steadily increase after this time. As kittens gain weight, regularly reassess the amount of formula required each day.

How do I get my kitten to urinate and defaecate?

Urination and defecation need to be stimulated after feeding (every feed). Use a moistened, warm tissue or cotton wool ball and a patting motion, rather than a wiping motion. This will assist in preventing urine scalding or moist dermatitis.

other important points

Heating

Caring and feeding newborn kittens

Heating is very important as kittens will become cold very quickly. Electric pad heaters may not be sufficient if they are the type that produce heat proportional to weight. Hot water bottles require constant refilling and can cause burns to the kittens if not sufficiently insulated. Newspaper makes the best bedding because it retains warmth and can be disposed of easily in the event it gets soiled. Blankets and towels do not retain heat as easily, require frequent laundering and can be a source of infection if left soiled for a period of time. It is also possible that kittens will become trapped in them.

Clean environment

The environment which the kittens are being kept should be kept as clean as possible. Obviously total sterility is impossible, but bedding should be changed at least daily, or more often if soiled. Use of disinfectants to clean the cage and equipment is important. Isolation from other cats is also important until the kittens have been vaccinated.

Health care

Kittens should be wormed for intestinal worms at 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 weeks of age (and then monthly until 6 months of age.)
Their first vaccination can be given from 6 weeks of age.

Weaning

For hand-reared kittens, early weaning should be encouraged. This can be started from as early as 14-18 days old with a suitable early weaning formula (such as Royal Canin®). This should initially be done as a supplementation to formula feeding and gradually increased in frequency over the ensuing days to not stress the intestinal system of the kitten. Start with a reasonably thick mixture and place a small amount in the kittens mouth, allowing it to become familiar with the new taste and texture by gently masticating the jaw.

Socialisation

Singleton kittens are likely to develop some strange behavioural problems if they do not have any feline contact within the key developmental period (4-12 weeks) so allowing supervised contact with older, vaccinated cats may be advised. This can also assist them to learn self grooming behaviours.

Interesting facts

Kittens generally open their eyes around day 10-16 and their ears will begin to function around day 15-17.

Pet type(s): 
Life stage(s): 
Young
Pet library topic(s): 
Basic health and care
Reproduction and breeding
Tags: 
hand
rear
rearing
kittens
milk
formula
syringe feeding
bottle feeding

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