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 for the 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?
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. Ask a vet or vet nurse to show you how to feed your kitten safely.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kittens generally open their eyes around day 10-16 and their ears will begin to function around day 15-17.