How to give a kitten milk replacement formula

Family dog bottle feeds kitten and warms up the formula at the same time.
Family dog bottle feeds kitten and warms up the formula at the same time! Screenshot.
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I am taking this information exclusively from the work of four veterinarians in writing the reference book Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook. It is an excellent book. I don’t have personal experience of feeding kittens with milk replacement formula.

Kittens can be fed milk replacement using a special pet nursing bottle or the commercially available product which I highlight on the previous page, which is about the preparation of a queen’s milk. You can read the page by clicking on this link if you wish.

A third option is to feed a kitten via a stomach tube. It’s important to keep the kitten upright so that the milk does not go into the lungs. The milk should be warmed to avoid chilling the kitten.


I refer once again to the previous page and the communal bottle-feeding, breastfeeding substitute which I found interesting. It’s a nice video. And the device only cost about $15 in America. The device or a bottle both have the advantage of satisfyingly the suckling urge instinctively inherited by a kitten but the kitten needs to be strong enough to use it.

My reference works states that, “When using a small doll’s bottle or a commercial kitten nurser with a soft nipple, you will usually have to enlarge the hole in the nipple with a hot needle so the milk will drip slowly when the bottle is turned over.”

If this isn’t done the kitten will tire after a few minutes and will not be able to receive enough nourishment.

But the hole should not be too large as it will allow the milk to come out too fast which in turn may cause the kitten to choke or even, in the worst-case scenario, inhale the milk leading to pneumonia.

The kitten should be held “upright on his stomach and chest”. The kitten should not be cradled on his back like a human baby because if he is the milk will run into the kitten’s trachea.

The mouth should be opened with the tip of your finger. The nipple should be inserted into the mouth and the bottle held at a 45° angle. “The angle of the bottle should be such that air does not get into the kitten’s stomach”.

The bottle should be pulled slightly to encourage suckling. When the kitten has drunk enough “you will see bubbles come out around the mouth”. When there is a slow drip, feeding takes about five minutes or more.

Tube feeding

This takes about two minutes to complete each feeding “and little air is swallowed”. This seems to be hinting that there is less chance of air being swallowed when tube feeding compared to bottle-feeding.

The advantages of tube feeding is that it ensures a proper amount of formula to be administered to each kitten and it is the “only satisfactory method of feeding premature or sick kittens who are too weak to nurse”.

If too much formula is given it will be regurgitated. The same happens if it is ingested too rapidly. This may cause aspiration which means the formula going into the lungs.

Problems can be avoided if:

  • you take care to monitor the weight of the kitten and
  • compute the correct amount of formula and
  • administer it slowly (please refer to my previous page – see link above)

The tube feeding of kittens means that they should be kept in separate incubator compartments “to avoid suckling damage to littermates”.

Apparently, tube feeding isn’t that difficult and it can be mastered quickly in a few minutes. Although it is very useful to have somebody who has done it before correctly and has the requisite experience to show you.

The equipment you need will be:

  • a soft rubber catheter (size 5 French for smaller kittens or size 8-10 for larger kittens)
  • a 10 mL or 20 mL plastic syringe
  • a gram scale to calculate each kitten’s weight and monitor their progress (the items can be bought at drugstores in the US or from a veterinarian).

How far do you insert the tube? The stomach is located at the level of the last rib. Measure the tube on the outside of the kitten’s body from the mouth to the last rib. Mark that distance with a piece of tape on the tube. You connect the tube to the syringe and draw the formula up through the tube into the syringe. All air should be expelled from the system. You can warm the formula to body temperature by immersing the syringe in hot water. Check the temperature on your wrist before feeding.

Place the kitten on their chest and stomach in a horizontal position. Moisten the tip of the tube with formula and allow the kitten to suckle for a short while. You then slowly pass the tube over the kitten’s tongue and into their throat.

You apply steady pressure at which time the kitten will begin to swallow the tube. Pass it to the level of the marked position and slowly inject the formula down the tube into the stomach.

When completed, remove the tube gently and raised the kitten to vertical position. Allow them to burp. Swab the anal and genital areas to stimulate defecation and urination.

Like human babies, make sure you burp bottle baby kittens after each feeding. Place the kitten against your shoulder or on her stomach and gently pat her back until you feel her burp.

Ally Cat Allies

The danger

It seems to me that one huge danger with this process is passing the tube into the trachea rather than the oesophagus i.e. into the lungs rather than the stomach. That I think is going to require particular care and experience and perhaps training. If the tube goes down the trachea the kitten will begin to cough and choke.

At about 14 days old the trachea of many kittens is large enough to accommodate the smaller tube and you should change to a larger tube size 8-10 French. The kitten may be strong enough to suckle from a bottle.

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