Newborn Kitten Care (comprehensive guide)

Newborn kitten care depends on a committed and caring approach, underpinned by common sense and a good veterinarian when needed. It is hard work but highly rewarding and probably suits a woman as she is more likely to have those female nurturing instincts which may be a little more finely tuned than those found in most men. The task is after all similar to raising newborn children. Some basics should (perhaps must) be followed. This post relates mainly to orphaned kittens which need hand rearing but a lot will apply to newborn kitten care generally.

Newborn kitten in a person's hand
Newborn kitten in a person’s hand
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

{Note: this post clearly cannot be a substitute for veterinary care. It is a well researched article on an important subject and tiny lives are at stake. It is intended to be read as a guide and an introduction to get a feel for the tasks at hand and perhaps a bit more, but ultimately the responsibility rests with the person and the mother cat (if there is one) to care for the kitten and to seek veterinarian care when required.}

A committed newborn kitten care specialist and an expert through experience in newborn kitten care, who I mention at the base of this post, says that the starting point is to treat the new born kittens like newborn human babies. Now, I like that because I think that we should treat all domestic cats as equals and the idea that we treat newborn kittens as humans is right up my street. It changes the dynamics completely and will almost certainly lead to a much better relationship with our cats and far better care.

The most important things that need to be dealt with are (a) keep things clean. This interestingly is a reflection of policy in human hospitals. In the UK there are far too many people dying in hospitals due to the presence of “superbugs” which proliferate due, in major part, to inadequate cleaning procedures. Cleanliness is the foundation for health amongst people and animals that are vulnerable to infection and hospitalized people are vulnerable to infection and so are very young kittens, new born kittens. Keeping things clean translates to using antibacterial soap to wash hands and using it before and after handling a newborn kitten. The newborn kitten’s bedclothes should be washed in hot soapy bleach water daily.

Abandoned kitten – photo taken one year ago. This boy was less than one week old and he and his siblings were thrown away by someone and then rescued. He was the only survivor. He weighed at the time, 1.6 ounces. At aged one week the weight should be around 7 ounces depending on cat breed and natural size etc.

If you have acquired an abandoned kitten washing the kitten with antibacterial soap and then when a little older with baby shampoo is OK and helps to maintain a healthy kitten and environment. Drying with a low powered hair drier with the air warm only and perhaps deflected by a hand is OK (a lot of care required here, obviously). New kittens introduced into a household, where there are other cats and kittens, should be isolated until the all clear can be given in respect of health to avoid the possibility of transmitting contagious diseases to the existing cats. In any event a quiet space of her/his own is preferable which can be considered safe territory. This is especially true for a cat brought in as opposed to a cat born in the house. Cats take a considerable time to get used to a new place.

These procedures are stringent but they are a great platform for the remaining tasks involved in newborn kitten care. Cleanliness in newborn kitten care relates to health at a fundamental level. The next basic is to keep the kitten warm.

Newborn kitten - no teeth
Newborn kitten showing no teeth.

(b) keeping kitten warm can be achieved in a number of ways one of which is to placing a heat lamp over a nest of blankets. If you prefer to place heating underneath a heated blanket or heating pad can be used with caution (not too hot but set on “low” and a cool area should be made available for the kitten to crawl to if it is too hot for her/him). These products are readily available on the internet by simply searching with Google for “heat lamp” or heat blanket or “electric blanket” (in the UK). The temperature inside a kittens “nest” should be about 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Emotional warmth is required too so if you are nursing an only kitten (without the mother’s help) placing a small cuddly toy in the nest may help.

(c) monitoring the newborn kittens is obviously essential in newborn kitten care and this includes checking on the age of the kittens.

1-3 days = umbilical cords in place
1-10 days = eyes still closed
14 days = beginnings of teeth
14-21 days = beginning to stand
28 days = beginning to play

Checking on the weight of the kitten daily is also important to monitor health and growth. A kitten that is losing weight might be serious so a veterinarian consultation will probably be required.

(d) feeding – food and water starts with milk. A recommended milk is a powdered one that is easy to mix, called KMR Kitten Milk Replacer. This is recommended for orphaned or rejected kittens and is a complete food, ideal for newborn kitten care. See also Emergency Kitten Formula.

Here I am talking about orphaned kittens, rescue kittens, who have no mother. A mother is best for feeding at least for the first 2 days as her milk contains a wide range of ingredients that nurture and protect the kitten. These are antibodies (5 types) which protect against disease, carbohydrates and protein and low fat content. It also contains growth factors (IGfs). However these powdered milks are nutrient rich substitutes. A mother’s milk produced during pregnancy and just after birth is called “colostrum” and has the beneficial ingredients described above.

KMR can also be used to supplement a kitten’s diet. It is for newborn kittens to kittens 6 weeks old. It comes in powder form or pre-mixed liquid. This product is formulated to replicate a mother’s (the queen’s) milk. A prescription is not required to buy this product.

Newborn kitten rescued
Newborn kitten rescued, cleaned and cared for.

As at the summer 2008 the price is £22 for a 340 gram jar of the powder. That sounds a lot but it probably makes up a lot of milk. I am not sure if this is available in the US (I think you can though). An alternative which is available in America is Just Born Milk Replacer. This can be bought in powdered and liquid form. I am sure there are a number of others.

The milk is given at body temperature using a nursing bottle – the kitten will suckle on it. If not, see a vet who may tube feed. The kitten should be in the position that he/she uses when feeding naturally at her mothers breast, namely a prone position with all legs on the floor and/or the belly on the floor. There are a number of pictures on the internet of tiny kittens being fed with a bottle while on their backs. People do this because it is how a human baby would be fed but it incorrect for a kitten as it can lead to the milk getting into their lungs and choking.

It is best to feed kittens when they are warm as their digestive systems work better. Contact with the person doing the feeding will achieve this and will be a natural consequence of feeding the kitten in the prone position.

Guidelines on amounts and timing: – overfeeding is, it seems, more hazardous and detrimental to the kitten than underfeeding. Checking weight gain will confirm correct feeding – 10 grams added weight daily and normal stool indicates a correct amount of food. Feeding depends on the size, activity and breed (if a purebred) of the kitten:

weak kitten about every 4 hours minimum it seems. Preferred, every 2 hours for newborn to aged one week and every 3 hours for kittens aged 1- 3 weeks. Thereafter 4 hourly.

depending on type of cat at birth kitten may weigh about 4 ounces and feeding should be about 6-8 feeds per 24 hours of a total of 32 cubic centimeters (cc) of replacement milk. At aged 1 week the weight: 7 ounces, feed: 36 cc, 4 feeds. Aged 3 weeks, weight: 10 ounces, feed: 80 cc 3 feeds. Age 4 weeks, weight: 13 ounces, feed: 104 cc 3 feeds. Aged 5 weeks he should weigh about one pound and at aged 10 weeks he should weigh 2 lbs. Kitten should be weaned after about 25-30 days.

I personally am not a great fan of dry food no matter its convenience. However, weaning onto dry food can be achieved gradually by blending a good quality dry food for kittens with milk replacement to form a paste. For the first week feed 3-4 times daily and gradually increase the amount of dry food. I guess the same procedure could be used on converting to wet food. I’d only use high quality wet food as there is some poor stuff out there.

(e) kittens can become dehydrated through diarrhea or because kittens excrete large amounts of dilute urine. Newborn kitten care may include giving an oral electrolyte solution such as Pedialyte. This can be administered every hour at 1 ml for every 2 ounces of the kitten’s body weight.

All White Siamese Kitten
All White Siamese Kitten. Photo by BlackZero_007.

In addition, fluids given under the skin (“sub-q fluids“) are absorbed into the blood stream and can be administered to correct for dehydration in the kitten. This is an excellent article about giving sub-q fluids to a cat but your vet will be pleased to advise I am sure. Successful newborn kitten care and raising kittens by hand requires a knowledge of sub-q fluids.

You can check on dehydration in a kitten or cat by gently pulling the skin at the back of the neck. If it returns quickly when released all is well. Urine will be yellow and not clear when the kitten is dehydrated.

(f) kitten need to be stimulated to go to the toilet. A kitten’s mother will do this by licking the kittens bottom. A cat’s tongue is a very special piece of anatomy as we know (a bit like sand paper). To simulate this action we as humans can gently wipe the kitten’s bottom with a textured cloth, either a dampened or under gently running water.

(g) fleas are a common problem in newborn kitten care, especially if you are caring for an abandoned or feral kitten. I would never give flea treatments as part of newborn kitten care, as they are too toxic for a kitten (even for an adult sometimes). A flea comb is the best way and a wash. Combing is far more controlled and benign as a method and it helps create a bond. Bonding is good for socializing the kitten (getting used to human contact). Socializing includes getting used to other pets too. Hand combing fleas is best but if there are a number of kittens this may become a handful. That said I still think wash and comb is the starting point. It is pointless though to wash kitten perfectly and her bed etc without making sure all the house is also clear of fleas or at least well managed. It also means all the cats in the house have to be treated at the same time. There is no other way. This goes back to item (a) above cleanliness. Note: one way to control fleas in the immediate environment is with food grade diatomaceous earth.

(h) stools – you can learn a lot about a cat’s health from her s**t. Stool watching is a way of monitoring newborn kitten care. You kind of get used to it. Food change will result in stool change often and diarrhea is to be watched for. Diarrhea can cause dehydration and may require extra fluid intake (see above).

(i) the Vet – Newborn Kitten Care must include an early trip to the vet and I guess this probably goes without saying. If we acquire a cat from any source we need to have her/him checked out. This should be a “new pet’s examination” and the appointment should be booked under that category. The first thing that springs to mind is vaccinations. It depends where you bought or acquired the kitten. Breeders should and nearly always will provide certificates for vaccinations and deworming completed at their catteries. Procedures on giving vaccinations have changed over the years and they would seem to be less than obligatory in some cases as they can cause illness themselves. The compounds in the vaccine (preservatives) can rarely cause cancer, it has been reported. So some consideration goes into whether to give vaccines or not. Your vet will advise obviously but remember vaccinations are a bread and butter source of revenue for vets so their judgment may be skewed a bit.

Do cats have belly buttons?
Do cats have belly buttons? Yes.

Another thing about vets. Some are better than others. Some are more commercial than others. Some will know cats better than others. We should try and find the best one for our kitten(s).

(j) litter training – just living with cats for many years tells you that cats will naturally go to a litter tray to go to the toilet as it replicates what they would do in the wild (using earth). Obviously a newborn kitten will not use a litter tray but once weaned and large enough she will (at about 5-6 weeks of age). So, a kitten will by and large teach herself to use the litter. Cats are also hard wired to be clean. The box should not be too high, in a quiet undisturbed area and clean. If she isn’t using the litter this could be due to an illness (e.g. cystitis) or nervousness (some Persians have litter tray problems due to nerves). In fact cystitis can be brought on by stress as well as a bacterial infection.

The mother encourages the newborn kitten to defecate by licking the kitten’s anus. Martin Stucki of A1 Savannahs replicates this in this video. He is also bottle feeding these superb Savannah cats. He calls them “A1 Supremes”. These are the best quality Savannah cats at A1 Savannahs.

Newborn kitten care — Update Feb 2011:

I’d like to add some additional notes, some of which may overlap with the above text but I would rather have it here nonetheless. Determining the sex of a kitten can be a bit tricky. This post might help: How To Sex Kittens. This section of a post gives a time line of development: Reproduction and Development of Domestic Cats.

I’ll add some key points taken from the excellent: Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, Fully Revised and Updated:

  1. Kitten body temperature and weight should be watched closely.
  2. Appearance, breathing rate, crying sounds and general behavior also provide information.
  3. Kitten should feel, “round and firm”. Mouths and tongues are wet. They hardly cry.
  4. A sick kitten is limp, cold and they “hang like a dishcloth”. The are not interested in nursing and get tired quickly. Sick kittens meow “plaintively” for 20 minutes or more.
  5. A kitten that is chilled for whatever reason is in danger. “Chilling is the single greatest danger to the infant kitten”. Temp of kitten box and surrounding area must be: 85 to 90 degrees F for the first week after birth. Then lowered every week by 5 degrees to 70 degrees F.
  6. Warming a kitten should be gradual. The best way is to use our own body heat by placing the kitten next to our skin. It may take 2-3 hours.
  7. A cold kitten should not be allowed to nurse or bottle fed. This is because when cold the stomach and small intestines stop working. The kitten might vomit. A warmed 5-10 percent glucose and water solution can be used – 1 cc per ounce of body weight every hour. Honey and water is a substitute.
  8. Weight gain is important. A healthy kitten weighs 110-125 grams. This should be doubled in 7-9 days. At 5 weeks = one pound. 10 weeks = 2 pounds. Mother needs an adequate food supply to provide her milk. 2 to 3 times usual amount of food is required by the mother.
  9. Kittens who lose weight and don’t put it back on within 72 hours should be fed supplements.
  10. Dehydration is serious. Signs are: lack of mouth moisture, loss of muscle tone, weakness, tongue not bright pink, skin stays up when pinched.
  11. See: Fading Kitten Syndrome
  12. Best Kitten Food (at a certain age)

Photo at bottom of post: by Paul Ponraj under creative commons license

Newborn kitten care – Sources:

  • primary source. This person is Jeri Dopp. She clearly has a lot of hands on experience. Her webpage was written in about 1996 however. Things may have changed a little but unlikely as the basic rules will always apply
  • Wikipedia for definitions

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See also Elisa’s thoughts on newborn kitten care:

Newborn Kitten Care

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