Newborn Kitten Care – an article by author and cat rescuer Elisa Black-Taylor.
Newborn kitten care is a subject that is covered very well on the internet. During the height of my kitten care days in the 1980’s, I’d have given just about anything to have the information that I sought in such a convenient form. This is my spin on what is an important subject.
I’m sure there will be several cat midwives who question my approach to newborn kitten care. I had an exceptionally great survival rate, so I feel confident enough to pass this knowledge on to the readers here.
The first thing I’d like to cover is the items to have on hand before delivery. These include :
- Sterile gauze
- Sterile gloves
- Scissors (in case you have to cut the umbilical cord)
- Dental floss (to tie off the cord) Chances are the mom will take care of this herself, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.
- Bulb syringe (which I call a snot sucker and can be purchased for under $2 in the infant department)
- Heating source (a heating pad wrapped in a towel or a hot water bottle works well. So does a thermal cat mat made to reflect a cats body heat. These are available online for under $20 and work well for AFTER the delivery is finished)
- Fresh clean towels and blankets. Have several handy as you may have to change them several time during the delivery process. If the sight of blood makes you feel faint, have a red towel close at hand as it has a psychological effect on the brain. This advice also works for dealing with anyone injured and bleeding. Do not use a red towel while midwifing a cat unless you ARE squeamish at the sight of blood as green or yellow is a sign of infection.
- Birthing box. This is recommended but I never used one for during the delivery. Only after the birthing is complete
- Scale. Use a baby scale or a scale meant specifically for newborn kitten care as you will need to weigh the kittens daily.
I always knew when a female was about to give birth by watching for several things. The first is during the final days of pregnancy the kittens drop down closer to the birth canal. They also tended to move around more and the cat will become restless and anxious. It was during this time that I would turn an outside stray into an inside cat. Many sources on the subject recommend taking a cat’s temperature as it will drop a degree shortly before birth. There is NO WAY I’m going to stick a thermometer up a cat’s rectum. A cat about to queen in ornery (bad-tempered and combative) enough without my adding to the problem!
Don’t put too much emphasis on where your cat is giving birth. Being outside and exposed to dangers such as the elements, animals and everything else is dangerous. Bring her indoors if you can. Allow her to pick the spot if possible to accommodate her. A small bathroom works well for the actual delivery but would need to be moved immediately afterward. I’ve assisted in births that took place on the bed, in the floor and in the back of a closet. Hopefully you will have someone to assist during the delivery in case you run into complications.
Newborn kitten care includes a temperature controlled room. Kittens must be kept warm and most sources suggest a room be between 80F-85F degrees. Kittens are very fragile and can’t control their body temperature the first few weeks so they must be kept warm. During my early days as a cat midwife I was under the impression my cat wouldn’t be hungry shortly before giving birth. Many would fool me and eat and begin delivery an hour later. Another tip I’d like to pass along is to shave the hair around the nipple area, especially if mama is a long haired cat. This makes it much easier for a kitten to find a nipple to nurse on.
Once your cat begins giving birth, it can take anywhere from 1-6 hours for completion. Sometimes longer. First litters take longer. A cat can have as few as one kitten or a multiple litter. Four to five are average, but I had one cat who had nine kittens. We were fortunate her sister had miscarried a few days before delivery and helped with the feeding.
If the delivery is progressing well, just sit back and enjoy the miracle of birth. Normally a female cat can handle pain and will not be overly vocal during the actual birth. Research does show that some cats do a lot of howling and hiding in the final day before delivery occurs. The birthing process, also known as queening, begins with a sac protruding from the abdomen. This is followed by a kitten and a placenta. I would always check each kitten after delivery to be sure it is breathing and moving. The normal process is for the mama cat to clean the newborn kitten up usually first by licking off the film and then biting through the umbilical cord and eat each placenta as it comes out (see serval birth in video below). Sorry, cat midwives, this is instinct. Cats do this not only to destroy the scent of birth to deter predators, but the placenta is actually full of nutrients for the cat.
Most kittens will attempt to move around. If a kitten isn’t moving, swab out it’s mouth with the sterile gauze and use the bulb syringe to suction out the mouth in case there is mucus blocking the airway. If the kitten still doesn’t move, rub it gently with a clean towel. I once dealt with a c-section birth where one of the kittens wasn’t moving around much at all. The vet put me to work pushing the kitten around in the cage to stimulate it. He told me to keep it moving and this saved its life. The mother was still knocked out cold from the anesthetic.
it is important when managing newborn kitten care to be sure to count the placentas as the kittens are born. There should be one placenta for each kittens. Sometimes twin kittens will share a placenta. Otherwise, if you do not count one for each kitten please contact your vet as soon as possible. I lost a cat once who had failed to deliver a placenta and it set up a fatal uterine infection. I had not been present at the birth and did not know. She died three weeks after giving birth.
It is normal for the cat to experience a bloody discharge for up to 10 days. This should also be a pink filmy color. If you notice a bad odor or if the discharge is green or yellow at the time of queening or afterward, get your cat to the vet immediately Always wear sterile gloves when handling a newborn kitten.
After the kitten has been cared for, it should be allowed the chance to nurse between births. This is where an extra midwife comes in handy. When mama cat is preparing to deliver the next in her litter, she may become careless and step on a newborn. As she prepares for the next birth, place the delivered kitten or kittens on the heating pad (wrapped in a towel set on low) or hot water bottle and cover with a soft towel to insulate. It can become tiresome moving the kittens back and forth between mama cat and the heating source.
Newborn kitten care also includes recording the order and time of birth for each kitten. This isn’t mandatory, but it will bring back memories in years to come as to which kitten came in which order.
Should a kitten die, allow the mama cat to see and smell this kitten. Otherwise she may later search for the missing kitten. I’m a firm believer that cats can count and know how many kittens they have.
On one occasion we had to pull a dead kitten from the cat during the birthing process. It became lodged halfway in and halfway out and by the time we freed the kitten from the howling mother, it was dead. If a kitten is lodged for more than a few minutes, call the vet. During another delivery, the cat who had to deliver by c-section, a small dead kitten was delivered first and the mama’s labor stopped. Check with your vet should labor seem to stop and the cat is very anxious. This could be a sign something is very wrong. Over four hours of labor between kittens with obvious distress means CALL THE VET! Do it sooner if your instincts tell you your cat needs more help than you can give.
Once the litter has settled into this world it’s time to weigh them. A newborn should weigh roughly 100 grams or around 3 ounces. A kitten under 90 grams is more likely to die and statistics show 25% of newborn kittens born to strays die from one cause or another. My survival rate was much higher. I just wanted to mention the death rate so that if a kitten does die it’s not likely from anything the cat midwife did. Some kittens just don’t have long in this world.
After their first weigh in and the information is recorded, the kittens are then moved into the birthing box. I like to call in a kitten box since I never used mine for the birthing. To be honest, it would have gotten in the way of our accessing each newborn for problems.
Make sure the blankets or towels used in the box are washed on a daily basis using hot water and bleach. You need to keep the area as sterile as possible for the kittens. I recommend at least two of the cat thermal pad available at Amazon.com. These have free shipping on a $25 order and my adult cats fight for who sleeps on the pad. They are machine washable but must be air dried as they are made from a special material that reflects heat.
We would weigh our kittens daily. A healthy kitten should gain between 1/4 and 1/2 ounce daily for the first few weeks. It’s normal for a kitten to lose a few grams during the first 24 hours, but otherwise weight loss must be addressed quickly. I use powdered kitten formula as it’s more convenient and doesn’t spoil as quickly as the liquid. It’s also more cost friendly. Keep in mind a mother cat can be nursing and the kittens still may not get as much milk as they need to flourish. Remember, a hungry kitten will cry a lot. A satisfied kitten will sleep. This link is the best article I’ve ever read on the feeding regiment required for newborn kitten care. It lists the amount to feed and how often and what NOT to do when caring for newborn kittens. I highly urge everyone to read it. http://www.safehavenforcats.com/newborn.htm. See also kitten development on this site.
The author of the above link uses a nursing bottled made specifically for newborn kitten care. I never had much luck with those. I always used a small syringe (you vet will likely give you one if you just ask). Many times the kitten would get the hang of nursing from the syringe, actually causing a suction to pull the formula out of it in much the same way as suckling. Just be sure not to hold a nursing kitten as you would a nursing baby. It’s too easy for formula to escape into the lungs and cause problems. Watch the natural position a nursing kitten takes. It is always in an upright position with the head tilted back. This is the only safe way to feed, although I’ve seen several do it incorrectly.
You can expect the eyes to open at between 10-14 days old, according to sources I checked on the internet. My personal experience was more in the range of 8-10 days, with one kitten opening his eyes at 2 days old. I’d never heard of one doing that so young. Make sure the eyes are clear and no infection present. Should an eye infection develop, please see a vet as soon as possible for treatment. It may be as simple as eye ointment or antibiotics may also be needed. This isn’t something you need to judge for yourself.
Don’t be alarmed if you and your cat cannot come to a mutual agreement on where the kittens should spend the first few weeks of life. The one thing to remember is a kitten’s eyes shouldn’t be exposed to bright light as they are extremely sensitive. I still have fond memories of one of my stray cats carrying her babies from the bedroom closet (my choice) to under the living room couch (her choice). We passed each other in the hallway several times before coming to an understanding. In other words, the kittens were raised under the couch and the blankets changed daily.
Should the kittens end up in an out of reach area such as this, make sure you check on them several times a day to ensure they’re doing well. Also check their little tongues at the time of weigh in. A healthy tongue is pink. Should it appear white or gray, contact a vet immediately. This is a sign of anemia and can quickly kill a young kitten.
Don’t panic if, during newborn kitten care, mama wants to take a break away from her babies. Many will leave her litter while they are sleeping and enjoy a private nap close by.
During the 1980’s we had a mixture of strays plus strays who became indoor/outdoor cats and they were unhappy with the situation of being confined in the house after delivering their litter. The strays normally stayed a few houses over under an old barn. I came up with a method which would allow the cat some outdoor time yet still be available for her kittens if they should wake up hungry. I recorded the kittens meowing with an old fashioned tape recorder. It was a moment of genius when I thought of doing that. Mama cat could take a break from her babies, and if they woke up meowing for her I’d take the tape recorder outside and turn the volume to it’s loudest setting. It’s amazing how fast my mama cat would come running from the barn area when she heard that recording.
My daughter got to experience newborn kitten care at the age of 4. I’d have her caring for the newborns as I cared for the mother. Humans are cautioned not to interfere with the birthing process. In the real world, it’s hard not to be curious, supportive and wanting to comfort your cat. I mentioned the fact of her being assistant midwife to her a few weeks ago. She’s 28 now and says she has no memory of the kittens we raised. Yet I often see her do things for our young and sick kittens that she saw me do years ago.
See: Emergency Kitten Formula for info on feeding.
I hope everyone has enjoyed reading this article as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I haven’t been a cat midwife in many years. Newborn kitten care is one area I had a lot of experience in back in the days before people spayed or neutered their pets. I’ve helped bring a lot of new lives into this world. Here are a few other articles I’ve written that I’d recommend you read:
https://pictures-of-cats.org/stray-feral-cat-rescue.html (Tasha’s photo used above as title photo).