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.

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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When are kittens able to regulate their temperature?

By the time kittens are about three weeks old most begin to acquire the ability to regulate their body temperature. The mother can then spend more time away from the birth then. At seven weeks of age kittens are able to thermoregulate as well as an adult.

Keeping kittens warm with paper swaddling
Keeping kittens warm with paper swaddling. Photo: Pixabay.

When kittens are born their body temperature is the same as their mother’s. Immediately after birth their core temperature drops several degrees Celsius depending upon the temperature of the environment in which they’ve suddenly been plunged. Within 30 minutes a kitten’s temperature will climb provided they can snuggle up close to their mother and the conditions are dry. Their body temperature will reach about 95°F-99°F (35.5°C-37.8°C).

Provided the kitten is healthy he/she should be able to maintain their body temperature at 10-12° above room temperature.

If the room temperature is below the recommended level say at 70°F (21°C) and the mother leaves her kitten for 30 minutes, the kitten’s temperature can fall. The kitten might become chilled quite quickly. This reduces metabolism and can be dangerous.

Mother and kittens in kittening box
Mother and kittens in kittening box. Photo: Pixabay.

This is because most neonatal kittens do not have a lot of subcutaneous fat. Neither can they constrict the blood vessels at the surface of the skin to retain heat in their bodies. A further issue is that the heart rate of neonatal kittens is increased and they have few reserves. They obtain their energy from the meals. If they don’t eat frequently, they can become chilled.

And chilling is, on my research, the single greatest danger to young kittens. Therefore, the kittening box and the surrounding area should be kept at 85°F-90°F (29.4°C-32.2°C), for the first few weeks of the kitten’s life. After that it can be lowered a few degrees each week to 70°F (21°C) at the age of about six weeks. At that point, as mentioned, they are well on the way to having the ability to regulate their own temperature.

They will still obtain heat from their mother, from siblings, from the blanket and other bedding and sometimes a heat lamp over one corner of the kitten box. The temperature should be checked by placing a thermometer on the base of the kitten box.

Newborn kittens
Newborn kittens. Photo: Pinterest.

Humility should be at around 55-65%. The best place for a mother to deliver her kittens is a kittening box. It should be located in a warm, dry, out of the way place which is not in a bright area and which is not near distracting noises. It can be made from strong cardboard. It should be large enough for the mother to move about in. A rectangular box about 24 inches (60 cm) long, 20 inches (50 cm) wide and 20 inches high is suitable. It should be more than big enough. It should have a removable lid. At one end, the advice is to cut out a doorway about chest high for the mother so she can step in and out without jumping.

An alternative is to make a box of wood. If you make it out of wood, you can also provide inside edges (5 cm high and 5 cm wide) which can be nailed around all four sides. This will allow kittens to instinctively crawl under them where they can be protected from being rolled over by their mother.

In order to make the box easy to clean it should be coated with a non-toxic washable preparation. Wood without some sort of coating is absorptive. Several sheets of newspaper can be placed at the bottom to absorb moisture. The advice is to not use bedding made up of straw or wood chips. This is because they can be inhaled by kittens and block their noses. Fleece blankets are easy to clean. Tight weave towels are also acceptable.

Ref: Wild Cats of the World at page 109 for age of thermoregulation and the remainder: Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook at pages 433 and 456.

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Pictures of kittens sucking their thumbs

Here are five pictures of kittens sucking on their thumbs. Thumb sucking in kittens is the same as human babies sucking their thumbs. It is an act which is comforting and which reduces stress. Sometimes human babies suck their thumbs when going to sleep. Seeing it in kittens reminds us how similar domestic cats are in many respects to humans.

Kitten sucking their thumb

Kitten sucking their thumb
Kitten sucking their thumb
Kitten sucking their thumb
Kitten sucking their thumb

The natural instinct to suckle is very strong in young kittens. They may try to suckle anything soft, warm and fuzzy which resembles a mother cat. And it goes as far as sucking on their thumb. As mentioned, it’s all normal and relaxing for the kitten. After the kitten is weaned they may continue suckling when no milk is present.

Early weaning can sometimes result in excessive suckling behaviour in adult cats such as treating a person’s earlobe as their mother’s breast. Oriental breeds such as Tonkinese, Balinese and Siamese are said to be more prone to adult cat suckling than other cat breeds including random bred cats.

Thumb sucking is common in babies and it makes them feel secure. It is rooted in their sucking reflexes. Apparently babies sometimes put their thumbs or fingers into their mouths before birth.

In July this year, I wrote about wool sucking in cats being based in early weaning and the lanolin in wool. The article referred to Dr Desmond Morris’s book, Cat World, in which he said that wool sucking is the act of feeding on a ghost-nipple and that lanolin acts as a powerful unconscious reminder of their mother’s belly.

Dr Morris calls the behaviour ‘pseudo-infantile’ and it is caused, at least in part, by stress and monotony in a domestic cat’s life. The reference to pseudo-infantile is made because adult domestic cats can behave like kittens towards their human guardians as the human behaves as a mother to them.

Pica, the eating of non-nutritious objects by cats is an extension of wool-sucking, I would argue. There may also be an element an obsessive-compulsive disorder in this feline behavioural problem.

Note: about copyright. I decided a long time ago that Pinterest and Google Images were is gross and mass breach of copyright and by doing so they had destroyed the legal concept of copyright on the internet no matter what they profess to think and say. Therefore these pictures from Pinterest are copyright free and in the public domain as far as I am concerned.

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How will a mother cat react if I touch her kittens?

I believe that the answer to the question is dependent upon how well the cat knows the person who is touching her kittens.

The veterinarian’s response to the question is that:

“..most queens (female cat mothers) display anxiety when their very young kittens are constantly handled by unknown people or if unfamiliar pets or other household animals they are not comfortable with are allowed near the kittens.”

Mother cat and her young kittens. Photo: Pixabay
Mother cat and her young kittens. Photo: Pixabay

The conclusion here is that if an unknown human or companion animal interferes with a mother’s kittens then she may become anxious. Note: that after 6 weeks it is important that kittens do interact with unknown humans and companion animals to become socialised and develop acceptable behavior in the home.

The other side of the coin is that if the mother cat is very close to her human owner then she may well want to involve that person in the birth of her kittens and clearly will not display anxiety. Quite the opposite in fact.

On the website, Franklin Veaux describes his experiences when his cat Kyla gave birth to her first kitten. As soon as the kitten was born the mother picked him up by the scruff of the neck and deposited him on his lap. The mother then crawled off his lap to have her second kitten. She did the same thing with that kitten. Afterwards, she picked them both up and carried them back to the bed that he had set up and began nursing her kittens.

It would seem that his cat wanted him to be involved. The kittens grew up to be great cats. They appear to be blue lynx pointed Siamese cats.

Also on the same website, Janelle Hayes, who describes herself as a crazy cat lady, said that her female cat insisted on giving birth to her kittens on her bed despite having prepared a cosy box with soft blankets for her. As soon as the kittens were born they were handled by Janelle or her daughter and “Mama didn’t mind”.

I’m sure that there are other examples where a queen fully accepts her kittens being touched by their human guardian/caretaker because they are very familiar with and close to them. They perhaps relate to their human caretaker as another female cat and it is well known that in colonies female cats often share mothering duties. That may be the origin of this behaviour between cat and human.

Note: Veterinarian’s quote: Pediatrics section of Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook 3rd edition.

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Stoic woman allows army of mountaineering kittens to climb her legs to get to the formula milk

Kittens climb leg in desire to get the formula milk
Kittens climb leg in desire to get the formula milk

Kittens have sharp claws. They are not worn down and rounded off. They are fresh and pinprick sharp. They climb up her right leg like a group of mountaineering tourists climbing Mount Everest. They are chasing that precious goal: food, what I believe is formula milk for kittens. She is very stoic. She must be feeling it. I think we have all had this done to us. I certainly have and it is painful.

Formula milk available commercially such as KMR and Kittylac in the USA closely matches the queen’s milk. Cow’s milk is unsuitable for raising kittens.

A mother cat’s milk contains the following nutrients by percentage: solids (18%), protein (42%), fat (25%) and carbs (26%). Th calories per 100 cc is 90.

By comparison cow’s milk has the following breakdown: solids (12%), proten (25%), fat (35%), carbs (38%). Calories per 100 cc is 70.

There is a substantial difference. Perhaps the biggest is with respect to the protein levels. Cats milk is richer in protein than cows milk which is unsuprising as cats are obligar carnivores.

Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook provides a homemade queen’s milk formula which the authors say can be used in an emergency as a temporary expedient.

8 oz of homogenised whole milk, 2 egg yolks, 1 teaspoonful (5ml) of vegetable oil and 1 drop of liquid pediatric vitamins.

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