Caring for Orphan Kittens

Caring for Orphan Kittens
There are several possible reasons for hand-raising kittens: death or illness of the mother, inadequate milk supply and rejection of the kittens. Hand-raising kittens is not overly difficult and is very rewarding.

If a breeding queen dies after giving birth, reject: her offspring, is unable to feed all of her young, or has a mammary disorder such as mastitis, human intervention becomes necessary if the kittens are to survive. The task of "substitute queen" requires meticulous attention to details and accurate record-keeping. A simple logbook will track the progress of each kitten and provide helpful data if one begins to fail.

Kittens should be weighed at birth on a gram scale (newborns usually weigh between 90 and 110 grams [3.15 and 3.85 ounces), and then on a daily basis for the first two weeks. When properly fed, they will usually double their weight within the first week. In addition to food, warmth is essential to the well-being of newborn kittens. A consistent environmental temperature of 90° to 94°F (approximately 32° to 34-5°C) is recommended for the first two weeks, then 75° to 80° (approximately 24° to 26.5°C) for the third week. A temporary incubator, using a standard household sixty-watt bulb placed approximately two and a half feet above the kittens, should maintain the desired temperature.

When the queen licks her kittens, she is not only cleaning them but also stimulating them to urinate and defecate. Massaging or stroking the kitten's anal area with a warm, damp cotton ball will provide the same stimulus. Massage the kittens after they have eaten and continue the massages for three weeks or until the kittens are capable of urinating and defecating on their own.

Kittens need a warm, draft-free environment during the early weeks of life. Air temperature in the immediate vicinity of the kittens should be 85-90 F for the first week of life, 80 F the next 3-4 weeks and 70-75 at six weeks. The higher temperatures during the first few weeks may be maintained with heating pads, light bulbs or heat lamps, but great care must be taken not to overheat or burn the babies when they are too young to move away from the heat source.

Clean paper or cloth is suitable for bedding. A tall-sided cardboard box makes a safe nest and keeps the kittens inside until they are several weeks old. Constant crying by the kittens indicates something is wrong. Contact your veterinarian. Consult the doctor if the kittens fail to gain weight.

Newborns should be examined by your veterinarian at the earliest possible time. Litters from ferals or of unknown parentage often suffer from fleas and other parasites, and do not have the normal natural immunity passed on in early weeks from vaccinated mother cats. While kittens nursing a protected queen get their first "shots" around six to eight weeks, orphaned/feral kittens may be immunized at two to three weeks. Of course, kittens showing signs of distress, such as prolonged chilling, watery eyes or running nose, lethargy or failure to eat, should be seen immediately by a veterinarian.

Parental instincts are strong in housecats and it is quite rare for a well kept cat to abandon its offspring. But feral or homeless cats have more difficult lives. Often their first litter arrives when they are little more than kittens themselves. It is quite common for inexperience and the stresses of pregnancy to exhaust them to the point where they become ill and abandon their kittens. Other times domestic cat's litters contain one or more star crossed runts that will not survive unless we hand raise them ourselves.

How Old Is This Kitten?

Kittens 1-14 days old still have their eyes closed. Their ears are also folded over and sealed. Kittens 2-3 weeks old have their eyes open and are able to move around shakily. By the time the kitten is 3 weeks old its ears have become erect and it can walk about well.

Supplies You Will Need:

You will need to have a nest box for the baby or babies. Since the infants often soil their container I usually find a small cardboard box that I can readily replace to keep the baby in - a shoebox works well.

You will need a heating pad unless you live in the tropics. I usually pick up a heavy-duty model from WalMart. Then I go to the aquarium section and purchase an aquarium thermometer. In the same section you will find pet nursing bottles and Hartz Advanced Care Kitten Milk Replacement powder. You can also purchase KMR powdered kitten milk by Pet Ag (Borden's) at veterinary offices and pet stores. A small food scale is also nice to have to weigh the infant(s). If the kitten is weak you may want to tube feed it. If so, pick up a 3-milliliter syringe and an 18Guage butterfly infusion tube from a veterinary hospital or human medical supply center to tube feed.

Nest box:

The nest box does not need to be elaborate. It needs to be just big enough for the kitten to turn around but not much bigger. Line it with crumpled Kleenex tissue.

Warmth is especially important the first 14 days of the kitten's life because they have not yet developed the ability to thermoregulate. During the first two weeks they can not shiver when they are cold. They will rely on the heating pad for warmth. Keep the pad under one side of the box only on its lowest setting. Wrap the pad with sufficient towels so that the inside of the box stays at 90 degrees Fahrenheit but no higher. With one side of the box only heated the kitten will be able to crawl away from the heat source if it gets too warm. Place the box in a draft free location. Be sure the sides of the box are at least six inches tall so the kitten can not fall out. As the baby matures the temperature in the box can be gradually lowered. When the kitten reaches the end of its first month of life it can tolerate room air of 70-75F.

                                                                       Normal Kitten Vitals:
In the first 2 weeks of life
At 2-4 weeks of life
To maturity
97 - 99°
101 - 102.5°
At birth: 90 - 110 grams
Growth weight per week: 50 - 100 grams
This is an approximate weight range for newborns. A gram scale can be a helpful tool to keep a daily/weekly monitor of your kitten's weight to ensure she is developing at a normal rate.

When orphaned or rescued kittens are without their natural mother, the next best thing for them is to find another female cat who is nursing her own litter and is willing to accept the newcomers. Of course, this is not always possible, and when that is the case, YOU must become the mother. Your ultimate goal is to make sure that the kitten or kittens grow into a strong, healthy, loving adult cat. It will take a great deal of your time and attention to reach this goal; however, your dedication will be rewarded with one of the most enriching experiences in your life.

Create a warm, dry, clean and safe environment for them; you will need to feed them the most healthful nutrition you possibly can in the right amounts, and at the right times for their optimal growth and development; and, you will need to provide close attention to all the factors that contribute to giving your kittens the proper overall care. Kittens need love, and a LOT of it!! Without their mother, they look to you for that love, as well as for guidance.

Keep a journal. We really like the idea of keeping as detailed records as possible as to each kitten's individual progress. You will be awfully busy taking care of them, and writing down their daily weights, hydration status, stool appearance, and their overall appearance will provide invaluable information to you as they grow.


                                                        Making The Incubator (Nest Box)

The incubator, or as we refer to it, "nesting box" needs to be a safe, clean, warm, dry place for kittens to get the tremendous amount of sleep they need to grow and develop in the critical first few weeks.

The nest box does not have to be elaborate, and using a cardboard box works just fine!! Warmth is going to be especially vital in the first two weeks of a kitten's life, as they are not able to shiver, and you cannot tell when they are cold. When using the heating pad, be sure to keep it on the lowest setting, and wrap it well with towels and waterproof pads. Set the heating pad BELOW the box itself, to one side or corner under the nest box, so that the kittens can move to a cooler area inside their box if it becomes too warm for them.

You will want the nest box to be in a quiet, private, draft-free location, with the sides of the box high enough to keep the kittens in, and the overall box size large enough to allow for some exercise.

Be sure that the kittens can not get stuck under some pads in the sides or corners of the box, or that they cannot climb under the layers of towels and get directly on to the heating pad (which is why we recommend placing the pad itself under, not in, the box). Some breeders recommend placing an open container of water near the box (not IN the box!!) to allow some moisture in the air. The ideal air temperature for young kittens from birth to 7 days old is 88° to 92°F; from 8 days to 14 days old is 80° to 85°F; from 15 days to 28 days old is 80°F; from 29 days to 35 days old is 75°F, and from 35 days on (approximately 5 weeks old on) is 70°F.

You will need to be sure you have the right supplies on hand. You will need to have (or make) an incubator (or, nesting box); and you will also need a heating pad; room thermometer; sterile cotton balls and gauze; an accurate gram scale; nurser kits with bottles, nipples, and cleaning brush; Pedialyte unflavored liquid; high quality Kitten Milk Replacer formula (the powder is more economical, less wasteful, and you can mix up a fresh batch every day as needed); and, in case you need to do tube feeding, you will need several syringes (usually 3cc, 5cc, 12cc and 20cc), and your tube feeder, which can be purchased through veterinary clinics or supply houses. Many breeders recommend the butterfly needle infusion sets as the tube is very pliable, and soft. The 0.6mm (outer) diameter tube is most popular, and the rubber catheters you will need can be found at most major drugstores. You will need a #5 French catheter for kittens up to 2 weeks old, and you can use a #8 French for older kittens.

Weigh the kitten on the first day and re-weigh and record the kitten's weight at least every other day. Use a postage scale or food scale or baby scale (the bathroom scale is not going to cut it). Observe the kitten's daily progress closely. if there is failure to thrive, weight loss, signs of distress, lassitude, or change in body temperature, consult your veterinarian at once. Be alert for changes in behavior; if a newborn kitten persistently crawls away from the nest or (in the case of a litter) seems always to be on its own, consult your veterinarian at once.

A kitten's eyes are generally fully open by ten days old (they begin to open at seven days). By three or four weeks a kitten is mobile and able to eat at least some solid food. The kitten is also ready for the litterpan as soon as it can toddle to it. (I recommend introduction to the litterpan by three weeks with expectation of seeing some independent use of the pan by four weeks.)

Toddlers should be encouraged to play and extend themselves, but they must be contained in a safe, small room. Do not give small kittens the run of your home or apartment, particularly if they are in the process of being socialized! Start newborns with the denning box, then at about three weeks allow them out of the box to explore a small, kitten-proofed room that is warm and secure. A spare bedroom is a good living space, a bathroom is fine, as long as the lid is left down on the toilet and floor isn't too cold (newspaper is a good insulator if that is the case). Provide a den (the carrier or nesting box) as safe haven and sleeping place.

Developmental Stages:
Can lift headat birth
Can maintain upright postureat 2-3 weeks after birth
Eyes begin to open5-14 days after birth
Ears begin to function6-17 days after birth
Startle reflex to noiseas early as day 3
Depth perceptionby 4 weeks of age
Forelimb supportat 1-10 days after birth
Rearlimb supportat 14 days after birth
Start to play/interactat 2 weeks after birth
Can voluntarily eliminateat 3 weeks after birth
Able to graduate to solid food28-50 days after birth

This is a basic guideline for developmental stages. Not all kittens will develop at this rate, but should be approximate to this guide.