Feeding Newborn Orphan Kittens

Feeding Newborn Orphan Kittens
Normal kittens have their environmental and nutritional requirements met by their mother. However, a number of different situations may lead to kittens requiring extra care, eg, death of the queen (female cat), rejection of the kittens by the queen, ill health in the queen, or the production of too large a litter for the queen to care for.

A good kitten-nursing bottle holds 2-4 ounces of formula. They generally come without holes punched in the nipple. Use a flame-heated needle to melt two small holes in the cap. The holes should be only big enough so that a few drops of milk drip out when the bottle is vigorously shaken. If too many holes are punched in the cap the kittens tend to inhale the formula rather than ingest it. Add two volumes of boiled water to one volume of powder. Mix it well so there are no clumps. Let it cool until it is slightly above room temperature. Feed kitten while they are resting on their stomachs. Never feed them upright as you would a human infant. Gently insert the nipple into the kitten's mouth using a prying motion while you apply pressure to the sides of the bottle to release a drop or two of milk. From then on the kitten should suck on its own.

We all have a tendency to over feed kittens. It is much safer to give them a little less than they desire. Over feeding can lead to pneumonia when milk is inhaled into the lungs rather then swallowed to the stomach. It is much safer to feed smaller amounts more frequently than larger amounts less frequently. If milk bubbles out of the kittens nose it is flowing too rapidly from the bottle. This is usually due to too large a hole(s) in the nipple or over feeding. Microwave a bowl of water and set the bottle in it to heat the formula to 99-100 degrees Fahrenheit before use.

Some owners find it easier to feed newborn kittens from a one or three milliliter syringe and switch to a bottle when the kitten is two weeks old. During the first week feed the kitten every two hours. During the next three weeks feed them every three hours. When the kittens are four weeks old they can be fed every six to twelve hours depending on how much solid food they are already eating.

Boil nursing bottles and syringes between every use. Kittens that did not nurse on the mother their first 72 hours did not receive the first milk or colostrum. These kittens are more susceptible to diarrheas so wash your hands well too.

Bottle feeding a kitten requires special nursers designed for hand-feeding kittens. Gently insert the nipple into the mouth of the kitten - preferably while it is resting on its stomach -- then slowly pull up and forward on the bottle so that the kitten will have its head slightly elevated and extended while nursing. Be sure that the kitten is actually suckling by checking the level of formula in the nurser bottle.

How much to actually bottle feed the kittens? It is actually better to under-feed rather than over-feed a kitten in the first few days. A bottle-fed kitten will usually stop nursing when it is full. If, however, you notice milk coming out of its nose, the milk is being delivered too fast, which means that the hole in the nipple is too large. (If the kitten continues to bubble its formula out of its nose each feeding, you will want to have a vet check the kitten carefully to be sure the inside palate are of its mouth has fully developed.) You will want to warm the formula before giving it to the kitten, to 99°-101°F (the body temperature of cats), and it is recommended that you do this by putting the sterilized bottle into a warm bowl of water to warm it rather than using the microwave, which can cause "hot spots" in the formula.

At Foothill Felines, we have found it is easier to start young kittens off using a plastic syringe (without the needle of course!) From the newborn stage until the kittens are about 1 1/2 weeks old, use a 3 cc. syringe, and feed every 2 hours. At 1 1/2 weeks old, they are ready for the 6 cc. syringe size and feeding every 3 hours, and at about 3 weeks old, move them up to a 12 cc. syringe, feeding them at least every 4 hours. An average meal for a 3 week old kitten can vary from a single syringe full (12 fluid cc) to three syringes full (36 fluid cc) for a large and hungry kitten!!! We like and use the KMR (Kitten Milk Replacer) formula, available in most large pet and feed supply stores. While the powdered form is more economical, it does not always reconstitute as lump-free as needed to flow through the syringes (best method is to mix a small amount with cold water first, similar to the process of making lump-free gravy, then add the mixture to the rest of the batch), so we usually purchase the liquid form in the cans. If you shop around, you can find the best economical source for purchasing the formula in your area. If you are unable to locate or purchase KMR in your area, we have nutritious "kitten glop" recipes on this website that you can make from ingredients at home.

How much formula to give? Normally, it is recommended that you give 2 tablespoons of liquid formula for every 4 ounces of body weight per day. For very young kittens, you will need to divide their total daily amount into six equal sized feedings, and yes, this does mean during the night, also!! As the kittens grow, the number of feedings and their frequency can be decreased. Also as they grow, they can let you know better when they are actually hungry. Kittens that are not getting enough nourishment may cry continuously, suck on each other or on themselves, and they may have prominent hips or backbones.

After each feeding, you will need to hold the kitten against your shoulder and gently burp it. Another technique is to hold the kitten so it's back is against your chest and gently cuddle it under your neck while rubbing it's tummy. A steady weight gain of about 10 grams (or 1/3 of an ounce) per day is recommended, but do not be surprised if a kitten may stay at the same weight for a day or two, then suddenly the weight gains are seen. After feeding, burping and weighing the kitten, check to see if the bedding in the nest box needs to be changed, and that the temperature is correct. Then, put the kitten back in the box so that it can sleep. A properly fed kitten will sleep through to the next feeding.

How Much To Feed:

Each day the average kitten needs 30-32b milliliters of formula for every 4 ounces of body weight. During week one give about 15 ml for every 100 grams (3.5 ounces) body weight. During week two give 15-18 ml for every 100 grams body weight. During weeks three and four give 20 ml for every 100 grams body weight.

How Often To Feed:

Feed very young kittens every four hours or six feeding a day. It is best if you stay up to give them a midnight feeding. By the time the kitten is three weeks old five feedings per day are sufficient. At four weeks of age the kitten should be eating some solid foods. At this age feed it two to three times a day if at all. Kittens that are hungry and need feeding will cry continuously, move their heads from side to side and suckle on each other on objects in the nest box.

Burping The Kitten:

After each feeding hold the kitten upright with its tummy against your shoulder and pat it gently until it burps releasing trapped air. Nursing bottles that do not release enough milk lead to more air being trapped as the kitten nurses. If the kitten should bloat or become colicky add a few drops of infant anticolic drops (simethicone, Equate Infants' Gas Relief, WalMart Stores Inc.) to the formula.

Normal Weight Gain:

Birth weights of kittens range from 85 to 120 grams and should double in the first 1 to 2 weeks. Kittens average about ten grams of additional body weight per day. Although this is a good average, they tend to grow in spurts. Seek a veterinarian's advice if the kitten does not double its weight in 8 to 12 days

Helping The Kitten Eliminate:

Normal kitten stools are yellowish brown with a jam-like consistency. After every feeding, gently massage the anus and urinary orifice with a cotton ball or Kleenex moistened with warm water until they urinate and defecate. Be very gentle when you do this and don't worry if no urine or stool is produced after every feeding. By the time the kitten is three weeks old it should be able to go without your help.

Problems That Can Arise:

Kittens that have been abandoned are often chilled, dehydrated and hypoglycemic. Normal rectal temperature for a newborn kitten is 92-99F. By their second week rectal temperature should be 97-100F. By their fourth week normal rectal temperature should be 100-102F. The first thing to do is to warm them up very slowly to ninety degrees.
If the kittens are still too weak to nurse they may need subcutaneous dextrose solution. This is best done by a veterinarian or veterinary nurse. A newborn kitten can receive approximately three milliliters of fluid subcutaneously.
Watery yellowish or greenish stools are sometimes associated with feeding too much. If they occur, try diluting the formula 50-50 with Pedialyte until the stools return to normal consistency. You can also give the kitten 2-3 drops of kaopectate just prior to each feeding.

Stools that are clumped and cheese-like are sometimes due to feeding the formula too concentrated. When kittens strain to defecate and pass overly hard stools increase the frequency of feeding and dilute the formula. These impacted kittens also often have a bloated abdomen. You can give them a few drops of mineral oil or cat hairball paste to help them evacuate the stool. If they still remain bound up they may need a warm water enema. This is best done at a veterinary hospital.

Dehydration is most common in newly acquired kittens that have not had access to milk for 24-48 hours. Dehydrated kittens are very weak and inactive. Their skin does not spring back when pinched but instead has a clay-like consistency. These kittens are best treated with sugar-containing fluids injected under their skin. Dehydrated kittens will also be hypoglycemic that is low in blood sugar. So feed them a 10% dextrose solution until the problem is resolved.

Tube Feeding:

Kittens that are too weak to nurse need to be tube fed. It is difficult to explain this process in writing. The best way to learn how to tube feed is to have someone experienced in the technique do it for you the first time.

Sometimes, tube feeding a kitten is the only way to save its life. Tube feeding should be undertaken only as a last resort to save a kitten, and should be done with an experienced veterinarian or vet tech initially, although many people have learned to do this from a technical manual with excellent illustrations. Sometimes, kittens are just too weak to nurse from a bottle, due to dehydration, cold or illness, and tube feeding needs to be done. You will use the same type of formula as in bottle feeding, and the calculation for amount of formula to tube feed is generally 8cc of formula per ounce of body weight per day.

How to Begin. Lay the tube against the kitten's body, and locate the kitten's last rib. This is where the kitten's stomach is. Mark the tube with a permanent ink marker or piece of tape, so you will know how far to advance the tube into the kitten before you are in the kitten's stomach. Attach the tube to the size syringe appropriate for the kitten's age/size, and warm the formula to 99°-101°F by placing the filled syringe in a heated cup of water. Micro-waving the formula itself could cause a chemical change to the formula, and also could cause irregularities in the temperature, so should be avoided.

The Next Step. Make sure there are no large air bubbles or pockets as you draw the warmed formula into the syringe. Hold the kitten upright, wrapped in a small, clean and dry washcloth, in one hand. Moisten the end of the tube with the formula, then VERY GENTLY pass the tube over the kitten's tongue and into his throat. Using a light, slow but steady movement, advance the tube until you reach the mark you made earlier. Before injecting the formula, depress a very small amount of formula in and wait just a few seconds. If the kitten immediately starts coughing, you have the tube in the kitten's windpipe instead of stomach, and will need to try again. Once you are sure you are in the stomach, very slowly, inject the formula. Once the formula is in, crimp the tube (like a toothpaste tube) to prevent the formula from flowing back in to the tube, and slowly remove the tube from the kitten. When you have a little experience and confidence, the entire tube feeding of a single kitten should take about two to two and a half minutes. When kittens are tube fed, you do not need to burp them, but you can if you want to have that extra handling and cuddling time with them after the feeding.

Tube Feeding an Older Kitten or Sick Adult. Wrap the kitten or cat securely to prevent them from scratching you. Talk to your vet about using a hard plastic open-ended tube, such as a hypodermic syringe container, held in the mouth that the kitten or cat can bite down on. That way, you can thread the feeding tube through this hard tube and down the open throat of the animal, without the animal being able to bit down or bite off the rubber tube.
The Most Common Problems. Tube feeding is not to be undertaken lightly, and can cause serious and fatal complications such as pneumonia and aspiration, and constipation/blockage of the intestines. This is a last resort, but often highly effective, method of trying to save a kitten.

Weaning - You Are Almost There!

Begin to offer your kitten sold foods when it is three and a half weeks old. By four and a half weeks the kitten should be weaned. Purchase some cans of gourmet cat food in chicken and beef flavors and smear a bit on the cat's pallet. It will soon get the idea. Do not feed it fish flavored foods or it will become a fussy eater. This is the same time one should begin to offer formula in a bowl. The earlier a kitten eats on its own the better. If you use strained meat baby foods be sure they contain no onion powder. Although many kittens will eat as early as four weeks some make take an additional two or three weeks before they express interest in solid food. Slowly substitute moistened kitten chow for baby foods or canned cat food. As soon as kitten chow is offered keep a dish of water available for the kitten. By the time the kitten is 10 weeks old it should be receiving kitten chow dry.

Step By Step

Nutrition in the first several days is critical to the survival of a newborn kitten. Follow these step-by-step instructions for bottle-feeding a newborn kitten, including precautions to take, helpful tips, and the follow-through "cleanup job," including stimulation of the bowels and urinary tract, and you will be a competent surrogate cat mother in no time.

1. Prepare your supplies. Sterilize the kitten-sized baby bottles and nipples in a boiling water bath for about 5 minutes. Cool before using. Place a large towel, a rough-textured washcloth and a bowl of warm water on a table next to a comfortable chair.

2. Fill bottle with desired amount (see tips) of commercial kitten milk replacement such as KMR, or an emergency formula if you can't get to a pet food store right away. Warm the formula by placing the bottle in a bowl of very hot water, then test it against your forearm. It should be 95° to 100° fahrenheit, or approximately body temperature. Test the nipple to ensure the flow is just right.

3. Sit in the chair with the towel folded in your lap. Place the kitten prone (face down) on your lap. Make sure the kitten is warm before feeding. Feeding formula to a cold kitten can cause serious digestive problems. Without raising the kitten's head, place the nipple in his mouth. He should start nursing right away. If all goes well, let him continue nursing until finished. Do not overfeed.

4. If the kitten does not start nursing right away, or if he seems to have trouble getting the milk, check the nipple again. It should not drip milk when held upside down, but should drip given a small amount of pressure. It may also be helpful to stroke his head or gently pet his back to start his nursing reflexes, but once he gets the idea, he will nurse readily.

5. Much like human babies, kittens may need "burping" after nursing. This is best accomplished by holding one hand under his abdomen and gently patting his upper back. Not too hard - you don't want him to vomit. If he doesn't burp right away, go to step 6.

6. The mother cat will stimulate her kitten's elimination by licking his anus and genital area with her rough tongue. You can emulate this process with a warm, damp, rough washcloth or dampened paper towel. It may take a couple of feedings to see results, so don't despair if he doesn't defecate right away. Urinating may take a bit longer.

7. Your kitten will want to sleep after nursing, so put him back into his bed to let him sleep undisturbed.

8. Your newborn kitten will need approximately 32 cc (1.1 oz.) of formula a day, divided into 9 - 12 feedings a day, depending on his size and condition. Count on feeding him every two hours or so, around the clock, for starters. Yes, it's a demanding job, but intensely rewarding to watch your newborn develop and grow.


1. In a pinch, if you can't get kitten baby bottles, an eye dropper will do. Be very careful to drop only a very small amount on the kitten's tongue to avoid aspiration of the formula into his lungs.

2. Weigh your kitten every day, on a food scale covered with a clean cloth. He should gain 1/2 oz. ever day for about the first two weeks.

3. Buy several bottles and nipples, then sterilize and fill a number of them at once, and refrigerate. Warm as needed, following the directions above.

4. Proper positioning of the kitten is critical. Raising his head may cause aspiration of the formula into the kitten's lungs, which could be fatal.


A chilled kitten can die quickly, and is considered a veterinary emergency. You can warm the kitten by holding it next to your own skin, or by using a heating pad, set to "Low", well-wrapped with a thick towel or flannel sheet. Make sure there is plenty of unheated surface in the box so the kittens can move away from the heat source if they become too warm. Feeding a chilled kitten can be fatal, so wait until its temperature is up to its normal range of 95° F to 99° F before attempting to feed it. If a kitten's temperature falls below 94° F it must be warmed gradually to avoid metabolic shock. At the same time, give it Pedialyte (the same stuff sold for human babies) to hydrate it and prevent shock.


You'll need K.M.R. or equivalent, available from pet stores, and a feeder of some sort (either a bottle, syringe, or eye-dropper.) The K.M.R. box will include instructions for feeding by weight of the kitten. Tiny babies will need to eat as many as 12 meals around the clock, so plan on 2 a.m. feedings.