Raising Abandoned Kitten

Raising Abandoned Kitten
The best possible mother for any kitten is their own natural mother! However, there are times when human intervention, to varying degrees, is necessary to save a kitten's life. Those times may occur when the mother cat (called a "queen") gives birth to too many kittens in her litter to adequately care for them all, or when she may not make enough milk to feed them. Occasionally, the queen may contract an infection, such as mastitis, and be unable to nurse, or she may even die. When a queen has to deliver by way of Cesarean section, this often upsets the natural flow of her milk, and she needs to be allowed to heal before allowing her kittens to nurse. Sometimes, the kittens themselves may be sick with a viral or bacterial infection that upsets their instincts to nurse, or they may not be able to nurse due to a blocked nose, and not being able to smell their mother or her milk. And, rarely, a queen may abandon her litter, or reject her kittens.

Do hand reared kittens develop normally?

A kitten reared in total isolation from other cats is at risk of developing psychological abnormalities, including nervousness, aggression and a reduced ability to cope with strange surroundings, people or animals. Kittens hand reared in the presence of other cats are less likely to be affected, since they can develop by watching the other cats. Because completely hand-reared animals are at a behavioural disadvantage they should not be used for breeding. It may also be more difficult to find them suitable homes.

What are the basic considerations when hand rearing kittens?

There are several basic functions to be addressed when hand rearing kittens. These include the provision of a suitable clean, warm environment, a suitable feeding regimen, attention to urination and defecation (emptying of the bowels), and attention to general health. The major problems encountered when trying to hand rear kittens are chilling, dehydration and starvation (resulting in hypoglycaemia due to low blood sugar levels). These three conditions are interrelated and close observation is necessary if they are to be noticed, and if occurring, for prompt action to be taken in time. Kittens are very fragile, hence they can become ill and die very quickly.

Total dedication and commitment is required by the carer at all times.

  • New-born kittens need up to 10 feeds in each 24 hour period.

  • Carer's life-style will need to be flexible. Kittens like babies need to be with you at all times, wherever you may be.

  • Carers should not exceed the allotted interval between feeding times.

  • Kittens when hungry, will move about in search of milk. If left they will soon get tired and fall asleep again. This is undesirable and certainly not to be recommended. It is important they are fed on time.
When a low environmental humidity is combined with a lack of regular liquid intake the kittens are at risk of dehydration. An environmental humidity of 55-65 % will prevent the kittens' skin from drying out. Signs of dehydration include loss of skin elasticity and sticky mucous membranes (gums). The easiest way to provide a clean, safe and warm nest is to take a cardboard box, line it with Vetbed, use either hot water bottles or a heating pad for warmth, and placing it away from drafts. Vetbed can be easily cleaned, is warm and comfortable. If this is not available terry nappies or old towels can be used. Some people use plastic plant propagators as incubators, however, care should be taken to ensure the temperature within them is adequate.

Normal kittens should eat or sleep for 90% of the time for the first 2 weeks of their lives. If they cry excessively, or fail to suckle, they are usually ill or receiving insufficient milk. Since kittens can die very quickly, they (and their mother, if still present) should be examined by a veterinary surgeon as soon as possible to ensure nothing serious is going wrong.

Hygiene is of the utmost importance for all the kittens' feeding and measuring equipment and the carer's personal hygiene in preparing feeds and toileting kittens. Orphaned kittens are very prone to infections so they must always be kept clean, and utensils used for preparing or administering the milk must be sterile.

It is advisable to monitor the kittens' growth rates by weighing them regularly. It is best to weigh the kittens daily at the same time, as in all cases daily increments will vary from kitten to kitten. It is good practice to keep daily records. They should double their birth weight in the first 7 to 10 days, then continue to gain weight steadily.

The signs of hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar)

Hypoglycaemia results from inadequate or infrequent feeding. It can cause severe depression, muscle twitching and occasionally lead to convulsions. If a kitten ever refuses to feed, do not delay; prompt action and veterinary care is required. Kittens have no reserves and will go downhill rapidly. Quick response can save a kitten's life. Use your intuition: an hour could be life or death!

If a kitten is showing signs of hypoglycaemia, a few drops of glucose syrup placed on the tongue can be life saving. This should then be followed by feeding a small amount of glucose solution, and increasing either the amount and/or frequency of routine feeding.

When should the kittens be weaned onto solid food?

Weaning should begin at three to four weeks of age. Initially the kittens should be offered milk replacer diluted 1:1 with water, in a flat shallow dish. At three weeks introduce either moistened dry growth diet or tinned growth diet mixed with a small amount of milk solution. Again holding the kitten, use a very small spoon and introduce the semi-solid food to the kitten, using the spoon tip only. Gradually lower the spoon to encourage and tempt the kitten to eat from a shallow dish. Only try a few very small mouthfuls at first until the kitten gets established on its own. This is continued until the kittens are taking just solid food. They can be fed either wet or dry diets, but it is best to feed only diets designed especially for kittens. Dog food and human baby foods should not be fed since they are deficient in nutrients essential for cats.

By now your foster kitten is gobbling down kitten chow by the bowlful and drinking water on its own. That's all any weanling kitten needs, if the food is good quality and the kitten is healthy. By the time the kitten is a robust eight weeks old it is ready to go to a loving, responsible home - if you are strong enough to let it go.

About Vaccination

If the kittens are kept isolated from other cats their first vaccinations can be given at 12 weeks of age. If other unvaccinated cats come in contact with the kitten the first vaccine should be administered at 6-8 weeks. The vaccine should immunize against feline panleukopenia (cat distemper), feline rhinotracheitis and feline calicivirus. At 12 weeks it should receive a rabies vaccination and at 12 and 18 weeks the kitten should also be vaccinated against feline leukemia.

Orphans should be started on their distemper shots (done in a series of three) at six weeks. (Note: A kitten who did not receive at least the first three days of its mother's milk should be started on shots at four weeks.) The kitten should be tested for FeLV (or even FIV, if it is from a high-risk feral colony or of unknown background), and should also have its stool tested for intestinal parasites. Innoculation against FeLV (feline leukemia) will have to wait until the kitten is at least ten weeks old, but test anyway. A kitten testing positive should be held for at least two weeks (about a month) and then tested a second time, to rule out a false postitive result. Starting an animal on the FeLV series without first ruling out whether the animal is a carrier is irresponsible and reprehensible!

If a kitten become constipated
Constipation is a very common problem in hand reared kittens, due to the difficulty in stimulating defecation sufficiently frequently. Normal faeces have the consistency of toothpaste. If the faeces become very hard, making the kitten strain excessively, or if a kitten does not pass any motions for 2-3 days, small doses of liquid paraffin or "Katalax" should be given, (about 0.5 ml per feed for 2-3 days should have the desired effect). Severe cases require veterinary attention.

If kitten gets diarrhoea

Diarrhoea is a serious condition. It may be caused by overfeeding, giving too concentrated a solution of milk replacer, or result from infection (usually caused by poor hygiene). Treatment must be swift as dehydration can then develop very rapidly, followed by collapse and death soon afterwards.

Mild cases respond well to dilution of the milk 1:1 with boiled water, which should be given until the diarrhoea stops. Severe cases should be given no milk at all. Instead they should be given 5-10% glucose, glucose-saline, or isotonic electrolyte solution (e.g. "Lectade"), all of which can be obtained from a veterinary surgeon. These solutions should be given until the diarrhoea stops; milk diluted 1:1 with water, and finally full strength milk can be resumed 12-24 hours later.

If kittens become collapsed and dehydrated they need immediate veterinary attention if they are to survive. Kittens in a collapsed state become chilled very rapidly. They will usually be given subcutaneous fluids by the veterinary surgeon.

Once they have been warmed up and given fluid therapy they must be allowed to recover quietly. Feeding can only be begun once the kitten is warm and able to suck. Stomach tubing is not helpful here, since when a kitten is cold and collapsed its intestines stop functioning, so stomach contents can be easily regurgitated, and then aspirated into the lungs.

As soon as the kitten is able to suck, it should be given isotonic glucose or Lectade solution (at about 1ml per 100g body weight), given every 15 minutes until the kitten is rehydrated and can urinate when massaged. If all goes well, diluted milk can then be introduced after 24 hours, and full strength milk 24 hours after that.

Should kittens be given antibiotics to keep them well?

Unless a bacterial infection is known to be present, and antibiotics have been prescribed by the veterinary surgeon, they should not be given. Antibiotics severely disrupt the process of normal colonisation of the gut by harmless bacteria, and can, because of this, produce diarrhoea. Antibiotics cannot be used as a substitute for colostrum. If hygiene standards are good, antibiotics are simply not needed.  

When do kittens' eyes usually open?
At birth the kittens' eyes are closed; they usually open within 1-2 weeks. If the closed eyelids become swollen or matted with pus the kitten should be taken to a veterinary surgeon for immediate treatment. In some breeds, e.g. Siamese and Orientals, the eyes may be partially open at birth and open completely within a few days.

Should kittens be wormed regularly?

Since intestinal parasites ("worms") are common in kittens, all kittens should be treated with drugs to kill the parasites from about 3 weeks of age. Before each dosing the kittens should be accurately weighed, since if too little wormer is given it may not be effective, and if too much is given it may make the kittens ill. In many kittens the worms cause no clinical signs, while in others they can result in poor body condition, soft or bloody stools, loss of appetite, a pot-bellied appearance and weight loss. Some worms can be transmitted through the stools of infected cats, while others are carried by fleas. Good hygiene and flea control are therefore essential.


Nurturing consists of the various tasks the mother kitten would perform, and also includes bonding with the kitten.

Elimination - Newborns need help in moving their bowels and flushing their kidneys. The mother cat does this by washing their little butts with her tongue. You can accomplish the same by holding the kitty (put a towel over your lap first) and gently stroking its body with a rough towel or wash cloth. Do the same thing with its abdomen and little butt. You should be rewarded with a bowel movement after every meal and soon will not need to give this assistance.

Kitty Massage - Same thing, only lightly stroke the kitty's whole body, starting with its head, around the cheeks and chin, shoulders, limbs, and finally back and belly. Massage is a good way to bond with your baby, and will prepare him for adapting more easily to a new home, if that is in his future.

Grooming - The mother cat combines grooming with massage by using the rough tongue given her by nature. You can use a soft brush to brush your kitten's hair - another tool for bonding. Also, if very young kittens have fleas, use a flea comb to gently comb them out. (Be sure to put a towel or newspaper under the kitten to catch the fleas and flea dirt.

Socialisation is extremely important for well adjusted kittens. Introduce the kittens to other animals as soon as possible. Obviously never put any animal at risk of danger. Remember, when other animals are present, you must talk to and where possible touch them as much as possible. This scenario is the same as bringing the new baby home to the existing toddler. Do not create your own problem by causing a jealous situation to arise.

Above all enjoy the experience while it lasts. It is an extremely intensive and demanding time condensed into a short period of your life. The rewards of your labours far exceed your sleepless nights!