The kitten season in spring and summer is one of the most trying period for most animal lovers. Perhaps you have met a litter or two of allegedly abandoned kittens. Naturally, you feel the urge to rescue these poor babies. However, taking care of newborn kittens without the mother is challenging.
I have been fostering kittens and puppies for a number of years. Taking care of helpless kittens requires dedication and a lot of patience. Most of the time I see people rescuing kittens who are not orphaned because they thought the mother was not around.
I have therefore prepared this article to give my recommendations on what you should do if you meet a kitten or 2 on the street. I will then discuss about the general management of abandoned or orphaned kittens up to the weaning age. As such, I will focus on general nursing including feeding, waste management, cleaning and weaning.
Rescuing an orphaned or abandoned kitten
Kittens can be orphaned or abandoned under several circumstances including;
- The mother may not survive giving birth
- The mother if an outdoor cat may be involved in a motor accident or killed by other animals
- Some kittens if born too small or weak may be rejected by the mother
- Some mother cats may simply be poor mothers and abandon a whole litter
- The mother may be diseased or suffering from post natal complications
- Some litters may be too large for the mother handle
Should I take in an abandoned kitten(s)?
If you come across a kitten or 2 or 4 on the street, do not assume the kitten(s) are orphaned. It is common for the mother to leave the kittens alone as she scavenges for food or when she is in the process of moving them to a new place.
Access the situation to determine if they are truly orphaned. To do this, give the kittens distance and observe.
Stand as far away from the kittens as possible (about 40 feet or more). The mother will not approach the kittens if she senses the presence of humans.
You may need to leave before the mother cat comes back. Evaluate if the kittens are in immediate danger. Are the kittens in an area with a lot of traffic? Is it raining or snowing? Are there dogs or wild animals that might harm the kittens? Are there kids in the neighborhood who could harm the kittens?
Rescue the kittens only if they are in immediate danger. If not, note that the mother may take several hours before she returns. Watch out for the kittens for as long as you can at a safe distance before removing them.
What if mama cat comes back?
If the mama cat comes back, great. Leave the kittens with the mama cat as she is better equipped to take care of them. Her milk is more nutritious than any meal you can offer. Unless you are able to care for the whole family and only if the mama cat will allow it. You do not want to take in a feral wild cat.
You may provide shelter for mama and her kittens and give them food. Place the food and shelter far apart as mama cat will not approach the shelter if food is too close. She would not want to attract other feral cats or animals near her nest.
When the kittens are 6 weeks old you may take them in for socialization and adoption if you can find good homes for them.
Note that cats are highly prolific animals. The mama cat may be mated even when she is nursing. This means that in a few months you may end up with another litter of kittens. It is advisable to organize for a TNR (Trap, Neuter and Return) for her to be fixed and vaccinated.
If you cannot find good homes for the kittens, I would recommend having them spayed or neutered when they are about 6 months old through TNR.
What if mama does not come back?
If after several the mum has not come back, you may need to step in. Look around to evaluate if you will find the reason why she did not come back. You may find her sick or injured or even dead for one reason or another.
To help make the decision, access the nest. Is the nest is dirty? Are the kittens are dirty and looking unhealthy? Are they vocalizing a lot? If the answer is yes then chances are they are orphaned and it may be safe to step in and rescue the kitten(s).
Taking care of kittens without the mother is not easy. Be prepared to push through the process until weaning if you decide to step in and remove the kittens. Do not take the kittens to a shelter unless they have a special program for neonatal kittens. If you are not in a position to take care of them yourself, find someone who can.
Taking care of newborn kittens without the mother
Taking care of newborn kittens without the mother can be challenging. There are several things you need to know before you decide to remove kittens from the street. Here are 5 steps you can take to make the process easier.
1. First aid and immediate action
- Access the kittens to determine if they are warm. To do this, feel the ears or paws or the inside of the kitten’s mouth. If the kitten is cold, warm them gradually using a heating pad or hot water bottle. Alternatively you can wrap them in a towel and hold them close to your body. Do not feed them when they are cold as this can make them sick. Kittens cannot properly digest food when they are cold.
- Examine the kittens for signs of injury or disease. If the kitten is bleeding or showing signs of disease it is advisable to take them to a veterinarian immediately for treatment. I recommend taking them to the vet even when not showing signs of disease for general examination. The veterinarian may give you advice on how best to care for the kitten. You may even get some supplies from the veterinarian.
- Determine the age of the kittens. You can do this be reading the FAQs section on stages of kittenhood or comparing with photos on this article on the Alley Cat Allies website.
- Prepare your supplies.
Kittens under 4 weeks of age do not have teeth. As such they cannot eat solid food. You will need to bottle feed them around the clock.
Before feeding, ensure that the kitten is warm. Check by feeling the ears, paws or the inside of the mouth. If the kitten is cold, warm him or her using a heating pad or by wrapping them in a blanket and holding them close to your body. Cold kittens cannot digest food properly.
What and how should I feed newborn kittens?
To feed the kittens, mix the kitten milk replacement (KMR) formula as instructed then warm it in a water bath. Test the heat using your wrist. If it passes the wrist test, go ahead and feed your kitten. There are several KMR formulas available in the market such as;
If you do not have a KMR formula you can easily prepare a homemade kitten formula substitute using ingredients available in your kitchen. Note that KMR formula contains nutrients similar to cat’s milk and probiotics therefore is the most suitable. Do not use the kitten formula substitute for more than 24 hours if you want to raise healthy kittens.
To feed newborn kittens use a nursing bottle. Alternatively, you can use a needleless syringe or eye dropper. Kittens may not be able to suckle formula from the bottle therefore you may have to squeeze the formula into their mouth. You can buy a nursing bottle from pet stores or online platforms.
How frequent should I feed newborn kittens?
I recommend the following feeding regime
Feeding regime by week
- 0 – 1 week – feed every 2 to 3 hours
- 1 – 2 weeks – feed every 3 to 4 hours
- 2 – 3 weeks – feed every 5 to 6 hours
- 3 – 4 weeks – feed every 6 to 8 hours
Smaller kittens may have to be fed every 2 hours. As the kitten grows older reduce the feeding interval.
Be careful not to overfeed or underfeed the kittens. This could lead to diarrhea, vomiting or dehydration. Contact your veterinarian if you notice any of the mentioned symptoms.
Cow milk is not suitable for feeding kittens. It contains high quantities of lactose. Kittens are lactose intolerant and develop diarrhea if fed on cow milk.
You can start introducing solid food at 4 weeks.
3. Waste management
Neonatal kittens cannot urinate or defecate on their own. When raised by the mother, waste management is usually the role of the mother. She stimulates them to urinate or defecate by licking them on their behind. She then consumes the waste to keep the nest clean so as to avoid attracting predators.
If you take in an orphaned or abandoned kitten it will be your responsibility to take care of waste management.
After each feeding rub the kitten’s lower abdomen and genital area with a soft cotton pad, cloth or tissue moistened with warm water. Make sure to rub only long enough for them to urinate and/or defecate. Overstimulation of the area can cause irritation.
Most of the time (but not always) the kitten will urinate during each stimulation. They however should defecate at least once daily. If you notice they are constipated, add a drop of vegetable oil to their formula not more than once daily until the problem resolves.
At 4 weeks when the start eating solid food, kittens naturally develop elimination behavior. If provided with litter you will notice them starting to scratch on the litter. Therefore you can start litter training at 4 weeks.
To train the kittens, put them in the litter box after each feeding. If they don’t do anything try taking their paws and scratching on the litter then stimulating them to eliminate. They will catch on I due time.
Kittens like all babies explore their surrounding using their mouths. They sample everything including their litter using their mouths. It is therefore advisable to provide them with non clumping and non toxic litter which has less chances of causing digestive complications. You can purchase litter such as Purina Yesterday’s News cat litter from pet shops or Amazon.
4. Cleaning and flea control
After each feeding clean the kitten with a damp cloth gently as the mother would. This stimulates them to start the grooming process. Concentrate more on areas that need cleaning such as the face to remove excess formula or the back to remove waste and dirt and the paws to remove dirt.
If you have to clean the whole body with water, use warm water and dry the kitten with a towel or using a blow dryer set on low. Wrap the kitten in a dry towel or baby blanket to keep them warm.
Regularly check the ears for dirt and clean the outer ear (only) with a damp cloth. I you notice the “coffee ground” type of dirt typical for ear mites consult your veterinarian.
Check the kitten’s fur regularly for fleas. If, you notice fleas or flea dust on them consult your veterinarian. You can get rid of fleas by brushing the kitten using a flea comb. Your veterinarian will recommend a flea spray that is safe for use on kittens depending on their age.
You should also be on the lookout for ringworm and mange. If you notice your kitten scratching a lot or having patches of skin without fur chances are they have mange or ringworm. Isolate them and consult your veterinarian for treatment.
Weaning is the process of transitioning kittens from mother’s milk or bottle feeding to solid food. Ideally weaning should be done at 5 – 6 weeks.
For abandoned or orphaned kittens you start the process earlier. You can wean the kittens from 3 weeks. Note, however that kittens grow at different rates depending on what they eat and health condition during the time of rescue.
Some kittens may be weaned earlier than others. You will know the kittens are ready for weaning when they start chewing and biting on their bottle. The kittens will start licking the formula from your finger and gradually from a spoon or dish.
To start the weaning process;
- Mix the KMR formula with wet starter kitten food such as the Purina Fancy Feast kitten wet food into a gruel
- Have the kittens lap the gruel from a spoon or a shallow dish
- Gradually reduce the amount of kitten formula until the kittens are only eating the wet baby food
- Slowly introduce dry food by mixing it with water
- Eventually feed the kitten interchangeably with wet and dry food
If you meet a kitten or 2 on the street and wish to rescue them, there are a number of things you need to do
- Access the situation to determine if they are really orphaned
- Take them to the veterinarian for a check up
- House them in a warm draft free area away from other animals
- Feed them on kitten milk replacement formula until they are ready for weaning
- Take care of their waste management by stimulating the to eliminate after every feeding
- Clean them daily with a damp cloth to remove dirt and to teach them how to groom themselves
- Wean them gradually when they reach 4 weeks
- Take them for regular veterinary check up