How to Take Care of Newborn Kittens: Week by Week
If you're wondering how to take care of kittens, I first want to congratulate you! You are in for an exciting experience...
Back in the mid 90's, when I was working at a VA hospital, I heard some commotion out in the hall and overheard a co-worker saying: “We'll call Animal Aid and have them euthanised.” Naturally, my interest peaked since the words “euthanasia” and “animals” in the same sentence compel me to take action. I discovered a feral cat had given birth to six kittens in the scorching Midwestern heat and she'd abandoned them. All six of them had been placed in a box, they were the cutest, littlest kittens I'd ever seen. Mama hadn't been taking care of them, had fled the scene, and they were starving. The gentleman who finally brought them inside was furiously trying to get the number of Animal Aid, seemingly disinterested in attempting to discover if anyone would be willing to care for these poor felines. I came racing down the hall, yelling: “Wait, wait...What are you doing with the cats?” Granted, it was a hospital and they couldn't hang out there for long, but I found it disappointing more effort wasn't made to find a few willing caretakers. Fortunately, a couple of doctors had already claimed a total of three, so three were left. Minutes later, I was the proud new mother for these three little lives. I don't use the word “mother” lightly here, either. This was a big job, with multiple feedings daily and through the night. It was also very rewarding, but I suggest you don't enter into it lightly. It's a whole different ballgame from cat care initially!
Let's get into the specifics of how to look after a kitten...
How to Take Care of Kittens- Supplies
Part of kitten care involves getting the right supplies.
Your primary concern in caring for your newborn kitten is temperature regulation. Newborn kittens get cold very easily. Your first stop should be your veterinarian. A kitten with a low body temperature is in danger, feeding that kitten can actually be dangerous. You will want to make sure he or she is stable first and given a once over by a doctor.
If you are unable to get into the vet that day, you must make a comfortable and warm bed for the kitten(s). Take care it's not in a drafty location. Preferably, it will be a bit secluded. Gather towels and place the kittens in a box, a cat bed, or anything that's an open top container. Putting in a hot water bottle will help keep the kittens warm and provide a sense of security (like the heat they'd get from their mother). Don't EVER microwave the water bottle as this poses the threat of a scald! Place it in a pan of hot water to warm it up. Then put towels over the hot water bottle in the bed. Make sure the bed is large enough for a kitten who's overheating to move away from this heat source.
I knew very little about newborn kitten care (but a lot about cat care), so a visit to my vet was the first line of business. He explained to me I'd have to feed them milk replacement, a formula called KMR by Pet Ag. Do not use cow's or goat's milk, kittens need milk that approximates what they'd receive from their mothers in terms of protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals.
You will obviously need some sort of bottle or syringe. I used a syringe, found this to be the easiest method, the one my kittens seemed to get the hang of most readily. The tip is roughly the same size as a mother's nipple. Don't use an eye dropper- they can't suckle them and are not a very efficient method of feeding. Plus, liquid can quickly be expelled from the dropper resulting in too much fluid in the kitten's mouth. This can cause choking.
How to Take Care of a Kitten
One of the most important bits of knowledge you'll need in learning how to take care of a kitten is feeding him or her.
Like a human baby, a newborn kitten will need to be fed frequently, approximately every two to three hours. As a rule of thumb, for every ounce of kitten body weight, he or she needs 8 cc of formula. So, a kitten weighing 3 ounces will need about 24 ounces of milk replacement each 24 hours. To assist you in your kitten care, you can picture the correct amount if you know one teaspoon is just about 5 cc. You will also want to check the feeding guidelines on your particular brand of milk replacement as the guides can vary from brand to brand. Again, it's imperative you speak to your veterinarian for assistance. A newborn kitten is less able to give you clues when he or she is full. But, a little later in kitten development, she will be capable of turning her head away from the “nipple”, even pushing it away.
Gather towels (it can be messy) and find a comfortable spot where you will be relaxed. Warm up the fresh formula (only as much as you need for this feeding) in a pan of warm water. Again, DO NOT microwave the formula since it can scald the kitten. Test the temperature on your wrist before you attempt to feed.
Don't try to feed the kitten while she's lying down. Not only is it easier for her to swallow when she's upright, but she will be more awake and ready to feed this way. Hold her in the palm of your hand and gently begin to insert the syringe (or bottle) into her mouth. Many kittens will immediately begin suckling. The runt of the litter I had didn't readily feed, so I had to squeeze out a couple of small drops onto her lips to get her going. If you find your kitten has a poor suckling response and isn't eating, she may need tube-feeding. You need to take this kitten to the vet as soon as possible.
Even though I took my three kittens to the vet initially and thought I had all the information I needed for kitten care. I noticed pretty quickly they weren't having bowel movements or urinating. I was somewhat perplexed and worried, so I gave him a call. Turns out he'd miscalculated their age, thought they were three weeks old and would be able to urinate and defecate on their own. Apparently, they were a bit younger. He told me cats under three weeks can't eliminate on their own and need their mothers to stimulate this reflex for them. I had to get a warm wet washcloth or cotton ball and gently rub under the cats tails. Voila! All three cats did their business immediately. I did this after every feeding.
Newborn Kitten Care: Kitten Development
Can lift head
Can maintain upright posture
at 2-3 weeks after birth
Eyes begin to open
5-14 days after birth
Eyes will remain blue
approx. 2 weeks; true color within 3 months
Ears begin to function
6-17 days after birth
Startle reflex to noise
as early as day 3
by 4 weeks of age
by 4 weeks of age
at 1-10 days after birth
at 14 days after birth
Start to play/interact
at 2 weeks after birth
Can voluntarily eliminate
at 3 weeks after birth
Weaning Kittens and Kitten Feeding
Weaning kittens is a natural process the kittens and mother alike will begin around four weeks. So, around the four week mark is a good time to begin the gradual introduction of food into her diet. Weaning kittens is a process to be accomplished slowly over a period of about four to six weeks (from week 4 to week 8 or 10). Your kitten will need to learn how to eat from a dish, so you will first put the warm milk replacement into a flat and shallow bowl. Dip the tip of the bottle or syringe (choose whatever you've been delivering the milk with) into the mil and let her lick it off. Guide her with the syringe (or your finger dipped into the milk) to the bowl. Eventually (and usually very quickly) she will learn to lap out the the bowl. NEVER force the kitten by pushing down or holding her head in the milk bowl. She can easily inhale the liquid and choke.
After she's readily drinking the milk replacement from the bowl, you will be mixing the milk replacement with some high quality kitten food. Innova kitten food is an excellent, palatable kitten food. After it's properly mixed, it should have the consistency of oatmeal. Over the next few weeks, you will gradually reduce the amount of liquid to the mixture. You will be adding more and more cat food. Around the 5 to 6 week mark, the kitten will be eating food only very slightly moistened and you will be able to leave it out for her to free feed. By week 8 to 10 the kitten will be completely done with the addition of milk replacement.
Word of warning, kittens love to play in their food bowls! All three of my kittens would walk in it, rub in it, roll in it. It's just part of the process for them. You'll be cleaning them up quite a lot.
Enjoy the process! It's a lot of work, but raising kittens has a huge payoff in the end.