Elsie lives with three cats and is an experienced pet sitter.
If you're wondering how to take care of kittens, firstly, I want to congratulate you! You are in for an exciting experience. I'll first be sharing some tips on how to care for kittens along with my personal journey.
Part of kitten care involves getting the right supplies.
Your first stop should be your veterinarian. I knew very little about newborn kitten care (but a lot about cat care), so a visit to my local veterinarian was the first thing on my list. Don't be afraid to ask plenty of questions or for recommendations.
Your primary concern in caring for your newborn kitten is temperature regulation. Newborn kittens get cold very easily. 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.
Warm Bed, Water Bottle, and Towel
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 that 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 a hot water bottle in 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.
My vet 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.
A Bottle or Syringe
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 eyedropper—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.
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.
Frequency of Feeding
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 the kitten's body weight, he or she needs 8 ccs of formula. So, a kitten weighing 3 ounces will need about 24 ounces of milk replacement every 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 and thought I had all the information needed for kitten care, I noticed pretty quickly that they weren't urinating or having bowel movements. I was somewhat perplexed and worried, so I gave him a call.
Turns out, he'd miscalculated their age and thought they were three weeks old and that they 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 cat's tails. Voila! All three cats did their business immediately. I did this after every feeding.
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).
Teaching the Kitten to Eat From a Bowl
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 milk 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 of 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.
Mixing in the Kitten Food
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 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.
When I was working at a VA hospital in the mid-'90s, I heard some commotion out in the hall and overheard a co-worker saying, “We'll call Animal Aid and have them euthanized.” 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 that she'd abandoned them. All six of them had been placed in a box. They were the cutest, tiniest kittens I'd ever seen. Mama 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 that no effort was put in to find a few willing caretakers. Fortunately, a couple of doctors had already claimed three, so only 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.
You Too Can Enjoy the Experience of Raising Kittens
Overall, it was a very rewarding experience, but I suggest that you don't enter into it lightly. It's a whole different ballgame in comparison to adult cat care! That being said, enjoy the process! It's a lot of work, but raising kittens has a huge payoff in the end.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Stargrrl on December 29, 2014:
Very well researched article. I love cats, and am considering getting a new kitten. Will revert back to this hub for future advice.
DearBandit on May 05, 2012:
Thank you for this info, my little guy is having a hard time going to the washroom, I gave it a try with the washcloth, and it did work, Thank you soo soo much!
arusho from University Place, Wa. on February 18, 2012:
What a precious hub. My daughter and I would like to adopt a kitten someday to care for. You did a great job with three!
Lynda -Bailey from South Los Angeles on October 20, 2010:
You did good! I have taken in kittens for years and sometimes I feel like the grim reaper with kitten dying but the last few times I fell so in love, I ended up keeping a couple of them. Cool Hub!!
Elsie Nelson (author) from Pacific Northwest, USA on October 09, 2010:
Went ahead and allowed one of the many ugly comments made to me by the above individual who's now back under a different alias. Just so people can see who is really being threatened and attacked here.
Elsie Nelson (author) from Pacific Northwest, USA on October 09, 2010:
Sage, I completely know how you feel. When I found homes for two of my three kittens you'd think I was running an adoption agency with all the questions I asked. I MOURNED for them, but kept in touch with the owners and found they were happy, healthy and very loved. Such a great gift you give, I would do it more often if my husband didn't want to wring my neck. hehehe.
Sage Williams on October 07, 2010:
wordscribe - you're taking me back with this truly amazing hub. I could have used this information two years ago.
Two years ago I had to put down my cat, "Frisky" of 18 years. Although, the mourning process started 3 months prior to having to put my beloved friend to rest.
It was still devastating, I was at a loss. For the last 3 months of my best friends life I was spoon feeding him and carrying him around in a baby sling cause he just wanted to be held all the time.
I didn't know what to do with myself. In my mourning I still felt the need to give. To give back to the cat world in memory of the 18 years of devotion that my beloved, "Frisky" had given to me.
I went to a cat shelter that needed help and ended up taking home 4 neonatal kittens. I cared for them around the clock for the next 6-8 weeks.
It was an incredible way to continue mourning and working through my grief. Needless to say, I ended up keeping two of the kittens. It was very difficult parting with the other two.
Thanks for writing such a valuable hub.