Caring for Newborn Kittens: Feeding, Warmth, & Eliminating
Caring for newborn kittens can be overwhelming, especially if this is your first litter. You’ve spent the last 9 weeks caring for your pregnant cat, making sure to meet her nutritional requirements. Then you watched your cat go through the various stages of labor, making sure everything went smoothly during her queening experience.
Now the real fun (and work!) begins—taking care of the newborn kittens. After all of the kittens are born and have been cleaned up, it’s time to focus on ensuring they are nursing well and staying warm.
Nutrition for Newborn Kittens
Most mother cats will provide all of the necessary care and nutrition for her young kittens. A mother cat’s milk is designed to provide all of the nutrition that kittens need during their first few weeks of life.
For the first few days, the momma produces a substance called colostrum, which contains essential maternal antibodies that help the kittens fight off infections. A kitten’s immune system isn’t completely developed when born, so getting adequate colostrum is essential.
Owners should keep track of each kitten’s weight as they grow, especially during the first few weeks. Because each cat breed is different, appropriate weight gains will vary among breeds. Newborn kittens typically weigh about 3.5 ounces and should gain at least 10 grams per day. Be sure to talk with your veterinarian about the appropriate weight gain for your specific kitten’s breed.
Kittens typically nurse about every 2 hours during the first week. The interval between feedings will increase as the kittens grow. At around 3 to 4 weeks, the kittens can start to be weaned and transitioned to eating solid food.
Common Nursing Issue: Mastitis
It’s a good idea to check on the momma and kittens every few hours to make sure they are all nursing and staying warm. Be on the lookout for kittens that appear cold, are crying, or aren’t nursing.
Although most mother cats don’t have any issues during nursing, there is a chance that they will develop mastitis. Mastitis is a bacterial infection of the lactating glands in the breast, commonly caused by a blocked milk duct, weaning too early, a scratch from a kitten’s nail, or an infection. Mastitis is painful for the momma, and it limits the availability of milk.
Common signs of mastitis include hot, dark, red, and painful teats. If you think your mother cat has mastitis, you should call your veterinarian.
Ensuring Your Kittens Stay Warm
In addition to ensuring kittens receive adequate nutrition, owners must also make sure kittens stay warm. The Merck Veterinary Manual points out that kittens aren’t able to control their own body temperatures until 4 weeks of age. Having a low body temperature puts stress on kittens and negatively impacts immunity, nursing, and digestion. Therefore, it’s essential that kittens are kept in a warm environment.
You can help keep the kittens warm by building a nest for them. Start by putting a few layers of towels in a cat carrier, cat bed, or cardboard box. You can help provide supplemental heat by wrapping a towel around a heating pad set on low. It’s important to ensure the kittens can move away from the heat if needed.
If a kitten becomes chilled, you should rewarm it slowly and avoid letting the kitten nurse or bottle feed until it is warm to help prevent aspiration.
Orphaned Kitten Care
If the kitten’s mother isn’t around to provide milk and nutrients, then you will be responsible for caring for the orphaned kitten and stepping in to provide nutrition. You’ll want to make sure that the orphaned kitten is steadily gaining weight, staying warm, and eliminating on a regular basis.
Feeding an Orphaned Kitten
An orphaned or rejected kitten will need to be fed a commercial milk replacer. You should choose a milk replacer that is specifically formulated for kittens, like Goatalac, which delivers essential vitamins and minerals, along with probiotics, to promote balanced growth and development of newborns.
It’s important to note that cow’s milk can make cats very sick, so you should avoid giving cow’s milk to your kitten. If you need help choosing a kitten milk replacer, your veterinarian can help you choose the right one. You should always properly store milk replacers because the improper handling or storage of milk replacers can lead to illness or even death.
Orphaned kittens should be fed about every 2 to 4 hours. You should warm up the kitten formula to approximately 100°F before feeding it to the kitten.
When you bottle feed a kitten, you should hold the kitten in a horizontal, head-neutral position as if it’s nursing from its mother. Angling the bottle is important for preventing air bubbles. After you feed the kittens, you should burp them by gently patting their back until you feel or hear them burp.
VCA Hospitals points out that if an orphaned kitten develops diarrhea, you should reduce the formula volume. It is better to slightly underfeed than to overfeed neonatal kittens. Kitten milk replacer should be the only source of nutrition for the first few weeks of the kitten’s life. Once your kitten is around 3 to 4 weeks, you can start the weaning process.
Helping an Orphaned Kitten
Eliminate Kittens can’t urinate or defecate on their own until they are about 3 or 4 weeks old. Normally, the mother cat would stimulate their kittens to urinate and defecate by licking them. Owners with an orphaned kitten will need to stimulate the reflex to eliminate.
After feeding the kitten, you should take a clean cotton ball or soft washcloth, dip it in warm water, and then gently rub the genital and anal area. This will help stimulate the reflex for urination and defecation. It’s important to do this several times a day.
Caring for a Newborn Kitten: When to Worry
If you are concerned about the mother cat or her kittens, please consult your veterinarian as soon as possible. Call your vet immediately if your kitten shows any of these signs:
- Poor weight gain
- Difficulty breathing
- Prolonged chilling
- Constant crying
- Lack of appetite
- Coughing or wheezing
- Pale gums
- Eye or nasal discharge
- Inability to urinate or defecate
Many veterinarians recommend that kittens receive their first round of vaccinations at 6 to 8 weeks old. Deworming should begin when the kittens are 2 weeks old.
Caring for newborn kittens requires commitment and attention to detail. But all that work pays off as you watch the kittens start to grow, develop, and socialize!
The materials and information provided on this website are not intended to replace the medical advice or services of your veterinarian or other pet healthcare professional. Consult your own veterinarian if you have medical questions concerning diagnosis, treatment, therapy, or medical attention.