Caring for newborn kittens
Look twice at an “abandoned” kitten
It’s not unusual to discover a kitten or litter of kittens hiding beneath a porch or bush in the spring and summer months, when most litters are born. However, a kitten or kittens left alone have not necessarily been orphaned. The mother may be hiding, away hunting, or in the process of moving the litter from one location to a new safe spot.
The best plan is to step back and observe the location for a bit. Give the mother time to return or to complete the litter’s move. If the mother arrives but isn’t wearing a collar, contact your vet or a local feral cat rescue group to learn the safest way to capture the mother and her litter.
When it becomes clear the kitten or litter has been abandoned—or if they appear ill, cold or malnourished—carefully wrap the kitten or litter of kittens in a warm blanket and place them in a carrier or box. Then schedule an appointment for a visit to the vet. Your vet will provide you with specific instructions based on the kitten’s or litter’s age and health.
Feeding newborn kittens: a labor of love
Ideally, a nursing cat should foster orphaned kittens: milk from a surrogate mother provides the best nutrition. Additionally, interaction with her and her litter helps socialize the abandoned kittens to other cats. If a surrogate mother can’t be found, orphaned kittens less than three weeks old must be bottle-fed every 1-2 hours with a commercial feline milk replacer. Cow’s milk should not be fed to kittens—it can cause diarrhea.
When the kittens are 3-4 weeks old, you can begin to give them milk replacer and softened kitten food in a bowl every four hours. However, supplemental bottle-feeding may still be needed. So be sure to consult your vet to determine the best diet and feeding schedule for your foster kittens.
Helping developing bowels
Kittens less than three weeks old are unable to have a bowel movement on their own, so a mother cat must lick and groom the kitten’s anal region to stimulate elimination. To mimic a mother cat’s tongue, moisten a cloth or bit of gauze in warm water. Then rub it on the kitten’s anus and genital region after each feeding to encourage elimination.
Keep them safe & warm
Newborn kittens won’t open their eyes until they’re 6-10 days old, and kittens up to two weeks old may not have mastery of their back legs muscles and will drag themselves by their front legs instead. No sight and limited mobility makes for vulnerable newborns—to keep them safe, place them in a pet carrier or large box until they have better awareness of their abilities and environment.
Because newborn kittens can’t regulate their own body temperature, they may need help from you to keep warm. So place a warm water bottle wrapped in a towel or a well-insulated heating pad at one end of the kittens’ carrier or box. Then check on the kittens frequently to help make sure they are not too cold or overheated.
Healthy from the start
Healthy, content kittens will sleep much of the time, eat heartily at feedings and readily engage with their environment and littermates. They will also gain weight and urinate and defecate normally post-feeding. If your foster kitten seems unresponsive, does not eat or gain weight or appears or acts differently from his littermates, consult your vet right away. Newborn kittens are particularly susceptible to a variety of illnesses and their health can deteriorate quickly, so immediate medical attention is best for a newborn kitten.