Raising Neonatal Kittens
So you found some abandoned kittens, possibly that were only a day or two old, and mom is nowhere to be found.
Before you bring these kittens home, STOP. There is a good chance that mom is just out hunting and will return to her babies, and mom is going to be much better at raising them than you will be. She will also be able to give them colostrum and antibodies in her milk, which you cannot replicate. The best thing, assuming that the elements are not harsh, is to wait a few hours to see if mom returns to her babies. If you can stay a safe distance away where mom can't see you or smell you, but you will see her come back, that is best. If not, then come back a few hours later to see if mom is there, or if the babies have been moved. If either occurs, then mom is still taking care of them. Only once you are completely sure without a doubt that mom will not return can you take the kittens home.
Once you are certain that mom is never coming back, then you can bring the kittens home and start raising them. Be forewarned, raising neonatal kittens is a LOT of work, you will not get much sleep, and there is a very good chance that you will lose one or more of the kittens because you will not be able to give anywhere close to the amount of care and nutrition that they need compared to what they would get from their mother. If you are not ready or able to provide this care and you cannot find anyone to do it for you, then it may be kinder to take the kittens to a vet clinic to be euthanized rather than letting them starve to death. Very few vet clinics and animal shelters have the time and resources to raise neonatal kittens. One other option is to call around to see if anyone has a queen (intact female cat) who is currently nursing a litter to see if they can adopt the kittens that you found - it can work.
Okay, so you are prepared to lose sleep and raise these kittens by hand. There are a few things you will need.
Your items needed list should include:
- Cardboard box, storage container, or carrier that you can keep the kittens in for the next few weeks.
- Disposable diaper pads such as used for house training puppies.
- Goats milk (available at most supermarkets) or kitten milk replacer like KMR (available at most pet stores).
- Paper towels or cat wipes for cleaning the kittens.
- Heating pad.
- Kitten shampoo.
- Kitten nursing bottles (available at most pet stores and some supermarkets).
The first thing you will need to do is to make a nesting box using your cardboard box, storage container, or carrier. Cover the bottom of the container with padding such as a blanket or towels. Cover these with a disposable diaper pad that you can change out frequently throughout the day. Underneath your nesting box place the heating pad, but only under half of the box so if the kittens become too warm they can crawl over to the cooler side. Make sure the heating pad is not too warm up where the kittens are - you don't want to overheat them or burn them. Make sure the sides of the nesting box are high enough that the kittens cannot crawl out until they are able to see and control where they are going. Even then, you will want to have them confined to a very small room so that they cannot get themselves in trouble they can't get out of.
The next important item you will have to do is to feed the kittens. To do this, warm the bottle with the milk in it to between warm and lukewarm. Do not microwave - this can cause hot spots. Set the bottle in a cup of hot water for about 10 minutes. About 70-90 degrees should be sufficient. Don't go any hotter to avoid burning the kittens throat, and if it is much cooler, the kittens may not want to drink it. Make sure that the kitten nursing bottles you obtained are easy to suckle out of - you may want to test them yourself before giving them to the kittens. If fluid is not coming through easily, you may need to use a safety pin or scissors to open the tip of the nipple slightly until the milk comes out easily, but with a slight effort. You also don't want to drown the kittens.
You will need to feed the kittens about every 2-3 hours. If they are sleeping, don't wake them, wait until they are awake to feed them. If you feed them every 2-3 hours through the day, you should be able to sleep yourself about 6-8 hours without feeding them. Make sure the bottle is tipped up so they are not swallowing air, and it is better to feed them with them in an upright position, not on their backs. The kittens should have a good suckle reflex. If they refuse to suckle, they are either not hungry, or they are fading, and you need to take them to a vet. Let the kittens nurse until they are refusing the milk - that means they are full. If milk comes out of the nose, then they are drinking to fast, and you need to slow down their rate of drinking. After feeding the kittens, rub them to help them burp up any air. You may also want to keep track of their weight using a postal or kitchen scale. A healthy kitten should gain at least 10% of their birth weight per day.
Another very important thing you will need to do every 2-3 hours, or each time you feed the kittens, is to help them urinate and defecate. They will not be able to do this on their own. You will need to mimic the mother's tongue using a damp paper towel or cat wipe, or even your finger and rub it gently over their genital area to stimulate them to urinate and defecate. You will know you are successful when the kittens are eliminating while you are doing this. If you have a kitten who is not doing either, then you may need to bring them to a vet to make sure that there is not another problem going on, and that you are doing it correctly.
You will need to clean the kittens at least twice a day to prevent urine scalding and infection, but you also do not want to let them get cold either. The best way is to take a washcloth or paper towel and moisten it in warm water with kitten shampoo. Very gently, wipe the kitten down, do not ever submerse them in water. When you are done, use a hair dryer on low and very gently blow dry them afterwards to prevent them from getting cold.
Once the kittens are biting and chewing at the nursing bottle, usually around 3-4 weeks of age, you can start trying solid food. Canned kitten food on your little finger or on the edge of plate for them to suckle it off will work. Once they are able to eat canned kitten food off of the center of a plate, you can then introduce foods like Baby Cat made by Royal Canin which is a starter food, or you can also break kitten kibble into smaller pieces and moisten it and feed that to them. By 6-8 weeks of age they should be eating solid food regularly.
The eyes of neonatal kittens should open around 6 days of age, and they will start to lose the blue color in their eyes around 6 weeks of age. If your kittens make it to 6 weeks of age, congratulations, you did good. Just keep in mind when you start this that there is a very high likelihood that you may lose some of the kittens along the way - it is not your fault, you are just not a cat, and there are things that you just cannot provide to a neonatal kitten that only a mother cat can provide. At 3-4 weeks, the kittens can start receiving their vaccinations to protect them from viruses that could be fatal, or could make them very sick. You may also need to provide antibiotics or vitamin supplements as well if the kittens never received mom's colostrum in the first 24-48 hours - talk to your vet about what may be needed.