Feeding Orphaned Kittens
Newborn kittens are relatively immature at birth compared to many other mammals. The period of time they spend being nursed by their mother (queen) helps the newborn kitten transition from in utero nutrition to solid food.
When a kitten is raised on queen’s milk, their growth and health is influenced by:
- the nutrition of the queen during pregnancy and early lactation,
- the queen’s overall physical health and behavior, and
- good neonatal care.
The first few days of a queen’s milk is known as colostrum. Colostrum is very high in protein and transfers important immune system elements. Whenever possible, newborn kittens should receive their mother’s milk as it sets the stage for normal immune system function and protection from disease.
If the queen is incapable of raising her kittens herself, the kittens are considered orphans and some important needs must be met in order to ensure their survival: appropriate heat, humidity, nutrition, elimination, sanitation, and social stimulation.
Fortunately, most orphaned kittens can be raised successfully with a bit of care and attention to detail. Using a logbook to track their development is a good place to start.
"If the queen is incapable of raising her kittens
herself, the kittens are considered orphans and
some important needs must be met in order to
ensure their survival: appropriate heat, humidity,
nutrition, elimination, sanitation, and social stimulation."
What should I track in a logbook?
Maintaining a logbook about the orphaned kittens doesn’t need to be complicated. The intent is to simply keep track of how they are doing so you can identify if there are any potential concerns with their development.
Tracking their weights, milestones and routines are key, so be sure to record details of when their eyes open, when their teeth begin to erupt, their food intake, stool consistency, etc.
TIP: Individual kittens must be identified in some way, so consider colored collars or nail polish on a few front toenails.
How often should kittens be weighed, and how much should they weigh?
The birth weight of each kitten should be recorded every day or two for the first four weeks of life. Starting in their fifth week, you can switch to weekly weigh-ins. A digital food scale with capacity up to 5 pounds works best for these measurements.
Kittens normally weigh between 80 to 120 grams (g) at birth. They gain about 100g/week during their first six months of life and should average at least 7g per day.
What do orphaned kittens need for proper nutrition?
Water is a critical nutrient for orphaned kittens, just as it is for all other stages of their life. Normal water intake is relatively high for kittens, needing 155 – 230 milliliters (ml) of fluid per kilogram (kg) of body weight each day.
On average, the total fluid volume fed per day (including milk replacers) should be approximately 180ml/kg of kitten body weight. Queen’s milk is highly digestible and very calorie dense. Compared to cow’s milk, queen’s milk contains more than twice as much protein, which helps explain why cow’s milk is not ideal for feeding orphaned kittens.
Commercial kitten milk replacers are recommended as they are superior to cow’s milk and home-made mixtures. The milk replacer you choose should meet several key nutritional factors. For every 100g of milk replacer fed, there should be:
- 79 g moisture
- 21g dry matter
- 7.5g crude protein
- 8.5g fat
- 4g lactose
"Compared to cow’s milk, queen’s milk contains
more than twice as much protein, which helps explain
why cow’s milk is not ideal for feeding orphaned kittens."
How do I feed orphaned kittens?
Most kittens will suckle on small pet nurser bottles, also known as pet nursers. When bottle fed, kittens will nurse until they are full and then reject the bottle.
Be sure the opening in the nipple restricts the outflow of fluid to one drop at a time in order to avoid a flow rate that is too rapid for the kitten. When the flow rate is too rapid, it can lead to aspiration, pneumonia, and/or death.
When feeding, hold the kitten in a horizontal, head-neutral position. If the kitten is too weak to suckle, your veterinarian can show you alternative feeding methods and assist in tube feeding if needed.
TIP: Handling kittens during feeding contributes to critical socialization.
How much and how often should I feed orphaned kittens?
Orphaned kittens should be fed on a strict schedule, preferably every 2 – 4 hours. Kittens up to two weeks old can generally consume their daily intake in 4 – 5 meals per day. Small breed kittens should be limited to 10 – 15ml per feeding during the first week of life in order to prevent diarrhea.
Commercial milk replacers are labeled to help you calculate the total volume to be fed per day. To calculate the amount for each feeding:
- Dilute the total daily volume of milk replacer to a final volume of about 180ml/kg of kitten body weight, and
- Divide that total into the desired number of meals per day.
It is recommended that you warm kitten milk replacer to approximately 100° F (38° C) before feeding, but be careful not to overheat it. Cold formula, overly rapid feeding rates, and overfeeding can lead to regurgitation, aspiration, bloating, and diarrhea.
If the orphaned kitten develops diarrhea, reduce the formula volume. It is better to slightly underfeed than to overfeed neonatal orphaned kittens. Kitten milk replacer should be the sole source of nutrition until 3 – 4 weeks of age at which time the weaning process may begin.
The transition from formula to solid food is a gradual process, so be patient. Use a high-quality food formulated to support growth and reproduction. Introduce small amounts of semi-solid or solid food to supplement formula, and transition to solid food by 5 – 6 weeks of age.
What’s my role in helping a kitten to eliminate?
Kittens cannot eliminate (urinate or defecate) on their own until about 3 weeks of age. They rely on the queen to stimulate their reflex to initiate elimination. Orphaned kittens, on the other hand, rely on their caretakers to stimulate them to eliminate.
After feeding, you can stimulate their reflex to eliminate by gently stroking the area between the anus and vulva or penis with a warm, moistened cotton ball or soft cloth. Your veterinarian can help you learn this technique.
What are some best practices for proper kitten hygiene?
Orphaned kittens require you to pay strict attention to their hygiene for optimal health and development. Follow these best practices for proper kitten hygiene:
- Bottles and nipples should be cleaned and then boiled in water to sterilize them between uses.
- Never prepare more milk replacer than can be used within 24 hours and always keep it refrigerated.
- Discard formula after 1 hour if left at room temperature.
- Once or twice each week, gently wash the kittens with a moist cloth.
By paying attention to the details of feeding and hygiene, you can help orphaned kittens thrive.
Reference: Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 5th edition; Hand M, Thatcher C, Remillard R, Roudebush P, Novotny B eds.; Mark Morris Institute 2010.
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