Kitten Care: Raising Tiny Newborns

Part 3: Your Role as Surrogate "Cat Mom"

In Part one we discussed preparing for your new kitten, bringing him or her home and integrating her into the household, and the all-important initial health check. Part two covered the basics in caring for your kitten. This final section involves the special needs of newborns.
 

Raising Newborn Kittens

Raising newborn kittens may be the most challenging, time-consuming task you've ever attempted, and can be both intensely rewarding and heartbreaking.

If you do not have the time or the emotional stamina to deal with the potential of losing kittens you've invested your heart in, you might want to leave the job to people who are trained and experienced. Little lives are at stake here.

So someone has dumped a box of newborns in the court of your apartment building, with or without the mother cat. Where do you go from here?

  • If the mother cat is with the kittens and seems to be in good health, you're lightyears ahead. She will do a lot of the work for you, and your task will be to make sure she's healthy by taking her to the veterinarian right away. Next, ensure that she's nursing all the kittens and attending to to their cleaning.
  • If the mother cat abandons her kittens or was never there, this article will give you some tools to help the kittens survive. 

How Old Are They?

Kittens mature so rapidly the first three or four months, that your job as surrogate mother will be determined by the kittens' age at any given time.

This key gives a quick way of estimating age.

You can tell their age very approximately by several methods:

  • If they still have their umbilical cords they are probably between one and three days old.
  • If their eyes are still closed, they are probably between one and ten days old. By 10 days their eyes should be open.
  • Open their mouths and look for teeth. Do you see little nubs coming in? Then the kittens are about two weeks old.
  • Are they attempting to stand? Then they may be two to three weeks old.
  • Are they starting to play? They are likely about four weeks

Creating a Safe Haven For Cats

You'll want to arrange a "nest" for your kittens. This can be either in a carrier, or even a cardboard box lined with clean towels will do in a pinch. If you have other cats in your home, the kittens must be isolated in a separate room, and you'll want to practice diligent hygiene in washing your hands both before and after caring for them. Tiny feral babies can be little time-bombs of disease, which you don't need spread to your other cats. In any case, they'll be safer and your job will be a bit easier in a small area, such as a bathroom.

 

Basic Needs of Newborn Kittens

 

  • Warmth: A chilled kitten can die quickly, and is considered a veterinary emergency. You can warm the kitten by holding it next to your own skin, or by using a heating pad, set to "Low", well-wrapped with a thick towel or flannel sheet. Make sure there is plenty of unheated surface in the box so the kittens can move away from the heat source if they become too warm. Feeding a chilled kitten can be fatal, so wait until its temperature is up to its normal range of 95° F to 99° F before attempting to feed it. If a kitten's temperature falls below 94° F it must be warmed gradually to avoid metabolic shock. At the same time, give it Pedialyte (the same stuff sold for human babies) to hydrate it and prevent shock.
  • Nourishment: You'll need kitten milk replacer (KMR) equivalent, available from pet stores, and a feeder of some sort (either a bottle, syringe, or eye-dropper.) The K.M.R. box will include instructions for feeding by weight of the kitten. Tiny babies will need to eat as many as 12 meals around the clock, so plan on 2 a.m. feedings.

At three weeks or so, you can start training the babies to eat food in a dish. Do so by mixing either dry or canned kitten food with the milk formula and mash it until it is a thick liquid. Go ahead and use your blender, and pretend you're making a milkshake. You'll probably need to "prime" the kitty by putting a bit of the mixture on your finger tip, then showing her the saucer. As the kitten learns to eat and enjoy her "mush", you can gradually reduce the amount of milk replacement formula.

Finally, she can graduate to solid kitten food. Ideally, you should start kittens out with a premium brand of canned kitten food. Canned food remaining in the can should be covered and refrigerated immediately after opening, and the next serving can be warmed in a microwave for just a minute or so. Uneaten canned food in the plate should also not be left out after the kitten has had her fill, as it can spoil rapidly. Since kittens' tummies are small, the best plan is to give four or five small meals a day. Some cat owners provide dry food to be eaten at will, supplemented with a small serving of canned food once or twice a day, however for optimum nutritional benefits, a canned diet is better.

Next > Nurturing, Vet Visit, and The Litter Thing

A supplement that is popular among breeders for kittens that aren't gaining well, is Kitten Glop, but it should not be used to replace the kitten's normal food entirely.

At the same time your kitten is learning to eat from a dish, she can also learn to drink water from a dish. Use a sturdy ceramic bowl and place it where the kitten can find it easily. You may have to dabble your fingers in the water at first to show the kitten what it is.

Don't be surprised if there is a little splashing and water fun before kitty discovers it is to be taken internally.

Nurturing:

Nurturing consists of the various tasks the mother kitten would perform, and also includes bonding with the kitten.

  • Elimination - Newborns need help in moving their bowels and flushing their kidneys. The mother cat does this by washing their little butts with her tongue. You can accomplish the same by holding the kitty (put a towel over your lap first) and gently stroking its body with a rough towel or wash cloth. Do the same thing with its abdomen and little butt. You should be rewarded with a bowel movement after every meal and soon will not need to give this assistance.
  • Kitty Massage - Same thing, only lightly stroke the kitty's whole body, starting with its head, around the cheeks and chin, shoulders, limbs, and finally back and belly. Massage is a good way to bond with your baby, and will prepare him for adapting more easily to a new home, if that is in his future.
  • Grooming - The mother cat combines grooming with massage by using the rough tongue given her by nature. You can use a soft brush to brush your kitten's hair - another tool for bonding. Also, if very young kittens have fleas, use a flea comb to gently comb them out. (Be sure to put a towel or newspaper under the kitten to catch the fleas and flea dirt.

    The Litter Thing

    Kittens will normally take to the litterbox as quickly as ducks to water. Use a low-sided box for training - the lid to a shoe box would work. A pellet-type litter is generally recommended, but not the clumping style. Kittens will experiment with eating litter and the clumping type is murder on the intestines. Once the kitten starts eating on its own, just put her in the box around 15 minutes after eating. Scratch the litter a bit with your finger to show her what it's all about. If she hops out, put her back in again a couple times, then leave her alone. If she makes a mistake and poops on the floor, pick a small amount up and put it in the box to show her where it belongs. She'll get the idea sooner or later, and more likely sooner.

    Don't Forget the Vet

    Newborns should be examined by your veterinarian at the earliest possible time. Litters from ferals or of unknown parentage often suffer from fleas and other parasites, and do not have the normal natural immunity passed on in early weeks from vaccinated mother cats.

    While kittens nursing a protected queen get their first "shots" around six to eight weeks, orphaned/feral kittens may be immunized at two to three weeks. Of course, kittens showing signs of distress, such as prolonged chilling, watery eyes or running nose, lethargy or failure to eat, should be seen immediately by a veterinarian.

    This is the final part of the Kitten Care series. I have only touched on the basics of raising newborns, in the hopes that someone who wants to take on this challenge as an advocate will be encouraged to research further. There are a number of wonderful sites and articles on the Net covering the subject, written by caring, nurturing cat lovers who are doing their part to help the lost kittens of the world.

    The New Kitten Series

    1. Preparing for a Kitten
    2. Food, Play, Socialization
    3. Raising Tiny Newborns