Hand Rearing Kittens: What You Need To Know To Save A Newborn’s Life

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Hand Rearing Kittens: What You Need To Know To Save A Newborn's Life

Do you have a newborn kitten that you’re trying to rescue? Maybe more than one? Worried on how to take care of these tiny creatures?

You should be.

Hand rearing kittens is time consuming and demanding.

But we’re here to help. In this article, we’ll walk you through the basics of hand rearing newborn kittens and also offer more links where you can learn even more.

Most importantly – check out our Pregnant Cat & Kittens forum where experienced rescuers can offer you support and advice.

Why hand rearing kittens is so hard

Newborn kittens are tiny helpless creatures. They are blind and totally dependent on their mother’s care.

Sometimes, people are given the task of replacing that maternal care. This may happen when the queen that gave birth in your house rejects the kittens or if you come across an abandoned newborn kitten. Either way, the task of being a mother cat substitute can be daunting. The kittens need constant care and demand a lot of your time and energy.

If possible, it is best to find a surrogate feline mother. You can check with local rescue organizations and vets to see if they know of a lactating mother cat that may take the kittens. Only if this is not achievable, you should try taking on the challenge of hand rearing kittens.

Read more about making the right decision here: I Found Abandoned Kittens What Should I Do.

General Care For Newborn Kittens

It is best to contact your veterinarian and inform him or her about the infants. Let your vet know of anything to do with the kittens that you find disturbing. The kittens are very delicate creatures — in case of medical problems their condition may deteriorate within hours. It’s best to ask for advice early on rather than risk complications.

The most important things about raising kittens are keeping them warm and giving them the right amounts of quality nutrition. Keep track of the kittens’ development by weighing them daily during the first week and every 2-3 days during the next few days. Write down the results in a special diary so that you and your vet can check the kittens’ progress.

Read more about Weighing Newborn Kittens And How This Could Save Their Lives.

The Kittens’ Environment

If you have to take care of several newborn kittens, it is better to prepare a homemade incubator or “nest”. In their book Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, Carlson and Griffin recommend dividing a cardboard box into compartments. This should be done because very young kittens have a very strong urge to suckle – if they can’t find a mother’s nipples, they may start to suckle parts of each other’s body. The kittens should remain in separate compartments until they are three weeks old.

The room in which the kittens are kept should be kept warm at all times. Keeping a thermometer by the incubator will help you determine the exact room temperature. During the first two weeks, the room temperature should be approximately 85°F. It is best to keep the room slightly warmer at 90°F during the first week of the kittens’ life and gradually decrease it to 80°F within the next two weeks. From the fifth week onwards, you should maintain the room temperature at 75°F.

The kittens are sensitive to disease and infections. This is particularly true for kittens that did not get any milk from their mother. During the first few days after the birth, the mother cat secrets special condense milk called colostrum. The colostrum contains vital antibodies that provide the kitten with passive immunity to many kinds of disease. Without the colostrum, kittens are more susceptible to disease. It is important to keep small kittens isolated from other cats and even from people. Before handling the kittens, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly.

Read more about Fading Kitten Syndrome: 11 Things You Need To Know.

Feeding the Kittens

Raising small kittens by hand means that you have to feed them by hand. The best way to feed the kittens is by using a feeding bottle specially designed for kittens. You can find these bottles at most pet stores or order online.

If the kitten is too weak to suckle from the bottle, it may need to be fed by using a tube. Tube feeding is a delicate procedure – if done in the wrong way, it can harm the kitten and even cause death. If you have no experience feeding kittens by tube, it is best to ask your vet for a detailed explanation and a demonstration.

You must never feed kittens with cow milk. Kittens need cat milk or a special cat milk formula intended for raising orphan kittens. You can get kitten milk formula at most pet stores, in liquid form (ready-to-serve) or as a powder mix.

Note: Cat Sip Real Milk and other types of “cat milk” are not what you need! They are a treat and not formulated to provide any cat with a complete and balanced diet, least of all small kittens. Only use a kitten milk-replacer such as KMR, included in the Petag Newborn Kitten Care Pack.

Come kitten season it’s wise to have an emergency kit at home. The complete kit contains everything you’ll need to nurse an orphaned or abandoned kitten, including KMR Kitten Milk Replacer.


Comments? Leave them using the form below. Questions? Please use the cat forums for those!

11 comments on “Hand Rearing Kittens: What You Need To Know To Save A Newborn’s Life

DottyP June 4, 2021
I’m really struggling to get the 2 day old kitten to take from the bottle, he’s not getting enough from Mum but screams the place down when I try to give him bottle and refuses. Any advice gratefully received.
    Jcatbird June 12, 2021
    DottyP did you get an answer? If you go the the forum and post this question you will get help. This is a spot where most people won’t see your question unless they happen to come to read the article. Only one kitten and mom is not producing enough? If I understand this all correctly then first I would get a vet check on them. Mom may not be producing for many reasons. You can help mom for the moment by giving her some kitten milk replacement, kitten food and checking to make sure her teats are not clogged. Please do start a thread in the forums do more people can help. I hope things have already improved. So sorry I did not see this earlier. I will check back to see if you need further help.
tarasgirl06 March 13, 2018
Alicia88 said:
I rescued a Mojave Ground Squirrel from a cat.  The poor thing didn't even have teeth yet.  I managed to keep it alive through the weekend until animal rescue people were able to come for him by feeding him human breast milk with a syringe - I was still nursing my younger son.  I wonder if you could feed human breast milk to kittens?
Amazing, @alicia88 and I hope someone has the knowledge to answer you on that!
StefanZ February 2, 2017
As a complement to heating pads, brooder heating IR lamps, the same as are used for warming up new hatched chickens, are very useful.  They can be used over the nest the usual way, as an alternative to heating pads.   Another nice usage is  when you hand feed the tiny or weak ones, they tend to get cold while you feed them.  Even if you hold them in your hands.   But if you can have this brooder above your feeding place, they wont never get chilled.  Our forumist TeamCarp33 whom got 10 prematures, did gave this tip.  :)   I suppose other tipes of IR-heating lamps can too be used in an emergency, till you get the correct gears.  Similiar IR lamps are used for people with rheumatical problems.  They are also used to warm up terraries.
Alicia88 August 24, 2016
I rescued a Mojave Ground Squirrel from a cat.  The poor thing didn't even have teeth yet.  I managed to keep it alive through the weekend until animal rescue people were able to come for him by feeding him human breast milk with a syringe - I was still nursing my younger son.  I wonder if you could feed human breast milk to kittens?
darlingpurs April 16, 2016
Try and get the kitten on to a bottle--tube feeding is dangerous if you dont know what you are doing and use goat milks --those small bottles in the pet store  --actually I get a sissors and cut a very small slit both ways on the teat so baby can suck--it works really well--as the days go by they just love the bottle.
jennyr May 2, 2015
When feeding a kitten make sure it is in the right position, on its stomach, NOT the way you feed a human baby on it back. Otherwise the milk may go down the air tube and kill the kitten.
bertiebassett May 14, 2014
i used goat milk on a kitten we rescued 4 years ago. he was about to be dumped, hadnt even got his eyes open :(  he thrived on it and is now a big strapping lad :)
StefanZ March 13, 2014
A dropper (feks eye dropper) may be easier with small, weak kittens, than a bottle.   (Also, many people do have a dropper home.  Clean it off thoroughly if was  used for  medicines earlier.) Another alternative is a small syringe. In dire need you can use a drinking straw.
StefanZ April 11, 2013
Have also dextrose (glucose sugar), very useful in many of situations where they need extra energy or seems to be fading. Set a little wetted dextrose powder on their gum. Other sugar sources like honey and white caro syrup do also works, but dextrose is best.
StefanZ March 14, 2013
Goat milk is also OK, if you dont have access to good kmr milk.

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