Cat Care & Advice

Hand-rearing Kittens

I have written this article to give basic advice to people unexpectedly faced with tiny motherless, frail kittens with no idea of how to deal with the situation. I have lost count of the number of people in the past who have rung me in despair, either because they did not know what to do, or because they had improvised and things had gone tragically wrong: “…had we only known all this…”. One so quickly grows fond of these little creatures, and it is traumatic to lose them after all one’s efforts. However, handrearing is really quite simple, once you know how.

A newborn kitten is entirely dependent on its mother. The queen provides three vital requirements:

1. Warmth;

2. Food;

3. Stimulation of the bowel and bladder, and general hygiene.

The human substitute has to provide all of these to enable the kittens to survive. I will cover each in turn.

1) WARMTH

I’ll illustrate this with the procedure followed in a typical rescue case. Five two-day-old kittens were found in a puddle on a building site. Three were already dead, but the others, though very cold, wet and seemingly lifeless, were still breathing. Their umbilical cords were still attached and therefore a warm bath was out of the question (in any case, bathing is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS for kittens, and must be avoided under any circumstances). The priority was to get the two survivors dry and warm, so they were first rubbed thoroughly with a rough towel to stimulate the circulation. Next, a hot water bottle was prepared, wrapped in a thick layer of newspaper, placed inside an old woollen sweater and the whole laid in a box. This arrangement will maintain a suitable temperature for 2-4 hours. The kittens, now dry, were placed on top and covered with a loosely-crocheted blanket to create a perfect warm capsule, with about 2″ of the box left uncovered.

Simply putting kittens “by the fire”, as many well-meaning people do, is not good enough: the warmth has to be skin-close to imitate the mother’s body, which is normally folded right round the kittens. A queen will never deliberately leave her young kittens for more than a few moments. If you are worried that the kittens might overheat, add a further layer of newspaper over the hot water bottle, and place a folded towel in the box beside the covered hot-water bottle. Even very young kittens will instinctively crawl to an area with the right temperature.

Cold kittens are too weak to suckle and swallow, and they are unable to digest properly, so only when the kittens have started to warm up do I prepare their food.

2) FOOD

If you are taken by surprise with no pet shop or vet nearby, an eye dropper, or a cotton bud covered with muslin or cotton lawn from which the kitten can suck, will do to give a little improvised liquid food. Evaporated milk diluted with three parts of boiled, cooled water is suitable in emergency; even glucose water (1 teaspoon of glucose powder per cup of boiled water) will serve, but only as the first feed and if the kitten is desperately hungry (however, for a very weak kitten, this is the best mixture to use for the first feed). Cat food manufacturers advise us that the lactose-reduced “cat milk” sold in cartons is NOT SUITABLE for bottle-feeding kittens.

The prepared feed should be slightly below blood temperature: a drop placed on the back of the hand should feel neither warm nor cold.

The first sips should be given drop by drop to be sure everything is swallowed – you may need to stimulate swallowing by gently stroking the throat after each drop. After the first few drops a kitten will usually get an appetite and start suckling actively, but failing that you should continue with the drop method. It is essential to take things slowly and carefully, as if any food – even the smallest amount – gets into the lungs, infection and death will inevitably follow.

As soon as you can, get a proper feeder and teats, and a scientifically formulated milk substitute.

Which drinking bottle is the best?

The CATAC Standard Feeder is safe, but it is not easy for people with narrow fingers to use: I find it better to use a syringe fitted with a CATAC teat (designed especially for kittens). Start with a 1 ml syringe, using bigger ones as the kitten grows and is able to suckle harder. The hole in the teat should be just big enough to allow drops of milk to appear slowly at the end of the teat without added pressure. Ideally the kitten should suck so that the plunger moves down the barrel of the syringe without any pressure from your hand, but you may occasionally need to use the GENTLEST POSSIBLE pressure until the kitten gets the idea. Replace the syringe as soon as the plunger starts to stick – this may be necessary daily. If milk appears at the sides of the kitten’s mouth or – even worse – bubbles from the nose, then the flow is far too fast and the kitten is in serious trouble. Stop instantly, hold the kitten with the head slightly below the rest of the body, and tap its back gently with two fingers to stop it choking. Occasionally a very hungry kitten will “fight” the bottle in its anxiety and desperation: in this case gently steady its head with your fingers and guide the teat into the mouth.

Choice of food and time-table

CIMICAT is a milk powder specially formulated for kittens, and available from vets and some pet shops. It may be necessary to use a baby whisk to get a smooth mixture when making up the feed. Although CIMICAT is usually ideal and produces strong, healthy kittens, it may be too rich for some and cause diarrhoea. If this happens, switch to Lactol, which is less rich. If the kitten gets diarrhoea, the next two feeds should be rice water (drained from well-cooked white rice) to soothe the stomach, followed by a third feed of a mixture of equal quantities of Lactol and rice water, before going back to a pure milk feed to which one drop per day of Abidec Baby Vitamins may be added. This simple remedy, adapted from a method used for human babies, has effected miraculous cures, even with tiny kittens.

Patience and discipline are needed to handrear a kitten successfully, and this includes keeping the bedding and feeding equipment meticulously clean to avoid infection.

As with human babies, food must be given at short, regular intervals. The following guide has proved successful.

Days 1-21 For the first 7 days, pure milk feeds every 2-21/2 hours, day and night, intervals increasing to 21/2-3 hours (day and night) for days 7-21. Newborn kittens may take as little as 1 ml per feed, but the appetite increases rapidly. The amount taken at each feed depends entirely on the kitten’s appetite: stop feeding when the kitten stops suckling actively, and NEVER force it to take food. CIMICAT comes complete with instructions and a feeding chart, but in my experience the suggested quantities per feed are a minimum. Use the chart as a rough guide only and feed according to appetite.

Days 21-28 Feeds every 3 hours: an occasional interval of 31/2 hours is possible when enriched feeds are given – this longer interval may be most convenient in the middle of the night, to allow the nurse a little more sleep. (NOTE: it is important during the first 3 weeks that kittens are not left for too long an interval, not only because they need food, but also because a kitten may wet itself, get cold and become ill). In preparation for weaning, three of the milk feeds daily can now be enriched with approximately 1 level teaspoon per kitten of powdered baby rice stirred into the warm milk (for kittens over 31/2 weeks chicken flavoured powdered food, for babies from 3 months, may be added instead): enriched feeds should be alternated with pure milk feeds. If the kitten rejects pure milk feeds after having sampled the tastier mixture, a small amount of cereal can be added to every bottle. Some kittens just under 3 weeks old may no longer be satisfied with pure milk and will still be hungry after a milk feed. If this happens, put a small amount of cereal in future feeds.

Day 28 onwards at about age 4 weeks you can start teaching the kittens to eat. This is very easy using a scientifically formulated, tinned weaning food (available from vets and some pet shops, but not sold in supermarkets). Initially this should be liquidised with plenty of the enriched feed and given using a teaspoon. Wetting the little mouth with a small amount on the finger always does the trick: as a reflex action the kitten will lick its lips and will readily continue lapping from the spoon held against its mouth. Gradually lower the spoon to the plate until the kitten is eating directly from the plate. NEVER “dip its nose in”: how would you like to start dinner by having your face pushed into the soup and inhaling it through your nose? If the kitten is not ready to start weaning (it will turn its face away or shake its head when offered the weaning food), wait one or 2 days before trying again.

The 3 enriched daytime meals should now consist of this mixture, alternating with milk feeds. Some kittens like to continue to bottle-feed for a considerable time: you should allow this, but also encourage them to eat by themselves by leaving small bowls of food, boiled water and milk feed in the pen at all times, with a larger meal prepared last thing at night. The kittens will usually be eating within 2 or 3 days, allowing their by now exhausted human nurse a longer break at night. By 6 weeks of age the weaning food can be mixed with or replaced by tinned kitten food, together with liquidised or very finely chopped chicken breast. All food should be nicely moist and mushy, and palatable vitamin tablets (obtained from your vet) should be added.

Food should be available at all times and 5 times each 24 hours anything left uneaten should be replaced with a freshly prepared meal.

At 8 weeks offer 4 freshly prepared meals daily (including the night meal); at 12 weeks 3 meals. Up to 12 weeks I include at least one meal daily of freshly cooked chicken or fish, and when asked whether that is not rather extravagant, point out that even using every trick in the book and all possible care we can never take the place of a mother cat. We should at least try our very best: after all, a good start can save a lot of trouble later.

 

3) TOILET FUNCTION

A mother cat washes her kittens’ bottoms before and after each feed. Her tongue stimulates the bowel and bladder to evacuate. This action of the mother must be mimicked by gentle stroking of the area using cotton wool dampened with warm, previously boiled water. KITTENS THAT ARE NOT STIMULATED TO DEFECATE WEANED WILL DIE.

When the kittens start eating solid food at about 4 weeks, they happily take to using a litter tray, which should be left in the pen near the kittens from now onwards and kept scrupulously clean. Natural grey fuller’s earth litter should be used, which is harmless if the kittens nibble it. Cats are naturally clean, and no further “training” is necessary.

Complications

Even a very experienced kitten nurse will encounter situations when a vet is needed. As well as serious diseases like cat ‘flu (“gungy” eyes and/or sneezing and coughing), complications as simple as worms MUST be treated by a vet and NOT with “over the counter” products available from shops.

Roundworms

Kittens can be born with these. The larvae of the roundworm pass through the mother’s uterus and into the liver of the unborn kitten: from there they migrate into the lungs and wriggle up the windpipe to the back of the throat, where they are swallowed and pass into the kitten’s stomach. A kitten as young as one day old may have symptoms indicating roundworms: listlessness, loss of appetite (food may be refused), slimy, runny motions (sometimes containing blood), and a bloated stomach. Generally, it will be obviously unwell, often whimpering and moving around in discomfort. A vet must be consulted and the kitten treated IMMEDIATELY.

Tapeworms

Tapeworm segments look like cucumber pips or rice grains and may be found hanging from the anus: they may sometimes be in chains. Tapeworms fasten themselves onto the intestine and can kill – undiagnosed kittens as young as 5 weeks have died from them. IF THE KITTEN SEEMS UNWELL, EVEN IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN EVIDENCE OF WORMS, CONSULT A VET IMMEDIATELY. The vet can treat the kitten with an injection, but infestation may recur if the kitten is not kept free from fleas.

Fleas

These must be combed from the fur using a very fine-toothed comb (a “nit-comb”, available from pharmacists); combing must be done regularly and repeatedly. NO CHEMICALS (FLEA-SPRAYS, POWDERS, DROPS ETC) SHOULD BE USED ON KITTENS WITHOUT VETERINARY ADVICE – THEY COULD BE FATAL. Fleas eat tapeworm larvae and can re-infest the kitten.

Lice

These look like “walking dandruff”. The tiny white eggs are just visible and are firmly attached to the tips of the hairs. Lice can make a cat anaemic to the point of death, and must be dealt with immediately. Your vet will advise you on treatment. Because the eggs of lice are waterproof, a bath WILL NOT have any effect: in any case bathing a kitten is VERY DANGEROUS, and it may die of shock or contract pneumonia.

Care of the umbilical cord

The umbilical cord must be allowed to dry up and drop off naturally, and under no circumstances should it be removed. However, if the cord is very long it can become wound round a limb, cutting off the circulation: one kitten lost a paw this way. A kitten may also step on a very long cord, causing a hernia or even opening the stomach at the navel, which would be fatal.  If the cord is still wet and very long you can carefully cut it yourself with very clean scissors,  leaving it about 1″ long.  Do not pull on the cord because the stomach must not open. If necessary the sore end of the cord can then be squeezed shut  with two fingers for  a few minutes to stop bleeding.  If you notice seeping around the navel area seek veterinary help IMMEDIATELY: if there is a delay before you can get to the surgery, as an emergency measure soak a cotton wool ball in boiled salt water, squeeze it almost dry and hold it GENTLY over the navel until the bleeding stops. Do NOT rub or wash the area, and see the vet as soon as possible.

Perfect pets

When bottle-feeding rescued feral kittens I have often been asked “Are they going to be wild?”. Quite the contrary: because of the continuous close physical contact with humans from an early age, handreared kittens turn out especially loving and affectionate. REMEMBER: feral and domestic cats are the same breed, and it is only the absence of contact with humans that destines a kitten to become a feral cat.

© Elke de Vries, CAT 1977 Fieldwork Adviser, 1999

(If you are handrearing kittens and need specific advice or reassurance, please email us and our fieldwork advisor will do her best to help you).

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