Hand rearing kittens

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Raising an orphaned kitten can be a rewarding experience. However, kittens are very fragile, and raising them can be difficult, time consuming, and not always successful.

Which kittens need to be hand reared?

Normally kittens have their environmental and nutritional requirements met by their mother. However, a number of different situations may lead to kittens requiring extra care, eg, death of the mother, rejection of the kittens by the mother, ill health of the mother, or the production of too large a litter for the mother cat to care for.

When the mother cat is only temporarily ill, the kittens may only need to be hand fed for a few days, while in other situations the kittens may need to be fed by hand until they are weaned. In the case of a very large litter, where the kittens are gaining some milk from their mother, they will only need supplemental feeding.

Should any kittens not be hand reared?

In some circumstances the person who is responsible for the kittens may be faced with difficult decisions regarding the kittens. There are some cases where it is best for the kitten not to try and keep it alive because of serious problems and it needs to be euthanased to prevent further suffering. No list can be exhaustive, but as soon as possible a check should be made with the following defects in mind:–

  • Severe hydrocephalus (build up of fluid inside the skull) as shown by enlargement of the skull
  • Anasarca – general and severe accumulation of fluid in the tissues
  • Cleft palate. If severe this will lead to the inability to suck and dribbling of milk down the nose
  • Imperforate anus. This may be obvious with the entire absence of an exit for the bowel, or occult (when the exit leads into a blind sac within the body). An affected kitten may live some weeks but will fail to thrive and will never be seen to pass a motion. In the occult case, the true condition can only be found on close examination by a veterinarian
  • Hernia or incomplete development of the body wall. A small ringed umbilical hernia is a slight defect, but some kittens have virtually no abdominal musculature and should not be kept
  • Spina bifida or incomplete development of the back
  • Gross deformity or absence of limbs

Many serious inherited abnormalities are not obvious at birth, and abnormalities of sight and hearing fall into this category. Suspected abnormalities of joints and limbs should be viewed with caution unless utterly self–evident, such as severe shortening of a limb. Joints at birth are very incomplete structures and most apparent double–jointedness or rotation of limbs right themselves by the time the kitten is really mobile.

The most difficult decision usually concerns the kitten persistently rejected by its mother, despite its apparent normality to the human eye. The choice in this case lies between hand rearing, fostering or euthanasia. The decision can only be made by the breeder after full consideration of the circumstances. An additional consideration is that the rejected kitten may well be a defective kitten (mother may know best) in which case hand rearing may not be successful.

If there is a potential surrogate mother available, with kittens of a similar age, then this would always be the ideal option – kittens are usually well accepted at this time and reared as part of the surrogate mother’s litter.

Do hand reared kittens develop normally?

A kitten reared in total isolation from other cats is at risk of developing psychological abnormalities, including nervousness, aggression and a reduced ability to cope with strange surroundings, people or animals. Kittens hand reared in the presence of other cats are less likely to be affected, since they can develop by watching the other cats. Because completely hand–reared animals are at a behavioural disadvantage they should not be used for breeding. It may also be more difficult to find them suitable homes.

What are the basic considerations when hand rearing kittens?

There are several basic functions to be addressed when hand rearing kittens. These include the provision of a suitable clean, warm environment, a suitable feeding regimen, attention to urination and defecation (emptying of the bowels), and attention to general health. The major problems encountered when trying to hand rear kittens are chilling, dehydration and starvation (resulting in hypoglycaemia – low blood sugar levels). These three conditions are interrelated and close observation is necessary if they are to be noticed, and if occurring, for prompt action to be taken in time. Kittens are very fragile, hence they can become ill and die very quickly.

Total dedication and commitment is required by the carer at all times.

  • Newborn kittens need up to 10 feeds in each 24 hour period
  • The carer's lifestyle will need to be flexible. Kittens, like babies, need to be with you at all times, wherever you may be
  • Carers should not exceed the allotted interval between feeding times
  • Kittens when hungry, will move about in search of milk. If left, they will soon get tired and fall asleep again. This is undesirable and certainly not to be recommended. It is important they are fed on time

Where should I keep the kittens?

If the kittens are being fed by their mother, even partially, then they should be kept with her. If no mother is around then for the first three weeks of life it is useful to use a small cat–carrying basket with lots of cosy Vetbed plus a soft toy to snuggle up to. As they grow and become mobile, use a kitten pen or convert a baby's travel cot/play–pen. Use a velcro safety net to stop young kittens climbing and falling out.

How should I keep the kittens warm?

Warmth is a primary essential for the newborn. A kitten cannot react to cold by shivering and cannot control its own body temperature. In nature, warmth is obtained by direct body contact with the mother and conserved by the enclosed kittening bed. A newborn wet kitten loses heat very rapidly, hence it is important that they are dried quickly. Kittens can be kept warm by lying them in contact with a warm, well–covered hot water bottle, an electric vinyl heat pad or a microwave heat pad. Heat can be conserved by covering them with a blanket. Great care must be taken not to inflict contact burns by having the bottle too hot.

Acceptable alternatives are veterinary heating pads, and infra–red lamps. The disadvantages of the lamps are that many cats dislike the open bed required for their use, and they may overheat the kittens.

The rectal temperature of newborn kittens ranges from 95–99 °F (35.0–37.2 °C) in the first week, to 97–100 °F (36.1–37.7 °C) in the second and third weeks, and reaches normal adult levels of 100–102 °F (37.7–38.9 °C) by the fourth week. If the rectal temperature drops below 94 °F the kitten is likely to die. It is important to warm up kittens slowly, since too rapid warming can be fatal.

The temperature in the kitten box (with no mother present) should initially be maintained at 85–90 °F (29.4–32.2 °C), but the box should be large enough for the kittens to move away from the heat if they become too hot. If the litter is large, the temperature can be reduced since by huddling together the kittens generate extra heat. The temperature can be gradually reduced to 80 °F (26.7 °C) by 7–10 days and to 72 °F (22.2 °C) by the end of the first month.

Try to maintain room ambient temperature of 75 °F. Kittens' bodies should be relaxed whilst asleep and feel pleasantly warm to the human touch. You should notice gentle body jerks as they rest. Keep control by using a maximum/minimum thermometer in the kitten(s) nest. Remember adjustments must be constantly considered throughout the day as nest temperature is directly affected by the room's ambient temperature.

Does humidity affect the kittens?

When a low environmental humidity is combined with a lack of regular liquid intake the kittens are at risk of dehydration. An environmental humidity of 55–65 % will prevent the kittens' skin from drying out. Signs of dehydration include loss of skin elasticity and sticky mucous membranes (gums).

What makes a good nest for the kittens?

The easiest way to provide a clean, safe and warm nest is to take a cardboard box, line it with Vetbed, use either hot water bottles or a heating pad for warmth, and placing it away from draughts. Vetbed can be easily cleaned, is warm and comfortable. If this is not available terry nappies or old towels can be used. Some people use plastic plant propagators as incubators; however, care should be taken to ensure the temperature within them is adequate.

I have heard that kittens cannot urinate or pass motions without assistance, is this true?

It is necessary to stimulate kittens of less than two weeks old to urinate and defecate as they cannot do this without stimulation from the mother cat. The ‘voiding reflex’ by which urine and faeces are released, is normally initiated by the mother licking the kitten's ano–genital region (the area under the tail). Where the mother is not available, urination and defecation must be maintained by the human carer for approximately four weeks or until the kitten is independent. It is quite normal for a distressed cry to be heard when the kitten needs to pass faeces, which should cease afterwards It may be useful to use fragrance–free wet wipes for newborn babies and soft tissue. Stimulate the ano–genital area gently both before and after feeding, as they feed better with empty bladder/bowels.

From three weeks of age the reflex should begin to be triggered while the kitten is placed on the litter tray. Leaving a small amount of soiled litter within the tray will serve as a reminder to the kittens of where to perform.

What signs might indicate that the kittens are unwell?

Normal kittens should eat or sleep for 90% of the time for the first two weeks of their lives. If they cry excessively, or fail to suck, they are usually ill or receiving insufficient milk. Since kittens can die very quickly, they (and their mother, if still present) should be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible to ensure nothing serious is going wrong.

What should I be feeding?

Do not use cow/goat’s milk as protein and fat levels are too low. Only use a properly formulated replacement queen's milk formula available from veterinary practices or pet shops or found online.

How much milk replacement should I be feeding the kittens?

When the milk supply is inadequate, supplemental feeding is recommended. Where the kittens have been orphaned or the mother is unable to feed them, they will need total replacement feeding. There are several commercial formulae available which are designed specifically for kittens. Make up milk replacement solution as directed using a level measure, not heaped. They should be made up and used as per instructions, but a reduced volume is needed if the kittens are still gaining some milk from their mother (give perhaps 1/2 to 1/3 the volume). The amount on the label is usually given as 'per 24 hours'. The quantities should therefore be divided into a number of feeds. Kittens less than 2 weeks of age should be fed every 3–4 hours, while kittens of 2–4 weeks of age can usually be fed every 6–8 hours. The milk should be warmed to 95–100 °F (35.0–37.8 °C) before feeding (about the same temperature as the skin of the human forearm).

Check the warmth of the milk on back of your hand. It takes just a few seconds to warm milk to blood heat.

How do I get the milk into the kittens?

Bottle feeding

Baby bottles can be bought which are specially designed for kittens. The size of the hole in the nipple is critical. If when the bottle is turned upside down the milk drips from the nipple, the hole is too large, and you risk drowning the kitten. If when the bottle is turned upside down the milk only comes out after considerable squeezing of the bottle, the hole is too small, and its use may result in the kitten becoming discouraged and refusing to nurse. The correct size hole allows the milk to drip from the nipple with minimal squeezing of the bottle. As nipples are used the holes tend to enlarge, so new ones must be introduced. Kittens tend to become fixated upon one particular nipple, so when changing from an old one to a new one they may show reluctance to feed. As the kittens grow the size of the hole in the nipple can be gradually enlarged.

Spoon feeding and dropper feeding

Spoon feeding is slow and requires great practice. Each spoonful must be gently poured into the kitten's mouth. The kitten's head must not be elevated since newborn kittens do not have a well–developed gag reflex, and the lungs can easily be filled with milk.

Dropper feeding is similar to spoon feeding, but a little quicker and cleaner.

Syringe feeding

Feeding using a syringe may be considered but must be done properly and with care as it can be potentially lethal. The problem arises when the plunger sticks and then gives way suddenly, squirting a large volume of milk into the kitten's mouth, risking drowning.

If using a syringe, practise first using water – you need to feel confident at dispensing milk into a kitten's mouth. Fill a 10 ml syringe, place the index and middle finger each side of barrel wings and the plunger head into the palm of your hand. Gently depress the plunger with the palm to give drip–by–drip. This allows the kitten time to swallow and breathe. It is good practice always to check the smooth running of a syringe this way.

Placement of the syringe is important! The hub of the barrel should be uppermost and inserted into the roof of the kitten's mouth. This allows the kitten's tongue to 'wrap' around the hub. This emulates the sucking of a nipple. This way the kitten does not take in unwanted air.

With the other hand hold the kitten over the back and raise the kitten under the fore–limbs at an angle of approximately 45°. This is comfortable and secure for the kitten and is a good natural angle for it to take the milk from a bottle/syringe.

Each kitten will naturally cease sucking when full and will pull away from the teat/syringe. Do not force a kitten to take extra milk: it would be at risk of lung inhalation resulting in drowning. Remember consumption guidelines are a guide only. Often kittens will consume more; like us they all are individuals, and will let you know when they are full.

Tube feeding

Tube feeding is perhaps the cleanest and most efficient method of hand feeding. However, it requires proper equipment and technical skill. It is a particularly useful technique when a kitten's 'suck reflex' is poor, or when kittens fail to suck properly. Some breeders tube feed kittens routinely but there are several dangers in this. Firstly, as the kittens have no control over how much they are fed, they can easily be given too much or too little. Secondly, kittens with a strong suck reflex, if deprived of nursing, may suck on each other, and this can lead to the development of large sore areas of skin.

Stomach tubes must be soft, flexible, blunt–ended and not more than 2–3 mm wide. A premature human infant feeding tube is ideal, but short, soft canine urinary catheters can also be used. The tube must be measured to the correct length (from the kitten's nose to just behind the point of the elbow), and a mark made on the tube at this point. The tube should be lubricated with K–Y jelly before use.

To place the tube the kitten's mouth must be opened by pressing gently at the corners, and, keeping the head flexed downwards, the tube is slid along the roof of the mouth and down the back of the kitten's throat into the oesophagus. The tube is passed down until the mark on the tube is level with the nose. The other end of the tube will then be in the stomach. A syringe containing pre–warmed milk can then be attached, and the milk can be delivered slowly to the stomach.

If the kitten's head is kept flexed forward, it is quite difficult to miss the oesophagus and so pass the tube into the airway by mistake. Many kittens mew loudly throughout the whole procedure, and it is useful to note that they cannot do this if the tube is in the airway. However, anyone unsure of the technique should ask their veterinarian to demonstrate it for them.

FEEDING TIMES

O–2 weeks: 10 feeds in 24 hours at 2 – 2.5 hour intervals.
2–4 weeks: 7 feeds in 24 hours at 2.5 – 3.5 hour intervals
4–5 weeks: 5 feeds in 24 hours at 3.5 –5 hour intervals.

What hygiene precautions do I need to take with the utensils?

Hygiene is of the utmost importance, both in terms of all the kittens' feeding and measuring equipment and the carer's personal hygiene in preparing feeds and toileting kittens. Orphaned kittens are very prone to infections so they must always be kept clean, and utensils used for preparing or administering the milk must be sterile.

Should kittens be weighed regularly?

It is advisable to monitor the kittens' growth rates by weighing them regularly. It is best to weigh the kittens daily at the same time, as in all cases daily increments will vary from kitten to kitten. It is good practice to keep daily records. They should double their birth weight in the first 7 to 10 days, then continue to gain weight steadily.

What are the signs of hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar)?

Hypoglycaemia results from inadequate or infrequent feeding. It can cause severe depression, muscle twitching and occasionally lead to convulsions. If a kitten ever refuses to feed, do not delay; prompt action and veterinary care is required. Kittens have no reserves and will go downhill rapidly. Quick response can save a kitten's life. Use your intuition: an hour could mean life or death!

If a kitten is showing signs of hypoglycaemia, a few drops of glucose syrup placed on the tongue can be life–saving. This should then be followed by feeding a small amount of glucose solution, and increasing either the amount and/or frequency of routine feeding.

When should the kittens be weaned onto solid food?

Weaning should begin at three to four weeks of age. Initially the kittens should be offered milk replacer diluted 1:1 with water, in a flat shallow dish. At three weeks introduce either moistened dry growth diet or tinned growth diet mixed with a small amount of milk solution. Again holding the kitten, use a very small spoon and introduce the semi–solid food to the kitten, using the spoon tip only. Gradually lower the spoon to encourage and tempt the kitten to eat from a shallow dish. Only try a few very small mouthfuls at first until the kitten gets established on its own. This is continued until the kittens are taking just solid food. They can be fed either wet or dry diets, but it is best to feed only diets designed especially for kittens. Dog food and human baby foods should not be fed since they are deficient in nutrients essential for cats.

What do I do if a kitten becomes constipated?

Constipation is a very common problem in hand reared kittens, due to the difficulty in stimulating defecation sufficiently frequently. Normal faeces have the consistency of toothpaste. If the faeces become very hard, making the kitten strain excessively, or if a kitten does not pass any motions for 2–3 days, small doses of liquid paraffin or 'Katalax' should be given (about 0.5 ml per feed for 2–3 days should have the desired effect). Severe cases require veterinary attention.

What do I do if a kitten gets diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea is a serious condition. It may be caused by over–feeding, giving too concentrated a solution of milk replacer, or result from infection (usually caused by poor hygiene). Treatment must be swift as dehydration can then develop very rapidly, followed by collapse and death soon afterwards.

Mild cases respond well to dilution of the milk 1:1 with boiled water, which should be given until the diarrhoea stops. Severe cases should be given no milk at all. Instead they should be given 5–10% glucose, glucose–saline, or isotonic electrolyte solution (eg, 'Lectade'; Pfizer), all of which can be obtained from a veterinarian. These solutions should be given until the diarrhoea stops; milk diluted 1:1 with water, and finally full strength milk can be resumed 12–24 hours later.

If kittens become collapsed and dehydrated they need immediate veterinary attention if they are to survive. Kittens in a collapsed state become chilled very rapidly. They will usually be given subcutaneous fluids by the veterinarian.

Once they have been warmed up and given fluid therapy they must be allowed to recover quietly. Feeding can only be begun once the kitten is warm and able to suck. Stomach tubing is not helpful here, since when a kitten is cold and collapsed its intestines stop functioning, so stomach contents can be easily regurgitated, and then aspirated into the lungs.

As soon as the kitten is able to suck, it should be given isotonic glucose or Lectade solution (at about 1ml per 100g body weight), given every 15 minutes until the kitten is rehydrated and can urinate when massaged. If all goes well, diluted milk can then be introduced after 24 hours, and full strength milk 24 hours after that.

Should kittens be given antibiotics to keep them well?

Unless a bacterial infection is known to be present, and antibiotics have been prescribed by the veterinarian, they should not be given. Antibiotics severely disrupt the process of normal colonisation of the gut by harmless bacteria, and can, because of this, produce diarrhoea. Antibiotics cannot be used as a substitute for colostrum. If hygiene standards are good, antibiotics are simply not needed.

When do kittens' eyes usually open?

At birth the kittens' eyes are closed; they usually open within 1–2 weeks. If the closed eyelids become swollen or matted with pus the kitten should be taken to a vet for immediate treatment. In some breeds, eg, Siamese and Orientals, the eyes may be partially open at birth and open completely within a few days.

Should kittens be wormed regularly?

Since intestinal parasites ('worms') are common in kittens, all kittens should be treated with drugs to kill the parasites from about 3 weeks of age. Before each dosing the kittens should be accurately weighed, since if too little wormer is given it may not be effective, and if too much is given it may make the kittens ill. In many kittens the worms cause no clinical signs, while in others they can result in poor body condition, soft or bloody stools, loss of appetite, a pot–bellied appearance and weight loss. Some worms can be transmitted through the stools of infected cats, while others are carried by fleas. Good hygiene and flea control are therefore essential.

See worming your cat

Litter training

Supply a small litter tray at first from about three weeks. It is safer to use wood–chip type litter as opposed to bentonite type to start with whilst learning as some kittens will try to consume the litter. Stand the kitten in the tray and then massage the ano–genital area with a wet wipe. They very soon get the hang of things.

See how to choose and use a litter tray

When should kittens be vaccinated?

Kittens gain some protection from disease in the form of maternal antibodies passed in the queen's colostrum (the milk excreted in the first few hours after the birth). To ensure that the queen has sufficient antibodies to pass onto her kittens, it is important that she is well vaccinated prior to mating. The protective effect of maternal antibodies lasts for only a few weeks. The kittens' vaccination programme should therefore start from about 8 weeks of age, although the exact timing and content of the vaccinations can be tailored to the needs of the particular cat, as determined by the veterinarian. If the kittens were orphaned, and hence never received colostrum, they will have gained no protective immunity from their mother, and so may need to be vaccinated early, perhaps from 2–3 weeks of age. Most cats are vaccinated against feline enteritis and the viruses that cause cat flu. Others are also vaccinated against feline leukaemia virus infection and/or chlamydophila disease.

See vaccinating your cat

Socialisation

Socialisation is extremely important for well–adjusted kittens. Introduce the kittens to other animals as soon as possible. Obviously never put any animal at risk of danger. Remember, when other animals are present, you must talk to and where possible touch them as much as possible. This scenario is the same as bringing the new baby home to the existing toddler. Do not create your own problem by causing a jealous situation to arise.

See our information on the behavioural aspects of bringing up a litter of kittens.

Above all enjoy the experience while it lasts. It is an extremely intensive and demanding time condensed into a short period of your life. The rewards of your labours far exceed your sleepless nights!

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