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Orphaned Kitten

By: Dr. Rebecca Remillard

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A neonate is a newborn, and an orphan is a neonate without a dam (a female parent). This may occur due to a variety of circumstances including death or illness of the dam or an inability of the dam to produce sufficient amounts of good quality milk.

  • Newborn kittens should be sleek and round with good muscle tone and pink mucous membranes. The primary activities of kittens are suckling and sleeping. Birth weights range from 90 to 120 grams depending upon breed and body weight should double in the first 1 to 2 weeks.

  • Normal heart rates are greater than 220 beats/minute for the first 4 weeks; respiratory rates are 15 to 35 breaths/minute; and rectal temperature at birth is 92 to 96 degrees Fahrenheit, which gradually increases to 98 F by 1 week of age.

  • The most common causes of sickness, and sometimes death, for neonatal kittens are hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), dehydration and hypothermia (sub-normal body temperature; freezing).

  • The most common signs of neonatal illness include persistent crying, failure to gain weight, decreased activity and decreased muscle tone.

  • Call your veterinarian if your kitten does not double its weight in 8 to 10 days or frequently cries for more than 20 minutes. These are both abnormal and usually indicate a problem of hunger, cold, maternal neglect or illness.


    Veterinary care should include diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause of the illness (if present) and guide subsequent recommendations. Diagnostic tests used in orphaned kittens include:

  • Complete medical history and physical examination including: looking for a cleft palate, cranial deformities, and heart abnormalities. A temperature, pulse, respiratory rate and body weight should be taken.

  • Blood work on neonates is often not done initially because response to immediate treatment is usually positive. A blood glucose level is performed if hypoglycemia is suspected.


    Treatment is dependent upon the health and age of the orphan and presence of concurrent disease. Therapy may include the following:

  • The kitten's body temperature should slowly be raised to normal if the kitten is hypothermic.

  • Administer fluids subcutaneously to correct dehydration.

  • To provide nutrition, the kitten should be fed with a warmed milk replacement formula.

  • Glucose should be supplemented if kitten is hypoglycemic.

  • These treatments revive most neonates within a few hours. If the kitten is not revived, then additional diagnostics may be performed.

    Home Care

  • A log (record) identifying each kitten's weight, appetite, amount of formula fed, urination and defecation frequency should be maintained.

  • Kittens may be fed by bottle or stomach tube. The stomach tube is faster and especially handy with large litters. Many people, however, prefer to bottle-feed. Feeding with an eyedropper should be discouraged due to poor accuracy, tendency to give food too rapidly (increasing risk of aspiration) and the rigid nature of an eyedropper, which can cause soft tissue injury to the oral cavity.

  • Newborn kittens should be fed 4 times daily by tube feeding or 5 to 6 times daily by bottle-feeding. At two weeks of age, 4 feedings per day are usually sufficient. It is preferred to feed small amounts at frequent intervals rather than large quantities infrequently. This will prevent diarrhea and lower the risk of aspiration (inhaling). Overfeeding can be worse than slightly underfeeding.

  • The recommended daily feeding amount is based upon weight and age [most milk replacers contain 1 kcal/ml]. This amount of milk should be divided into at least 4 feedings per day.

    Week 1: 13 to 15 ml per 100 g body weight

    Week 2: 15 to 18 ml per 100 g body weight

    Week 3: 20 ml per 100 g body weight

    Week 4: 20 ml per 100 g body weight and also eating mostly solid food

  • Recommended milk products:
    - Milk from another nursing queen (foster mother if possible)
    - Kitten Milk Replacer (Pet-Ag, Inc)
    - Feline Milk Substitute (Waltham)
    - Unilact Liquid or Powder (Upjohn Company)
    - Queen's Milk Replacer (Iams)

  • The kitten should be burped after a meal to relieve swallowed air. Hold the kitten in the palm and gently rock back and forth or massage the abdomen until an air bubble comes up.

  • The kitten should be stimulated to urinate and defecate after feeding. Simulating the licking mother with a moist warm cloth (or cotton ball) in the urogenital area can do this. Kittens should be able to relieve themselves after three weeks of age.

  • By three weeks of age, introduce solid foods mixed with water or the same milk replacer used to feed previously. Pan-feed a thin gruel made by blending an approved kitten food with the milk formula (e.g. one part dry food with three parts formula or two parts canned food with 1 part formula). Gradually thicken the gruel using less liquid to about six weeks of age. At this time, the kits should be offered an approved kitten food 4 times daily. Fresh clean water should always be available and replenished daily.

    Supplies to Have on Hand

  • Heating pad
  • Soft towels
  • Nursing bottles
  • Gram scale to weigh kittens

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