A sick kitten with a thermometer in their mouth.

How to Care for a Sick Kitten at Home

Having a sick kitten can make any cat lover feel helpless and scared. One of the first things they want to know is how to care for a sick kitten at home.

To care for a young cat that’s under the weather, it is critical to know how to identify if they’re sick, how (and what) to feed them, and finally what kind of general care you can provide at home. In this article, we will help you understand all of these points, so let’s start with how you can tell if your kitten is sick.

How to Tell If Your Kitten Is Sick

Kittens can become ill very quickly and for a wide variety of reasons. These reasons include parasites, low blood sugar, and respiratory infections, just to name a few.

Common signs of a sick kitten include: lethargy, weakness, decreased or lack of appetite, less interest in playing, sleeping more, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, trouble walking, and less interest in their owners, companions, and toys.

The very first sign many sick kittens show is not eating. If you have several cats, it may be difficult to tell who is eating and who isn’t. For this reason, many veterinarians recommend that owners offer their sick kitten a small canned meal. Almost all cats love this kind of food, and it’s typically a good sign that something is wrong if your kitten doesn’t respond to it. This way, you will know something is wrong much sooner than if you free feed and offer dry food all the time (and you can’t tell who is eating what).

It is also common for sick kittens to be lethargic. Signs can be subtle, but you might notice that your kitten will be slower to respond and not want to play as much. They might ignore their toys or sleep much more than usual.

The diagnosis of sick kittens can be very challenging because kittens frequently get sick very quickly. It is not uncommon to hear about a kitten that ran around, playing, eating, and drinking normally in the morning, but became horribly sick just 4 to 6 hours later. In adult cats, this kind of rapid development of symptoms would be uncommon, but it happens regularly with young kittens.

If you have a kitten that you believe is sick, the best and safest thing to do is to call your veterinarian to ask for their recommendations and to make an appointment to evaluate your kitten.

What to Feed a Sick Kitten

Depending on the age of the kitten, you can offer a milk replacement product or a high-quality canned or dry kitten food. The specifics of what you should feed a sick kitten depend on their age, so below are some guidelines for your kitten’s life stage. Remember to always offer plenty of fresh clean water in a clean bowl. Sometimes, providing extra water bowls can encourage a sick kitten to drink, so provide several spots to drink if you can.

Tips for Feeding a Sick Kitten

When kittens feel sick and lethargic, convincing them to eat can be a challenge. If your kitten is very young (less than 4 weeks of age), you can attempt to bottle feed them using a milk replacement product. Older cats may be tempted by canned or dry food.

Here is common, age-based protocol used by many vets when a kitten won’t eat:

Birth to 4 weeks: At this young age, many cats can’t eat regular food, so you may need to offer milk replacement formula in a bottle or a small amount of milk on a plate for the kitten to lap up. The best milk replacement is called “KMR,” which stands for Kitten Milk Replacement. (Note that cow’s milk contains lactose which many cats cannot digest and may cause diarrhea if offered.) To feed your kitten, heat the milk until it is warm (but not hot) to the touch. Place the milk in a kitten nursing bottle and turn the bottle upside down. The milk should gently dribble out when you squeeze. If it does not, you may need to enlarge the opening on the nipple with a needle. Gently offer the bottle of warmed milk for your kitten to suckle every 2–4 hours. The younger the kitten, the more frequently you should offer the food. Don’t squeeze the bottle in the kitten’s mouth; this can cause aspiration (inhalation of the milk into the lungs) and pneumonia. An alternative to bottle feeding is tube feeding your kitten. This involves placing a tube in your kitten’s mouth, which goes into the stomach and delivers the food directly into their body. To learn more about this method, go to: How to Tube Feed Sick Kittens.

Kittens 4 to 6 weeks old: Most kittens at this age can eat semi-moist food. You can create a mixture by crushing high-quality dry food and mixing it with KMR. The younger the cat, the more liquid this mixture should contain. Cats closer to 6 week can generally eat a fairly solid mixture that we vets often refer to as “gruel.” A lot of what a kitten will eat at this age depends on whether a kitten has been weaned, how long they have been eating on their own, and what kind of food they have been eating. Kittens who are 6 weeks old might have no problem moving onto mostly solid food, while those that are 5 weeks old and have never seen solid kibble will be less inclined to eat it.

Kittens 7 weeks and older: By this stage, a kitten’s body can typically handle canned or dry food easily. The problem then becomes getting kittens to want to eat. Encouraging a sick kitten to eat is best accomplished by offering canned food. Heating canned food or gruel in the microwave for a few seconds can bring out the aromas that may appeal to a sick kitten. (Fancy Feast is one brand that tends to have strong aromas that kittens love.) Make sure your cat’s nose is clean; some cats with respiratory infections can’t smell their food and may reject meals as a result. You might want to try offering small frequent feedings of a bland diet, such as Hill’s Prescription Diet Feline i/d or skinless boiled chicken. Another option for helping a sick kitten eat is to offer a small amount of canned tuna or chicken with the natural juices. You may need to hand feed your kitten to encourage them to eat. Sometimes, placing a very small amount of food on your kitten’s nose, on a spoon, or in their mouth will stimulate them to eat. You can also mush up canned food to the point it is soft enough to pull into a syringe barrel and gently squeezing into your kitten’s mouth.

More Feeding Tips:

Be especially aware of your kitten’s whereabouts while they are sick and don’t allow them to go outside until you know they are completely well again.

Kitten Home Care Tips

Caring for a sick kitten can be a real challenge. They may need your attention and love for many things; if the kitten is very young, they may or may not be able to regulate their temperature or even simulate their own bowel movements. Here are some tips for caring for a sick kitten depending on their age: