Providing Care and Nutrition to Orphaned Kittens

Providing Care and Nutrition to Orphaned Kittens

Nutrition and Feeding of Orphaned Kittens

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 of Orphaned Kittens

  • 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 to Care for Orphaned Kittens

  • Heating pad
  • Soft towels
  • Nursing bottles
  • Gram scale to weigh kittens
  • In-depth Information on Caring for Orphaned Kitten

    Kittens can be orphaned due to a variety of causes. This can include poor quality or quantity of milk production and death, loss or illness of the queen.

    The most common causes of sickness and sometimes death, for neonatal kittens are:

  • Hypothermia: Neonates cannot control their body temperature well during the first 4 weeks of life and are dependent upon staying close to the queen, huddling with littermates or an environmental heat for warmth. Immediate environmental temperature of orphans should be 89 to 93 degrees F during week one and 81 to 84 degrees F during week two. Immediate environmental temperature of litters should be 75 to 81 degrees F during week one. Their shivering reflex does not develop until one week old. Therefore, orphaned neonates are highly susceptible to hypothermia, and with a fall in body temperature and decreased ability to suckle or cry, circulatory failure and death may result.
  • Dehydration: Body water content of a neonate is 8% at birth and their water requirement 60 to 100 ml (cc) per pound of body weight per day. Dehydration becomes apparent within 12 to 18 hours if the kitten neither nurses nor is given a milk substitute within hours of birth. Again, circulatory failure and death may result from dehydration.
  • Hypoglycemia: Neonates should receive colostrum from the queen within 12 to 16 hours of birth. Commercial milk replacers with a similar composition to queen’s milk and those that have been tested in kittens should be fed to orphaned kittens. Most milk replacer contains 1 kcal/ml and most neonates require 38 kcal/100 g BW (body weight) per day.

    Other possible illnesses include: pneumonia, early placental insufficiency, induced hypothermia, infectious diseases, drug toxicity, congenital abnormalities, abnormally low birth weights, traumatic insults during or after the birth process, parasites, placental infections, neonatal isoerythrolysis, and undetermined causes.

  • Feeding Orphaned Kittens

    Bottle Feeding Orphaned Kittens

  • Many people prefer to bottle feed kittens with a vigorous suckle reflex because they will suck until they are satiated and reject the bottle when full. Bottle-fed kittens require an appropriately sized bottle and nipple, i.e., avoid sizes that could be swallowed. Nipple bottles made for feeding orphans (or infant preemies) should be used. Ensure the nipple hole is properly sized to allow flow (so when bottle is inverted, milk will ooze). The nipple hole can be enlarged with a hot razor blade by making a horizontal slit that allows the neonate to suckle easily.
  • A hole too large can cause gagging, drooling of milk from the corners of the mouth and increased risk of aspiration (inhalation). A hole too small requires extra time and energy to consume a meal, which may cause fatigue. The bottle should be inverted, a drop of milk squeezed onto the nipple and then the bottle should be gently placed in the mouth. Kittens should be held horizontally with the head in a natural position. The milk should be sucked, not squeezed, out of the bottle into the mouth. Great caution should be taken because, if done in haste, this can cause aspiration, pneumonia and death.

    Tube Feeding Orphaned Kittens

  • Tube feeding is faster and especially handy with large litters. Tube feeding is useful in kittens less than 10 days of age or those that are weak or have poor suckle reflexes. The procedure for tube feeding uses a soft, rubber feeding tube (size # 5 French feeding tube is good for many kittens). An equivalent-sized soft rubber urethral catheter can also be used.
  • The tube should be pre-measured from the tip of the mouth to the last rib. Re-measuring is essential because, as the neonates grow, the distance will increase. The kitten should be positioned horizontally with the head in a normal position. The tube can be moistened with water for lubrication, inserted into the mouth and gently pushed into the stomach. The tube should go easily to the mark. If the tube does not go easily, it may be in the trachea and should be removed and reinserted. The tube should be attached to a syringe preloaded with milk formula. Ensure there are no air bubbles in the syringe. The meal should be given slowly over 2 minutes. If resistance to feeding is felt, stop and wait until the next feeding to give any additional formula.
  • Regurgitation is infrequent, but if it occurs, stop feeding and wait until the next feeding to give additional formula.
  • Follow all manufacturers’ directions on formula preparations. Refrigerate milk formula between meals but warm to approximately 100 degrees F before feeding. Prepare only a 48-hour supply of formula at a time.
  • Cold milk, rapid feeding and overfeeding cause regurgitation, bloating, diarrhea and/or aspiration. Formula, both liquid and powdered forms, should contain 12-15% total solids (12 to 15 g/100ml water). Greater total solid values cause diarrhea and bloating whereas lower values may lead to volume overload before the animal’s nutritional requirements are met.
  • Milk replacers consist of water, sugar, fat, proteins, minerals and vitamins. The composition of dam’s milk differs with species and even the stage of lactation, however, the composition of milk replacers is the average nutrient profile based on available research. Avoid feeding cow or goat’s milk to kittens because its lower protein and higher lactose content make them poor substitutes. If feeding problems occur, reduce the volume and/or total solids in the milk replacer, then re-feed at required rate after problems have been resolved.
  • Veterinary Care In-Depth for Orphaned Kittens

    Diagnosis In-depth

    Veterinary care should include diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause of the symptom and help guide subsequent treatment recommendations. Diagnostic tests may include:

  • Complete medical history and physical examination of the kitten (and queen, if possible). The exam should included looking for a cleft palate, cranial deformities, cardiac abnormalities and illnesses. The queen should be examined for adequacy (in quantity and quality) of milk production and infections.
  • Blood work on neonates is often not done initially because response to immediate treatment is usually positive. Also, it can be difficult obtaining a sufficient amount of blood from a sick neonate. However, if a small amount of blood can be obtained, serum glucose, total protein and blood urea content can be assessed.

    Additional diagnostic tests may be recommended on an individual pet basis:

  • A complete blood cell count may be done to evaluate red and white blood cell numbers (to look for signs of anemia, infection and dehydration).
  • Serum protein levels may be tested to provide information concerning the presence or absence of infection, anemia and dehydration.
  • Radiographs may be done to evaluate internal organ or skeletal abnormalities.
  • A serum profile, which evaluates internal organ (liver, kidney, heart) function, may be done.
  • Testing on the dam may include blood work, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV) testing.

    Treatment In-depth

    Therapy may include one or more of the following:

  • Body temperature should be raised back to normal slowly if the kitten is hypothermic. Incubators, hot water bottles and heat lamps can be used to maintain an immediate environmental temperature of 89 to 93 degrees F. Rectal temperature should be taken to monitor body temperature and avoid overheating. Maintaining the humidity around 50% will minimize water loss and dehydration. Special care is needed not to overheat!
  • Administer fluids subcutaneously (under the skin) to correct dehydration. Often it is difficult to catheterize a vein in a dehydrated neonate, so a physiologic replacement fluid can be first given subcutaneously to re-hydrate the kitten. Giving 2-5% of body weight (2 to 5 ml fluid/100 g BW) may be sufficient to revive the kitten. If not, this dose can be repeated as needed.
  • To provide nutrition, tube-feed the kitten a warmed milk replacer. Feeding kittens raises body temperature and provides fluid and energy substrates for normal metabolism. A cold, comatose kitten should not be tube-fed until corrections of a low body temperature and dehydration have been started. Milk will remain in the stomach of cold, comatose kittens. Proper gastrointestinal function requires near-normal body temperature and fluid balance.
  • These treatments revive most neonates within a few hours. If the kitten is not revived, then additional diagnostics may be performed to determine if the kitten has congenital abnormalities, infections or other illnesses.
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