Rearing orphan kittens

Hand rearing a kitten or kittens can be an extremely rewarding experience but it is not a job to be taken on lightly. The task ahead is difficult, exhausting and there is no guarantee of success. However hard you try, you are a poor substitute for a kitten’s natural mother and despite the best efforts of human volunteers the death rate among orphaned kittens is often high.

There are many different situations when kittens may need human help to survive. The mother may have died or she may be unable to feed her kittens. For example, if they have been born by caesarean section, the mother cat’s breasts may not be ready to produce milk, or she may have mastitis or some other disease which dries up her milk supply.

Sometimes there are just too many kittens and the mother may be unable to give them all enough milk. In this case hand feeding some or all the kittens for a while may give the mother a chance to regain her strength. It may be the kitten that has the problem, kittens with an infection may not feed naturally and some extra help may be needed until they recover.

Occasionally a mother cat will abandon one or more kittens in the litter. The kitten may look perfectly normal but the chances are that it has some serious defect which would prevent it from living a full and active life. Letting it die may seem cruel but it is nature’s way and in these situations it may be kinder to ask your vet to put the kitten to sleep.

Sometimes people find a litter of kittens belonging to a stray cat. It is wrong to assume that they have been abandoned – the mother is probably out hunting or she may even be watching from a nearby hiding place. In this situation leave the kittens where they are and walk some distance away. If you do not see the mother cat return, ask your veterinary surgeon for advice.

If a foster mum can be found then this is ideal as the kittens will be brought up naturally. A foster mum could be a queen that has lost her own litter or only has a few kittens. If you have a very large litter the mother may be unable to feed all the kittens and supplementary feeding should be carried out although the kittens can be left with their mother at other times.

New kittens should be introduced very carefully to a potential foster mother, The foster mum is more likely to accept them if they smell of her. This can be achieved by letting the kittens cuddle up on a piece of bedding that the foster mum has been sleeping on. Do not wash the bedding first as you want the scent to rub onto the kittens. After a short time the foster mum can be introduced. The introduction must be closely supervised to ensure the foster mum accepts the kittens and doesn’t harm them.

It is not uncommon for hand reared cats to react aggressively to their owners when they are older. No-one is sure why this happens but it may be to do with the cat’s inability to deal with frustration. A queen weaning her kittens will divert them from sucking to eating prey and refocus their needs in this way. A human ‘mother’ may not be so successful at the behavioural aspects of weaning and the kitten reacts aggressively when it does not get its own way. Unfortunately, it is common for hand reared kittens, when adult, to be euthanased because of severe behavioural problems.

If the mother is dead or cannot cope, then the next best option is to find another female cat to act as foster mother. If that is not possible then it is up to you. There are a number of things that you will need – a warm, dry, clean box, a supply of dried milk specially formulated for kittens (commercial baby formula or cows milk do not have the right balance of nutrients), and equipment for feeding and cleaning the kittens. Your check list will include:

  • An incubator or a box with a heating pad, infra red lamp or (at a pinch) a hot water bottle.
  • Bedding (a synthetic fur ‘Vet bed’ is best, old towels will do if they are clean and warm).
  • Milk formula, e.g. Cimicat or Whiskas Instant Milk Substitute which are designed for kittens (both available from veterinary practices); Lactol is also suitable for kittens but not species specific. In an emergency a home-made milk of 9 parts full cream cow’s milk and 1 part vegetable oil can be fed until a milk formula is available. Plain cow’s milk and human formula milks are not suitable and should not be given.
  • A special feeding bottle designed for kittens or in the first week a 1ml syringe with a teat attachment.
  • Sterilising fluid, e.g. “Milton” baby sterilising fluid
  • Cotton wool
  • Thermometers, e.g. one sold for horticulture for measuring air temperature in the kittens’ box. Another thermometer to measure the temperature of the milk prior to feeding is also needed.
  • Accurate weighing scales, e.g. cooking scales or letter weighing scales.

A warm dry box is vital because, for the first ten days of life, kittens are unable to regulate their own body temperature by shivering. They can easily die from being too cold or even from being too hot. The heating pad (or other heat source) should be covered to prevent the kittens burning themselves.

In the first week the ideal temperature is 29°C to 32°C and can go down gradually to about 21°C by the age of six weeks. If a kitten becomes too cold it should be warmed up gently. Beware – rapid heating can be equally dangerous. A room thermometer should be placed among the kittens.

A newborn kitten needs about 2ml or half a teaspoon of milk every two hours throughout the day and night. It will need feeding regularly for the first 14 days but as it gets older it can take larger and less frequent feeds. Special formula milks are available from your veterinary practice and you should seek advice on their use. It is essential to make up and use formula milk according to the manufacturers’ instructions. Signs of under nutrition include failing to put on weight, crying and inactivity, however over feeding can be just as dangerous. It is important to increase the volume given as the kittens get bigger.

Kittens should increase in bodyweight by 5-10% per day for the first two weeks of life (after the first day – it is normal for them to lose weight in the first day of life). Failure to grow at this rate may indicate underfeeding or ill health.

It is helpful to weigh each kitten every day and to keep a growth chart so you can see that all the kittens are growing well. They should be weighed at the same time of day, e.g. just before a certain feed and you certainly need to take into account whether the kitten’s stomach and bladder are full or empty at the time of weighing. You may need to mark the kittens in some way in order to be able to identify each individual. Carefully clipping a little fur from a part of the body and carefully recording this may be helpful.

Milk substitute should be made up fresh for each feed and warmed to 38°C (body temperature) before feeding.

It is very important that you feed kittens very slowly, keeping their heads up to allow them to swallow. If you give milk too fast it might go down the wrong way (into the air passages) which could lead to pneumonia and death. A veterinary nurse will be pleased to show you how to feed the kittens initially.

For the first week of life it is often easier to feed the kittens using a syringe with a teat attached. Nursing bottles can be purchased in pet shops and through your vets – these are not recommended until the kitten has a good sucking reflex but are safer for inexperienced carers. A proper kitten bottle is the best way of delivering the milk safely. If you try to use a spoon, a syringe or a dropper there is a risk that milk will spill into the kitten’s lungs which can cause pneumonia.

If you are trying to save a weak kitten it is safer to feed it using a stomach tube rather then giving milk via the mouth. This should not be attempted by an untrained person and involves passing a suitably sized tube through the mouth, down the throat and into the stomach. Milk is then placed into a syringe and injected down the tube into the stomach.

Frequency of feeding

Kittens should be fed every 2 hours up to the age of 3 weeks. At this time you can decrease the feeding to every 3 hours, increasing the amounts given at each feed.

At 4 weeks solid kitten food can be introduced. Kittens tend to play in the food to start with so feeding with milk substitute should continue every 3 hours until 5 weeks of age. By this time the kittens should successfully be eating kitten food and milk substitute can be provided in a shallow dish along with fresh water. Weaning should have been completed by 6-7 weeks of age.


Colostrum is a special kind of milk that contains antibodies to protect the kitten during the first few weeks of life. Kittens that have inadequate colostrums are less likely to survive. Colostrum only works if ingested in the first 12 hours after birth. After this time the kitten’s stomach and intestine change so that they digest the antibodies rather than allowing them to be absorbed intact as is necessary. Also, after the first 12 hours, the mother begins to stop producing colostrum and switches over to producing normal milk.

So, if at all possible, try to obtain colostrum and get this into each kitten in its first 12 hours after birth.

The special milk that a mother cat produces in the first day after giving birth (called colostrum) is important in giving the kittens resistance to disease. Clearly, many hand reared kittens will not have had a chance to take in this milk. Special care should therefore be taken to avoid infection – you should wash your hands before and after handling each kitten and all equipment should be sterilised after use. Equipment should be sterilized and stored without rinsing, then rinsed thoroughly just prior to use. As well as not being good for the kitten if ingested, the sterilising fluid may put them off feeding if they can taste it.

Initially, kittens will be unable to empty their bowels or bladder without stimulation. After each feed the bottom (around the anus and penis) should be rubbed gently with warm, damp cotton wool. The normal bowel motions are yellow and the consistency of toothpaste. If the kitten has diarrhoea or has not passed a stool for 24 hours it could be seriously ill. Contact your vet urgently because a sick kitten can die very quickly.

Weigh your kittens each day and keep records of their rate of growth. Normally they should be ready to begin taking some solid food at around 3-4 weeks, although some kittens may take longer. At first put some milk formula on your finger or in a shallow saucer to encourage the kitten to lap. Mix in some solid food into the milk and gradually increase the amounts. Aim to complete weaning by 5-6 weeks of age.