Basic Care for Motherless Neonatal Kittens
There are cases where a good-natured and well-intentioned person may come across a batch of kittens outdoors and wonder if they have a mother. In most cases, these kittens will be the product of feral cats, and the mother will be protective of her kittens if she is still able to protect and feed them. There are steps you can take to help these kittens avoid a life on the streets and find them loving forever homes.
If you find kittens, first determine whether they have a mother. Mother cats may be out for several hours at a time, so try and wait somewhere unobserved to see if she comes back. Stray and feral mother cats have to hunt for food to continue to supply milk for the kittens. Make sure that the kittens have been abandoned by the mother before doing anything.
If the kittens have a mother, you have several options:
- Take the mother and kittens into your home and confine them in a large cage or a small room such as a bathroom. This prevents the mother cat from moving the kittens and she will take care of raising them until they are old enough to be socialized and placed in homes. Once the kittens have been weaned, the mother can then be spayed and returned to her original habitat if she is a feral cat, or adopted out to a suitable home if she is a stray.
- Allow mom to care for her kittens where you found them. Unfortunately, she may move them at any time, so try to make the location as attractive and comfortable as possible. Give her a comfortable shelter and provide food and water every day. If you catch the kittens when they are weaned they can be socialized and placed in homes.
- Take the kittens from the mother, have her spayed, and raise the kittens yourself. This ensures that the mother will not move the kittens and they will be socialized to humans, but remember that in most cases it is best to keep the kittens with their mother for the first few weeks of life.
If the kittens are indeed orphans, bring them into your home to establish their age, medical and feeding needs. At this point, you must act quickly because neonatal kittens are fragile. Delay can be fatal.
Kittens should be alert and warm to the touch. IF THE KITTENS ARE COLD AND LISTLESS, THEY MUST BE WARMED UP IMMEDIATELY. Chilling is the major cause of death of neonatal kittens, and can happen in just a few hours. Do not attempt to feed chilled kittens. Place the kittens in a box or pet carrier with a towel-covered heating pad set on low inside the box. Be sure the heating pad covers only half the bottom of the box - the kittens must be able to move off the heating pad if it becomes to warm.
- Under one week: Eyes shut, ears flat to head, skin looks pinkish. Part of umbilical cord may still be attached.
- 1 week to 10 days: Eyes begin to open, ears still flat. A kitten this age is smaller than your hand.
- 3 weeks: Eyes fully open, ears errrect, teeth are visible. Kittens this age are starting to walk and will be very wobbly.
- 4 to 5 weeks: Eyes have changed from blue to another color and/or kittens have begun to pounce and leap. Kittens this age will begin to eat regular cat food.
- 8 weeks: Kittens this age weigh approximately two pounds. If they have not been exposed to humans, they will likely be feral and unapproachable.
The following instructions are for kittens approximately four weeks old and younger. If the kittens you find can already eat regular cat food, read the section "socializing feral kittens."
Kittens cannot be fed until they are warmed - feeding chilled kittens is very dangerous. DO NOT FEED COW'S MILK - it causes diarreha which can lead to severe dehydration. You will need Kiiten Milk Replacement or other kitten milk formula, along with special bottles for feeding. The pre-mixed liquid formula is easier to use than the powdered form. These supplies are available at veterinary offices, pet supply stores, and in some case your local humane society.
Depending on their age, kittens will need to be fed every two to six hours around the clock. To prepare the bottle, pierce a hole in the nipple with a pin or make a tiny slit with a razor. Make sure the hole is big enough for the milk to get through. Test the formula on your wrist - it should be slightly warm, NOT HOT, NOT COLD.
After they eat, kittens need help to urinate and defecate. To do this, moisten a cotton ball with warm water and gently rub the kitten's anal area. Waste will be mostly liquid at this point.
In addition to chilling, there are other conditions which must be treated without delay:
- Fleas can cause anemia in kittens and even death. If you notice fleas, you should flea comb the kitten as soon as possible. Do not use insecticides or any other flea products.
- Diarreha and upper respitory infection (similiar to a human cold) are serious and should be immediately treated by a veterinarian.
- If a kitten cannot suck on the bottle, she may need to be fed with a veternary feeding syringe (no needle). See a veternarian for more information on this problem.
At about four weeks of age you can begin offering canned and dry kitten food. The kittens will begin using a liter box as well.
Socializing Feral Kittens:
Kittens who are not exposed to humans early in their lives learn from their mothers and quickly become feral. However, if they are caught and handled at a young enough age, feral kittens can be socialized and placed in loving homes.
Remember that spay/neuter is the single most important thing you can do to help feral cats. It is best to alter as many cats in a colony as possible before you begin socializing.
Kittens under four weeks old can usually be socialized in a matter of days, and kittens up to eight weeks old can take approximately two to four weeks to socialize. Ten to twelve week old kittens can also be tamed, but it may take longer. Taming feral kittens over 12 weeks old can be difficult and they may never be fully socialized to people.
- Kittens cannot be socialized while they are still in their colony. They must be brought inside and confined so you have regular access to them. If you cannot do this, have the kittens altered and return them to their colony.
- Kittens can be taken from their feral mothers when they begin weaning-at approximately four weeks of age.
Housing The Kittens:
- You will need to confine the kitten(s) at first, preferably in a dog crate, large pet carrier, cat condo, or cage. If you do not have a cage or carrier, you can keep the kittens in a small room. Be sure to block up anything they could crawl into or under and remove anything that could injure them.
- Do not let feral kittens run loose in your house. They can hide in tiny spaces and are exceptionally difficult to find and coax out. In addition, a large room can be frightening and hinder the taming process.
- If possible, kittens should be separated from each other to facilitate taming. Left together, one kitten can become outgoing and playful while another remains shy and withdrawn. If you cannot separate them, the kittens can be housed together, but be sure to spend time alone with each one.
- The cage should contain a small litter box, food and water dishes, and something to cuddle in like a towel or piece of your clothing.
- Food is the key to taming. Make dry kitten food available at all times and give the kitten a small amount of wet food at least twice a day. The kitten may hesitate to eat in your presence at first, but be patient. Eventually the kitten will associate your presence with food.
- Chicken-flavored baby food is a special treat that almost no kitten can resist.
- How soon you begin handling the kitten depends on the kitten's age and temperament. Older kittens and those who are more feral are harder to handle. With these kittens, start by offering baby food or wet food on a spoon through the cage. Once they are used to this, you can begin handling them.
- Younger and less feral kittens can be picked up right away. Wear gloves if you will feel more comfortable, as it is important to be confident and gentle when picking up any animal. Wrap the kitten in a towel allowing her head to stick out. Offer baby food or wet food on a spoon. If she does not respond, dab a tiny bit on the end of her nose. Once she tastes it, she will soon want more.
- When petting a feral kitten, approach from behind his head. Gradually begin to pet the kitten's face, chin, and behind the ears while talking gently. Try to have several feeding/petting sessions (15-20 minutes) with each kitten as many times a day as you can.
- Progress will depend on the kitten's age and temperament. Each day you will notice improvement-falling asleep in your lap, coming towards you for food, meowing at you, purring, and playing are all great signs. Once the kitten no longer runs away from you but instead comes toward you seeking to be fed, held and pet, you can confine her to a small, kitten-proofed room rather than a cage. Siblings can also be reunited at this point.
- Expose the kittens to a variety of people. Everyone should use low voices at first, and approach the kittens in a non-threatening manner.
- Handle feral kittens cautiously - nails and teeth are sharp.
- Do not give kittens cow's milk - it can make them sick.
- Once the kitten is willing to play, offer toys and use a string (not yarn) or a cat dancer for him to chase. Do not let the kitten bite, scratch or play with your hand.
- If the kittens are staying awake at night, try to play and socialize with them more during the day and cover their cage(s) at night with a towel or blanket.
- Leave a television or radio on (not too loud) during the day so the kittens get used to human voices.
Brian Baker is a writer and animal rights proponent. He has been published locally and nationally, most notably in Chicken Soup for the Cat Lover's Soul. Currently, Baker spends his time working with a local organization (www.safehavenforpets.org) that not only operates a shelter for animals but also does extensive work with feral cats. To exchange correspondence with the author, write to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org