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rec.pets.cats: Care of Orphaned Kittens FAQ

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Archive-name: cats-faq/orphans
Last-modified: 16 Jul 1999

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                           Orphan Kitten Care FAQ

   This FAQ will appear as a section in the forthcoming publication Love
   That Cat! Guide to 1600 Products, Resources, Solutions & Comforts for
   Cats and Cat Lovers. Olivia Russell, ed. Allium Press, Takoma Park,
   Maryland, 1997. Copyright 1997 by Olivia Russell, All Rights Reserved
   Internet distribution arranged by Sharon Talbert,

   A general note about taking in strangers. Always, always isolate a
   rescued cat or kitten from your pets for at least fourteen days and
   until it has been examined by your veterinarian and tested for lethal
   disease; even a tiny kitten can pack a killer virus or parasite. Make
   the kitten comfortable in a room that is frequently visited by you and
   that is separate from your other pets, and wash your hands with an
   antibacterial soap between visits to the new animal and your
   household. Consult with your veterinarian so that you are able to
   weigh the risks against the many blessings of taking in an orphan
   The following, numbered sequence could be applied generally to an
   orphaned kitten of any age but is particularly important for the frail
   newborn. Less detailed instructions for older kittens follow. Good
   luck to foster mothers everywhere.
                                                           Sharon Talbert
Table of Contents

     * [2]1. Determine the Kitten's Condition
     * [3]2. Make the Kitten Comfortable and Warm
     * [4]3. Prepare the Feeding
     * [5]4. More on Emptying the Bowel and Bladder
     * [6]5. Maintenance
1. Determine the Kitten's Condition

   Any kitten, even if it seems fine, should be seen by your vet as soon
   as possible. Take a fresh stool sample with you, so the vet may check
   for intestinal parasites. If a fecal cannot be done by the time of the
   appointment, take a stool sample as soon as you can. Remove as many
   fleas as you safely can (with a comb for newborns; do not bathe, spray
   or powder a kitten before it is six weeks old).
   If the kitten is lethargic or cool to the touch, you may have a
   life-threatening emergency (such as exposure or distemper). Get the
   kitten on a heating pad or other primary heat source (see item 2) and
   get it to a veterinarian right away or consult an emergency veterinary
   clinic. Do NOT feed a chilled newborn -- you will kill it. Instead,
   administer slightly warmed Pedialyte (an infant rehydrating fluid,
   available in any grocery or pharmacy), using an animal nurser,
   syringe, or dropper. (You can greatly extend the life of the Pedialyte
   by freezing it as ice cubes, bagging the cubes and storing them in
   your freezer, by the way.) Feed the kitten only when it is warmed and
   indicates it is hungry.
   If the kitten seems over-warm and/or is breathing rapidly, it may be
   feverish or suffering from heat exhaustion or worse. Contact your vet
   or an emergency veterinary clinic immediately for advice if you can.
   To help lower the kitten's body temperature, try wiping it down with a
   cool, damp cloth; then administer Pedialyte. Get the kitten to a
   veterinarian as soon as possible.
   If the kitten is active and screaming lustily for its mother, go
   quickly to item 2; you will find that a heating pad will help calm the
   kitten while you prepare its first meal.
2. Make the Kitten Comfortable and Warm

  Empty the Bladder
   Newborns cannot evacuate their bowel or bladder unassisted. The kitten
   you have found may be in excruciating pain or in danger of going toxic
   from having to retain its own body waste. You should help the kitten
   at least empty its bladder before proceeding with warming or feeding
   or even the trip to the veterinarian. With the kitten on a towel in
   your lap, lightly rub the kitten's body with a rough, dry washcloth.
   (At that point, the kitten may roll over or otherwise present its
   bottom to you.) With a generous handful of soft tissue (also to be
   kept handy at all times) gently stroke the kitten's behind, keeping
   the tissue in contact. The kitten should oblige by urinating a rather
   amazing amount. Simply rotate the tissue until kitten stops urinating
   or the tissue is soaked, whichever comes first. (Did I mention to keep
   a waste bag handy for this procedure?)
   Another method to stimulate evacuation is to use a tissue or wash
   cloth moistened with warm water instead of a dry cloth or to apply a
   moistened Q-tip (hold the kitten over a sink or a folded towel if you
   use the latter method).
  Warm the kitten
   A newborn kitten is not capable of generating or maintaining body
   warmth and must depend on its mother (and now you) to sustain warmth
   and life. Keeping a newborn orphan warm (even on a warm day) is a
   priority, more important initially than feeding (do NOT feed a chilled
   kitten, by the way -- you will kill it). Bundling up the kitten will
   do no good; it has no body heat of its own to retain. And putting the
   kitten near a space heater or other heating element is neither
   sufficient for the long-term nor safe. Wrap a heating pad, set on low,
   in a towel or flannel and place it in or beneath the nesting box,
   leaving room for the kitten to crawl off the heated area as needed.
   (Emergency, short-term measures: If you don't have a heating pad, put
   the kitten on a wrapped hot water bottle or snugged against a tightly
   sealed and well stabilized jar of warm water. Better yet, put the
   kitten next to your body -- next to the skin if possible. Then go out
   and borrow or buy that heating pad after the first feeding or take the
   kitten to the vet immediately if its condition is poor or
  The Den
   Newborns should be shielded from direct light and contained in their
   den until they are at least three weeks old. Remember to try to
   provide the kitten an area in the den where it can crawl off the
   heating pad if it gets overheated. A small airline-style carrier
   doubles very well as a den and a taxi, though the kitten will soon
   outgrow it. A pair of large nested boxes is a good den, as long as the
   kitten cannot crawl out. If you are fostering a single kitten, provide
   a surrogate sibling in the form of a small stuffed toy or bundled
3. Prepare the Feeding

  The Formula
   There are several good milk replacers on the market, available in
   liquid or powder form (my personal favorite is called Just Born). The
   ready-mix liquid is more convenient. Be sure the product is engineered
   for kittens and that it is fresh (some have a short shelf-life). Milk
   replacers can be found in any pet supplies store, most veterinary
   clinics, and even in some variety stores. In an emergency or for the
   short-term, you can make up your own formula from tinned or powdered
   goat's milk (see below). If the kitten seems weak or ill and you
   cannot get to a veterinarian right away, you should administer
   slightly warmed Pedialyte before offering the milk replacer.
  Mona's Homemade Goats Milk Formula
   Mona Myers, a certified bird rehabilitator in Seattle who has in the
   past rescued orphan kittens, swears by this formula and prefers it to
   the ready-made products. You might try her recipe if the kitten is not
   responding well to the commercial product.
   Use tinned or powdered goats milk. (Either should be kept in the
   fridge when opened>) For a newborn or a kitten suffering from
   exposure, substitute Pedialyte for water to reconstitute the powdered
   goats milk. (Stick with the Pedialyte formula for the first week or so
   with a weak newborn, then switch to boiled water as the base.) Warm a
   measured amount of the liquid slightly and pour into a bowl. Using a
   flour sifter, sift the goats milk powder into the liquid, blending
   with a wire whisk. To every 8 oz of goats milk, whether tinned or
   reconstituted, add 1/3 dropper Avitron and 1/3 dropper Avimin
   (available in pet supply stores). Finally, add 1/4 tsp acidophilus
   culture and 1/4 tablet (crushed) papaya enzyme (these last ingredients
   are found in health food stores; acidophilus culture must be
   This formula is best after being refrigerated for at least an hour,
   but it can be warmed (in hot water or microwaved a few seconds in a
   dish, not in the nurser) and served immediately.
  The Nurser
   While you are purchasing the milk replacer, find a good nurser. Most
   of these look like a baby bottle in miniature; I prefer the model with
   a pointy nipple. Pierce the nipple with a large-gauge needle (heated
   over a match) or ask the veterinarian to prepare the nurser for you.
   The nipple is constructed of tough stuff and is difficult to pierce;
   whatever you do do NOT cut the nipple with a knife or household
   scissors, however tempted you may be -- you may kill the kitten if you
   make the hole too large and flood its lungs. If you must resort to
   cutting, use a cuticle scissor and snip ever so delicately, then test
   (the flow should be a very thin stream) before offering the bottle to
   the kitten. If you did it wrong and made the hole too big, go out and
   buy another bottle or replacer nipple.
   Other possible nursers are a 6-cc syringe or the kind of squeeze
   bottle used to dispense droplet medication (ask your veterinarian or
   pharmacist). These do present some risk, as the formula must be forced
   into the kitten's mouth, again increasing the risk of flooding the
   lungs. Last choice is a dropper, the slowest of the slow, but better
   than nothing until you go out and buy a nurser.
  The Feeding
   Heat the formula (in hot water) until it is comfortably warm. Test a
   stream on the inside of your wrist, first shaking the bottle to even
   out the temperature. Within easy reach, set a rough washcloth, paper
   towel, and a box of tissue. Also keep a cup of hot water nearby (but
   not where it could tip onto the kitten) to warm the nurser as needed.
   Then lay an old towel, the fluffier the better, across your lap. Hold
   the kitten belly-down, steadying and guiding the head to the nipple
   with the same hand that is holding the bottle. (This is just my
   technique; you may find another that works best for you.) Try to
   center the nipple in the kitten's mouth, over the tongue, and apply
   just enough pressure on the nurser to bead out a bit of formula on the
   nipple. If this is not enough to induce the kitten to begin suckling,
   squeeze a tiny bit into its mouth and wait for it to swallow before
   (gently!) squeezing again. This can be even trickier than it sounds,
   particularly if the kitten is desperately hungry. Convincing a
   frenzied kitten to slow down and suckle is no easy task. Another
   kitten may be put off by the strangeness of the offering and so will
   resist feeding or may be too weak to take the nipple immediately. Be
   patient and calm and persistent, applying careful pressure on the
   nurser to keep the formula coming at a natural rate without squirting
   it down the kitten's throat. Watch the ears: If they start to bob, the
   kitten is getting just the right amount of formula. If formula bubbles
   out the nostrils, pull back immediately -- you are drowning the
   Do not overfeed, especially at the first meal. A series of small meals
   is better than one large one. And don't go crazy trying to follow the
   complicated instructions on the formula container. Feed the kitten
   until it settles down and its tummy is full but not distended, then
   gently remove the nipple and rub the kitten gently but briskly all
   over with your hand or that rough dry washcloth. (Remember, you are a
   momcat now; your baby needs the stimulation provided by that
   tough-love tongue all mother cats have.) If the kitten doesn't
   immediately begin to complain and nuzzle for more milk, it is fed.
   Continue rubbing or patting until you get a burp. If you don't get a
   burp right away, try putting the kitten over your shoulder like any
   other baby and patting it gently on the side or back. Then return it
   to the heating pad for about 15 minutes before going to the next step.
   (Or to the next kitten, if you are caring for a litter.)
   A special note on suckling. The suckling instinct in very strong in
   these little guys, and they are likely to suckle on another. This
   behavior can be lethal to a male kitten if the genitals are suckled,
   causing swelling and impaction of the urinary tract. You may need to
   separate kittens from one another, or at least separate the aggressive
   suckler. The single kitten should be provided a surrogate momcat or
   sibling in the person of a soft plush toy that can be snuggled and
   suckled. Keep the surrogate "mom" and the kitten's bedding clean but
   chemical-free, for safe suckling.
  Frequency of feedings
   Feed a newborn at least every four hours or on demand. Do not
   overfeed. Be prepared to do night feedings.
   A note on tube-feeding. The feeding process can be greatly speeded up
   by feeding per catheter directly to the stomach. Consult with your
   veterinarian and insist on a training session before attempting to
   tube-feed, incorrect insertion of the catheter could flood the
   kitten's lungs. I do not recommend tube-feeding on a daily basis;
   kittens need nurturing, physical contact in order to thrive almost as
   much as they need nourishment. If you do tube-feed, handle the
   kittens. Put them in a sling or fanny pack and wear them around the
   house (I use a kitten snuggly made by a friend).
4. More on Emptying the Bowel and Bladder

   I recommend emptying the kitten both immediately before and about 15
   minutes following each feeding. With any luck, you have already
   emptied the bladder. Evacuation of the bowel will probably not happen
   at the first attempt and may take a day or two. When it does happen,
   don't be horrified at the toothpaste consistency and mustard color --
   this is normal for a newborn. (A grayish stool is cause for concern,
   however; call the vet at once.) Once bowel movements have begun, you
   should see a movement for every feeding.
   Kittens dehydrate quickly, so feed carefully to prevent diarrhea. Do
   not over-feed and do not make sudden or radical changes to the
   kitten's diet. If diarrhea (or constipation) develops, consult your
   veterinarian for adjustment of the formula or feeding portion. If the
   stool is liquid or bloody or contains mucous, consult your vet or make
   an appointment.
5. Maintenance

   Weigh the kitten on the first day and re-weigh and record the kitten's
   weight at least every other day. Use a postage scale or food scale or
   baby scale (the bathroom scale is not going to cut it). Observe the
   kitten's daily progress closely. if there is failure to thrive, weight
   loss, signs of distress, lassitude, or change in body temperature,
   consult your veterinarian at once. Be alert for changes in behavior;
   if a newborn kitten persistently crawls away from the nest or (in the
   case of a litter) seems always to be on its own, consult your
   veterinarian at once.
   A kitten's eyes are generally fully open by ten days old (they begin
   to open at seven days). By three or four weeks a kitten is mobile and
   able to eat at least some solid food. The kitten is also ready for the
   litterpan as soon as it can toddle to it. (I recommend introduction to
   the litterpan by three weeks with expectation of seeing some
   independent use of the pan by four weeks.)
    Den and Living Space
   Toddlers should be encouraged to play and extend themselves, but they
   must be contained in a safe, small room. Do not give small kittens the
   run of your home or apartment, particularly if they are in the process
   of being socialized! Start newborns with the denning box, then at
   about three weeks allow them out of the box to explore a small,
   kitten-proofed room that is warm and secure. A spare bedroom is a good
   living space, a bathroom is fine, as long as the lid is left down on
   the toilet and floor isn't too cold (newspaper is a good insulator if
   that is the case). Provide a den (the carrier or nesting box) as safe
   haven and sleeping place.
    Solid Food
   By four weeks old or a bit sooner, your kitten can be introduced to
   solid food. Start with a slightly warmed moosh of formula mixed with
   strained meat babyfood (chicken or turkey) and formula, offered on a
   saucer or small plate. (There is a transitional cereal offered by Just
   Born you can mix into the mess as well.) Be sure not to overheat the
   stuff in the microwave -- only a few seconds is all it needs, and be
   sure to mix it thoroughly with your finger so that you get all the hot
   spots. You may have to put a bit of food on the kitten's nose or in
   its mouth to get it going, using your finger or a plastic spoon.
   Within the week, add a good-quality kitten chow (I prefer Iams),
   softened in warm water, while phasing out the formula, both by nurser
   or in the solid food (moisten with water, as necessary). By the time
   the kitten is six weeks old, it should be scarfing down straight
   kitten chow and drinking water on its own. Wean gently and gradually
   though; you don't want a thumb-sucker on your hands.
    The Water Dish
   By four or five weeks, the kitten should be taking water on its own as
   well as food. Provide a low, heavy dish, so the kitten can walk in it,
   dip its paws and otherwise perform the scientific experiments typical
   of all felines. If you can, place the dish in a corner or other
   low-traffic area and handy but not too close to the food dish. You may
   need to help the kitten by providing it with an opaque rather than a
   clear dish and by wetting its nose with your finger and leading it
   down to water level. Given the kitten has been lapping up its
   moosh-meals for a while by now, drinking water shouldn't be too great
   an adjustment.
   Kittens are like any other toddler; they play too hard and too long
   and then desperately need to relieve themselves, so be sure a
   litterpan (or litterpans, in a larger room) is handly at all times.
   Start with a pan small enough and low enough for a toddler to get into
   (and out again) with no trouble; a good starter pan is the cut-down
   box used in pet food stores for display of small tins. Very little
   training is necessary. Put the kitten into the litterpan 15 minutes or
   so after a meal, perhaps stimulating it by guiding its paws into a
   digging motion. If the kitten hops right out, put it right back in
   again, at least for a time or two. That and the occasional remainder
   is all you should have to do. If there is an accident, put the feces
   in the litterpan to help redirect the kitten. Use newspaper rather
   than plastic on the floor. And do NOT use clumping litter for a young
   kitten! Kittens are likely to eat litter, and the clumping stuff can
   block the intestine. I recommend a pellet-style litter until the
   kitten is at least eight weeks old, and even then watch to be sure the
   kitten is not eating the stuff. When the kitten is five or six weeks
   old, it is ready for a full-size litterpan; simply provide a brick as
   a stepping stone if necessary (I wrap the brick in an old towel).
  Preschoolers (eyes starting to turn color)
   Orphans should be started on their distemper shots (done in a series
   of three) at six weeks. (Note: A kitten who did not receive at least
   the first three days of its mother's milk should be started on shots
   at four weeks.) The kitten should be tested for FeLV (or even FIV, if
   it is from a high-risk feral colony or of unknown background), and
   should also have its stool tested for intestinal parasites.
   Innoculation against FeLV (feline leukemia) will have to wait until
   the kitten is at least ten weeks old, but test anyway. A kitten
   testing positive should be held for at least two weeks (I recommend a
   month) and then tested a second time, to rule out a false postitive
   result. Starting an animal on the FeLV series without first ruling out
   whether the animal is a carrier is irresponsible and reprehensible!
   By now your foster kitten is gobbling down kitten chow by the bowlful
   and drinking water on its own. That's all any weanling kitten needs,
   if the food is good quality and the kitten is healthy. By the time the
   kitten is a robust eight weeks old it is ready to go to a loving,
   responsible home -- if you are strong enough to let it go.
   And if you do adopt out your kitten, please consider spaying or
   neutering it first, before it starts making kittens of its own (which
   it can by six months of age). A healthy kitten can be safely
   spayed/neutered as early as eight weeks of age (minimum weight two
   pounds), but at least sterilize by four months.
    Orphan Kitten Care FAQ
    Sharon Talbert, [7]
    Friends of Campus Cats, University of Washington
    With heartfelt thanks to Adawna Windom, DVM, and Mona Myers, BLE
    (Bird Lady Extroidinaire)


   2. file://localhost/home/t/tittle/public-web/cat-faqs/orphans.html#condition
   3. file://localhost/home/t/tittle/public-web/cat-faqs/orphans.html#comfortable
   4. file://localhost/home/t/tittle/public-web/cat-faqs/orphans.html#feeding
   5. file://localhost/home/t/tittle/public-web/cat-faqs/orphans.html#bowel
   6. file://localhost/home/t/tittle/public-web/cat-faqs/orphans.html#maintenance

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