Orphaned Kittens – Part 1

Samantha O’Boyle, CVT
Veterinary Information Specialist

Are you a foster parent or have you found an unexpected little one that now requires your love and attention? I am a foster parent and specialize in neonatal (baby) puppies and kittens. In this blog I will be focusing on kitten care from birth to 5 weeks of age.

General Information:

You will need a box, carrier or crate which will be their primary living space for the first few weeks of life. A bigger box may be a good idea because it will allow you to see in, as well as provide room for the growing kittens. Newspaper, blankets or towels are needed to line the bottom of the box. Depending on their ages a litter box may also be necessary. A good idea is to use non-clumping litter since kittens when learning to use a litter box may ingest some of the litter which can cause complications.

For the first couple of weeks a kitten is unable to regulate their body temperature. It is important to keep a heating pad or lamp as a heat source to keep them warm. Any heating pad should be keep under a blanket or towel, so it will not come into direct contact with the kitten’s skin. The heating source should be under their nesting area where they primarily sleep, but should not cover the entire area. This will allow the kittens to move away from the warmth if they become too hot.

Kittens that still need to be bottle fed will need a kitten milk replacement formula (such as KMR, GNC or 21st Century Pet to name a few). Do not feed them cow’s milk. Some formulas come in powdered form and need to be reconstituted while others come in liquid form and will need to be refrigerated. There are many bottle kits available for local pet stores.

Kittens should be fed one at a time, on a counter top or flat surface. All four paws should be on the counter, and their heads should be level. This is the same position as they would nurse from mom. DO NOT feed them on their backs like a human baby. After each feeding handle each kitten and gently massage them.

Overfeeding is just as dangerous as underfeeding a kitten. I will go into more details on amounts that should be fed in a moment, but a good indication that a kitten has eaten enough is their bellies will be filled out after a meal, they should not look bloated.

If a kitten is bottle fed this will also mean that they are unable to urinate or defecate on their own. Their moms usually help with this, so you will need to also. They should be stimulated which should be done every few hours (generally right after feeding). You can gently rub the anus and genital area with a warm/wet paper towel or cotton ball which will simulate moms grooming. If you ever need to check a kitten’s temperature this should be done rectally with a thermometer and some KY jelly. A normal temperature for a healthy kitten is between 100°-102.5°F. Each kittens should also be weighed daily and a chart should be kept to make sure everyone is healthy and gaining weight.

Care by Age:

Birth to 1 week old

Kittens of this age will need to be fed every 2 hours until they are full but not bloated. This will probably be around ½ a tablespoon (7.5ml) of formula. Keep the kitten in an upright position. Depending on the nipple you are using the steady stream of milk should be excreted. If there are bubbles coming out of the kitten’s nose, the flow is too fast and their a is risk for aspiration. The kittens should be sleeping the 90% of the time. Monitor them to make sure they are not trying to suckle their siblings. This could indicate they are not eating enough. They should weigh around 4oz.

1-2 weeks old

The kittens may now be fed every 2-3 hours with the same amount (1/2 tablespoon or 7.5ml) of formula. They should now weigh around 7oz by the time they are 2 weeks. During this stage their ear canals will open (around 5-8 days) and their eyes will begin to open (around 8-14 days). Once open their eyes will appear dark blue.

2-3 weeks old

At this stage the kittens should be fed approximately 1 tablespoon of formula every 3-4 hours. Remember to monitor their tummies and make sure they do not seem bloated after eating. If your kittens seem messy you may gently groom them with a slightly damp warm wash cloth and flea comb. This will mimic mom’s licking. Do not allow the kittens to become to damp or they will become chilled.

At this age the kittens will become more sociable and should be around 10oz in weight. Their little ears will become erect and they will be trying to crawl around with more direction than before.  As their little teeth start to come in you may also notice that they will begin to bite their own paws or tails. Further handling and socialization is good at this stage to get them used to humans.

3-4 weeks old

Kittens may now be fed approximately 2 tablespoons of formula every 4 hours. They may even try lapping from a bowl, but some may not be ready to be weaned at this stage. Socialization should continue as before.

4-5 weeks old

The kittens should now be up to 3 tablespoons of formula every 8 hours. They can start to learn how to drink and eat from a saucer. The weaning process should be done slowly. Introduce them to a gruel mixture of some soft warm kitten food mixed with formula. Touch the food with your finger and let them taste it. You may then lead them to the bowl with your finger.

Be aware that this is a messy process. Most kittens with walk right into the bowl, face plant into it and track it all over the place. They will not catch on right away so give them time. You should also start leaving a shallow bowl of water out as well.

This is also the time to begin littler training. Remember to use a non-clumping litter since the kittens may chew on it in the beginning. A very small shallow box works well during training. Place them in the box after a feeding and scratch at the litter. The noise may be enough for them to start trying to move the litter around. Some kittens will learn fast than the others. If you notice there is feces outside of the litter box you may pick it up and place it in the box. This helps to show them where it should go. Most kittens are naturally clean, and it will be instinctive for them to want to go and bury their business under the litter. You will notice that some litter will get stuck under their tails or feet. Use a warm wash cloth and comb to gently groom and remove the litter and feces.

Important Notes:

If you have kittens that are not eating, crying constantly, vomiting or having diarrhea it is important to bring them to a veterinarian immediately. Kittens if they became ill will go downhill very quickly. Even vigilant parents can miss the signs. Try your best and enjoy the love and snuggles!


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