Raising Orphan Kittens
Raising an orphaned kitten can be a very rewarding experience. They have special needs and require intensive nursing care and a great deal of care and commitment is needed if they are to survive.
Kittens needed to be kept in a warm, draft free environment, so keep their kitten box away from windows and doors. A heat pad or heat lamp can be used to keep them warm. Be careful not to overheat the kittens by ensuring the heat pad is on a low setting and well covered. The kittens will huddle together for warmth and so may not need much extra heating. The heat source should be in the corner so the kittens can move away from it. The optimal temperature gradient should be from 32 – 34°C where the kittens will get the most heat to 24 – 27°C at the far edge. Once the kittens are 4 weeks old, the environmental temperature should be around 24°C. Additional bedding such as old blankets or a Vet-bed can be used. Shredded paper is dangerous as it can wrap around the limbs and cut off blood supply. Disposable nappies or incontinuity sheets are also useful.
Be careful not to make the box too hot and humid as this can cause respiratory distress. You may need to humidify the kitten box if the kittens are small or weak, a home humidifier should suffice.
Maintain strict hygiene in the kitten box and remove as much kitten stool as possible and dispose of safely. To reduce risk for diseases, kittens should not be exposed to older animals and should not be grouped within multiple litters. Feeding equipment and bedding should be kept clean and sanitised. Always wash your hands before handling kitten and after stimulating elimination.
An orphaned kitten must be fed milk replacer until it is old enough to start eating solid food around 3 weeks of age. The best milk replacer is a commercial formula specially developed for kittens. Kittens fed cow’s milk can develop diarrhoea due to the higher lactose content in it. In an emergency the following recipe can be used:
- 1 cup milk
- 1 tablespoon of corn oil
- 1 pinch of salt
- 3 egg yolks
Liquidise and mix well.
The formula must be warmed and the temperature tested on the underside of your wrist as for a baby’s bottle. Baby bottles made for kittens are ideal if the kitten has a good suck reflex. Always test the hole in the nipple before using the bottle for the first time. If you turn the bottle upside down and milk drips from the nipple with only a gentle squeeze, it is the right size. If you have to apply firm pressure, the hole is too small and should be made bigger. If milk drips from the nipple freely, the hole is too large and the nipple should be replaced. The formula should be discarded after one hour at room temperature.
The kitten should be held in a horizontal position with the head in a natural position. This posture will reduce the risk of aspiration.
Stomach tube feeding may be necessary to feed a weak kitten or one with a poor suck reflex. A Veterinary Practitioner will place the tube and instruct you how to maintain it for feeding.
Frequency of Feeding
Follow the directions for feeding on the commercial milk replacer. Weigh the kitten on a gram scale. If the kitten is small or weak, it should be fed every 3 to 4 hours or 6-8 meals a day. Feeding older kittens every 6 hours should be sufficient. By the end of the third week, you should be able to start weaning your kitten. The best way to monitor their progress is to weigh them daily for the first two weeks, then every 3 days for the first month and regularly thereafter.
Kittens need help defaecating. To prevent constipation, use a soft cloth or a cotton ball moistened with warm water to massage around the kitten’s anus after feeding for the first two weeks.
The most common, potentially life-threatening problems in orphaned kittens are hypothermia, dehydration and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
Up to 6 days of age, kittens are unable to control their body temperature and can quickly become hypothermic if they are not kept warm. The normal rectal temperature of a newborn kitten is 35-37°C. If the temperature is below 34.5°C this is potentially life threatening hypothermia. The kitten needs to be warmed immediately but care has to be taken not to warm it too quickly or to overheat it as this too can be fatal in a weak kitten.
Newborns can become dehydrated quickly if they are not nursing or if their environment is hot and dry. Two indicators of dehydration are loss of elasticity in the skin where the skin stays tented when gently pinched up and decreased saliva production where the gums and tongue feel tacky or dry.
This can quickly develop in newborns that are not fed frequently. As it worsens, the kitten can become progressively more depressed and weak. It can go on to develop muscle twitches or seizures and then it becomes unresponsive and comatose. If your kitten shows any of these signs, place a few drops of a glucose solution on its tongue. This is often enough to revive a hypoglycemic kitten but you should continue to watch for signs of hypoglycemia over the next several days.
Kittens are ready to eat solid food by 3 to 4 weeks of age. A pasty gruel of Vet Essentials Kitten may be smeared around the lips or the kittens can be placed in a shallow dish 2-3 times daily with the gruel where they will quickly learn to lick it off their feet and begin to eat.
Worms are common in kittens and they must be wormed weekly from 2 weeks of age until weaning and then every 3 weeks until 6 months of age. Stronghold is also suitable worm treatment and easy to use and is effective for a month.