Raising an orphaned kittens can be a very heartwarming and rewarding experience; it takes a great deal of care and commitment as they are particularly difficult to raise successfully. They have special needs and require intensive nursing care if they are to survive.
Problems for orphaned kittens
Three common and potentially life-threatening problems in orphaned newborns are hypothermia, dehydration, and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). All three may be present in a kitten that has been abandoned and exposed to the elements. These problems can also develop in a kitten under your care unless you are paying close attention.
Up to 6 days old kittens are unable to control their body temperature and quickly become hypothermic if they are not kept warm. The ideal environmental temperature during the first week is 29-32°C, 26-29°C in the second week, 23-26°C in the third, and 23°C from 4-12 weeks. A heating pad, hot water bottle or heat lamp can be used. The heating pad should be on the low setting and covered with a towel, and a hot water bottle should be well wrapped. Caution must be taken to ensure the kittens are not overheated. If you are raising a litter of kittens, the temperature can be a little lower, as the kittens will huddle together to keep each other warm. Avoid drafts by placing the kitten’s box away from windows and doors.
The normal rectal temperature for a newborn kitten is 35-37°C. If the rectal temperature is below 34.5°C this is potentially life-threatening hypothermia. Warm the kitten immediately, but do not overheat the kitten or warm it too quickly as this can be fatal in a weak kitten.
Newborn kittens quickly become dehydrated if they are not nursing. They can also become dehydrated if their environment is hot and dry. Two indicators of dehydration are loss of elasticity in the skin (the skin stays tented when gently pinched up) and decreased saliva production (the gums and tongue feel tacky or dry). In addition to providing adequate nutrition, you may need to humidify the kitten box or room if the kitten is small or weak. Be careful not to make the box too hot and humid; this can cause respiratory distress. A home humidifier should be adequate.
Hypoglycemia quickly develops in a newborn that is not nursing frequently. As hypoglycemia worsens, the kitten becomes progressively more depressed and weak. Without treatment it may develop muscle twitches or seizures (convulsions) and then it becomes unresponsive and comatose. If it is showing any of these signs place a few drops of a glucose solution on its tongue. This simple procedure is often sufficient to revive a hypoglycemic puppy. Also watch for signs of hypoglycemia over the next several days, as you adjust your kitten’s feeding schedule.
Feeding orphaned kittens
An orphaned kitten must be fed milk replacer until it is old enough to start eating solid food at about 3 weeks of age. The best milk replacer is a commercial formula that is specifically developed for kittens. There are several good products available. In an emergency, use the following recipe:
1 cup of milk
1 tablespoon of corn oil
1 pinch of salt
3 egg yolks
Liquidise and mix well
For very young kittens, warm the milk replacer to 35-38°C before feeding it, and test the temperature on the underside of your wrist as for a baby’s bottle. In older kittens, the milk replacer can be fed at room temperature. Baby bottles made for kittens are excellent if the kitten has a good suck reflex. Check the hole in the nipple before using the bottle the first time. It is the right size if, when you turn the bottle upside down, milk replacer drips from the nipple with only a gentle squeeze of the bottle. If milk drips or streams from the nipple without you squeezing the bottle, the hole is too large and too much milk may enter the kitten’s mouth and may be inhaled rather than swallowed. If you up-end the bottle and must squeeze it firmly to get milk to drip from the nipple, the hole needs to be enlarged. Otherwise, the kitten will become discouraged or exhausted when nursing and may even refuse to nurse. To enlarge the hole, heat a needle over a flame, then pierce the tip of the nipple a few times.
If the kitten is weak and has a poor suck reflex, it is necessary to feed the kitten through a stomach tube. Your Veterinary Practitioner will place the tube and instruct you on how to maintain it for feeding.
Frequency of feeding and amount to feed
Follow the directions for feeding amount on the commercial milk replacer. First, weigh your kitten using a gram scale. Unless the milk replacer package gives amounts per feeding, take the total daily amount recommended and divide it by the number of feedings per 24-hour period. If the kitten is small or weak, feed it every 3-4 hours (6 – 8 meals per day). Feeding older kitten every 6 hours (4 meals per day) is adequate. By the end of the third week, you should be able to start weaning your kitten. The best monitor of kitten health is weighing them daily for the first 2 weeks, then every 3 days for the first month, and regularly thereafter. The kittens should gain 2-4g per day per kg of expected adult weight.
Orphaned kittens need help defaecating
Mothers stimulate their kittens to defaecate by licking around the kitten’s anus. To prevent constipation do this with a soft cloth or cotton ball moistened with warm water after feeding for the first 2 weeks.
Kittens are ready to eat solid food by 3-4 weeks of age. A pasty gruel of Vet Essentials Kitten may be smeared around the lips or the kittens put 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 about 2 weeks of age until weaning, and then every 3 weeks until 6 months old. Stronghold is a very suitable and easy to use treatment for kittens and is given once monthly. Maintain strict hygiene in the whelping area and remove as much kitten stool as possible and dispose of safely. Avoid over the counter de-worming products as many products are of little use.