By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 7 January 2015)
What to Feed Orphaned Kittens
Kittens that appear to be alone are not necessarily abandoned. If they’re plump, clean, and sleeping peacefully, their mother is probably nearby. Signs of abandonment include a soiled nest, dirty fur, and continuous crying due to hunger.
Warm Kittens Before Feeding
Orphaned kittens that are cold must be warmed before they can be fed kitten milk replacer formula because feeding a chilled kitten can cause it to die. If you find a kitten or litter of kittens that has been abandoned, the quickest way to warm them is to put them under your clothing and hold them against your skin. Folding a thick towel over a hot water bottle and placing the kittens on top also works, though if using this approach you should make sure that they have enough space to crawl off it if they get too hot.
Although you shouldn’t attempt feeding with kitten milk replacer until the kittens are warm enough, you can give a few drops of warm sugar water solution (1 teaspoon of granulated sugar to 30 ml of water) or rub a small amount of Karo syrup over the kittens’ lips to sustain them (don’t use honey, as it may contain harmful bacteria). If you have someone who can run to the drugstore while you take care of the kittens, warmed Pedialyte solution is an even better option while the kittens are warming.
Bring the kittens to a veterinarian as soon as possible for a full medical check-up. A veterinarian should be able to supply kitten milk replacer and a bottle or syringe for feeding young kittens. Pet supply stores also carry these items.
Emergency Kitten Milk Replacer Recipes
If you find abandoned kittens late at night when stores and veterinarians’ offices are closed, you can mix up a batch of emergency kitten food, but be sure to pick up a kitten milk replacer product as soon as possible because emergency substitutes are not nutritionally complete. Also, most contain raw eggs, which pose a risk for salmonella infection, and cow’s milk, which can cause diarrhea.
Jennifer Prince, DVM, and Race Foster, DVM, provides the following emergency kitten milk replacer recipe:
- 3 oz condensed milk
- 3 oz water
- 4 oz plain yogurt (not low-fat)
- 3 large or 4 small egg yolks (no whites)
Mike Richards, DVM, notes that a mixture of egg yolk and cow’s milk can be used temporarily until kitten milk replacer can be obtained. One egg yolk (no white) per 1/2 cup of milk is the recommended ratio.
A number of kitten care guides also suggest baby food as a temporary substitute. This food must be 100% meat (turkey and chicken are good choices). There should be no added seasonings or vegetables, particularly onions, which can cause serious health problems.
Keep kitten formulas refrigerated and discard leftover portions from the bottle or syringe after feeding rather than attempting to feed them to the kittens later on. Before feeding, warm the food to about 100ºF (38ºC) by placing the bottle in a bowl of hot water for a few minutes. The formula should be warm but not hot.
What to Feed Young Kittens
Many people mistakenly assume that kittens can be fed cow’s milk as a substitute for their mother’s milk, but cow’s milk does not provide enough protein or fat to sustain a kitten and it may cause diarrhea as well. Commercially available kitten milk replacers are nutritionally complete and are the only good long-term substitutes for a mother cat’s milk.
How Often to Feed Kittens
Feed kittens a small amount of kitten milk replacer formula at regular intervals, day and night (check the dosage recommendation on the package, as guidelines vary somewhat from one product to the next). As a general rule, a kitten should be given around 8cc of formula per ounce of body weight each day.
Frequency of feedings depends on the age of the kitten:
- Under 2 weeks old – every 2-3 hours
- 2-3 weeks old – every 4-6 hours
- 3 weeks and up – every 6-8 hours
Always wash your hands before feeding kittens to avoid transferring harmful bacteria and viruses. For the same reason, you’ll need to sterilize bottles or syringes before feeding and clean them afterward as you would for a human baby. See How to Bottle Feed a Kitten (below) for detailed feeding instructions.
Weigh the kittens each day. If kittens lose weight or fail to gain weight, consult a veterinarian.
How to Bottle Feed a Kitten
Kittens under 2 weeks old require feeding every 2-3 hours (every 4-6 hours is sufficient after 2 weeks of age, and every 6-8 hours after 3 weeks, until weaning). General guidelines for bottle feeding young kittens are as follows:
- Make up a fresh batch of formula every 48 hours and store it in the refrigerator.
- Sterilize the bottle (5-15 minutes in boiling water) and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before feeding the kitten to avoid transferring harmful bacteria and viruses. Changing into clean clothing is also recommended, especially if you have interacted with other animals.
- Let the bottle cool down and then add enough formula for one feeding.
- Hold the bottle upside-down to check that the hole is the right size. The formula should drip slowly from the nipple hole. If the formula doesn’t drip, enlarge the nipple hole slightly.
- Warm the formula to about 100ºF (38ºC) by placing the bottle in a bowl of hot water for a few minutes (don’t use a microwave). The formula should be warm but not hot when given to the kitten.
- Feed kittens on their stomachs (rather than on their backs like human babies), as this is the way they would feed from their mother. Place a clean towel on your lap or the floor and place the kitten face-down on it for feeding.
- Use the tip of your finger to gently open the kitten’s mouth and slip the nipple in. Most kittens will quickly get the hang of it and start seeking out the nipple at feeding time. If the kitten doesn’t suckle, try stroking its back or forehead – this can stimulate nursing behaviour. Rubbing a little Karo syrup on its lips may also help.
- Don’t squeeze the bottle, forcing milk replacer into the kitten’s mouth (this can cause aspiration pneumonia). Hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle and let the kitten suck the formula from the nipple on its own. Pulling very slightly on the bottle can encourage the kitten to suck.
- If feeding with a syringe or eye dropper, inject one drop of formula into the kitten’s mouth at a time, leaving enough time for the kitten to swallow before adding the next drop.
- When the kitten has had enough food, bubbles will usually appear around its mouth. Older kittens that have become accustomed to bottle feeding will turn their heads away from the nipple to signal fullness.
- At the end of the feeding, the kitten should be burped like a human baby, holding it upright against your shoulder and gently patting its back.
- Clean any spilled formula from the kitten’s fur using a warm, damp washcloth or first-aid gauze pad.
- After each feeding, discard any remaining milk replacer and wash the bottle and nipple.
- Stimulate urination and defecation before and after each feeding by gently massaging the kitten’s genitals with a washcloth or cotton ball moistened with warm water. Some kittens eliminate more easily before a feeding and some do better afterward, so try both times. By 3-5 weeks of age, kittens should be able to eliminate without assistance.
Common Kitten Feeding Problems
Problems that often occur during feeding include:
- Formula coming out of the kitten’s mouth or nose – This is caused by the kitten being fed too quickly, usually because the feeder squeezes the bottle or uses a bottle with an overly large nipple hole.
- Underfeeding – An underfed kitten fails to gain weight, cries excessively, shivers, and is listless.
- Overfeeding – Overfeeding is a common cause of gas, bloating, vomiting, and/or diarrhea in kittens, though runny stools may also indicate other medical problems. Dehydration can quickly become life-threatening in kittens with diarrhea, so a trip to the veterinarian is necessary.
- Choking – This usually indicates that the kitten has inhaled some of the formula. Hold her upside down until the choking ceases.
- Extreme weakness – If the kitten is too weak to feed, it may be ill or require tube feeding, though this should be a last resort. Try stroking its forehead and back, and rubbing a little Karo syrup on its lips. If you can’t get the kitten to nurse, take it to a veterinarian for evaluation and treatment.
Weaning can begin at around 3-4 weeks of age, though it should be a gradual process that occurs over the course of several weeks. For information on how to wean kittens and what to feed them during the weaning process, see What to Feed a Kitten.
How to Stimulate Urination and Defecation in Young Kittens
Kittens lack the muscle control to release stool or urine on their own until they are around 3-4 weeks old, so mother cats stimulate elimination by licking the kittens’ genitals. Those who are raising young orphan kittens must do this using a cotton ball or wash cloth moistened with warm water.
To stimulate elimination, slowly and gently massage the kitten’s genital and anal area with the wash cloth or cotton ball until elimination occurs, or it is obvious that nothing will happen. A good strategy is to count slowly to 60; if nothing has happened by the time you reach 60, try again later. This should be done before and after each feeding.
Common Health Problems in Orphaned Kittens
Orphaned Kitten Not Defecating
Kittens should urinate and defecate regularly, but may initially go for a day or two without defecating – this is nothing to worry about unless the kitten refuses food, cries excessively, has a very swollen stomach, or shows any signs of pain, in which case a veterinarian should be consulted.
Orphaned Kitten with Diarrhea
Kittens’ stools should be soft but not watery, and their urine should be clear or light yellow. Signs of problems include diarrhea (particularly if it is grayish in colour) and dark yellow urine. Runny stools indicate that the kitten either suffers from parasites or has been overfed. Diarrhea can rapidly lead to life-threatening dehydration, and urine that is dark yellow rather than clear indicates that the kitten is dehydrated.
Dehydration in Orphaned Kittens
In the case of dehydration, the administration of subcutaneous fluids may be required. Consult a veterinarian if the kitten has diarrhea or shows other signs of dehydration. A good way to check for dehydration is to gently pinch a fold of skin on the back of the kitten’s neck. If it stays up rather than springing rapidly back into shape, the kitten is dehydrated.
Kitten Producing Green Stool
Other problems to check for include green stool (indicates infection) and hard stool, which indicates that the kitten is not receiving enough formula. Consult a veterinarian in the case of green stool. If the stool is hard, feed more frequently, but don’t provide more food during each feeding, as overfeeding can cause gas, bloating, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Kitten with Swollen Belly
A large, round tummy usually indicates that the kitten has a parasite infestation. Most parasites are easily eliminated with medication. Consult a veterinarian to obtain a kitten-safe product.
How to Keep Orphaned Kittens Warm
Young kittens can quickly become hypothermic without a source of heat. There are several commonly recommended ways to keep orphaned kittens warm, some of which are better than others.
If an abandoned kitten is hypothermic, the most expedient way to warm her up is to hold it against bare skin, under clothing, for 2-3 hours. As a cold kitten must be warmed before it can be fed anything other than a little bit of warm sugar water, Karo syrup, or Pedialyte solution (feeding a chilled kitten can kill it), this is a good temporary warming solution.
Hot Water Bottle
A hot water bottle is a relatively safe heat source that can be used as a temporary solution until the temperature of the room can be raised or an overhead heat fixture purchased. If there is no hot water bottle available, empty shampoo bottles filled with hot water can be used.
Wrap the hot water bottle in a thick towel, making sure that the fabric is at least doubled over the heat source, and place it in a box or plastic tub. Make sure that there is enough space beside the bottle for the kitten to crawl away if it overheats.
Home Heating System
Kittens require a very warm temperature for their first few weeks of life. The Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook recommends 85-90ºF for the first week, 80-85ºF during the second week, and 75ºF by the end of week 4, with the temperature being decreased gradually, a couple of degrees at a time. By the time kittens are 6 weeks old, they should be fine at 70ºF.
If raising premature orphaned kittens, they will require warmer environmental temperatures than full-term kittens. Premature kittens tend to be exceptionally small and wrinkled, with sparse fur. For premature kittens, the Kitten Rescue site recommends keeping the nesting area at around 95ºF for the first couple of weeks, 85ºF throughout weeks 3-4, and 80ºF from 4 weeks onward.
If the proper temperature can be achieved with a regular home heating system, then no additional heating sources are required in the long term. Once the necessary temperature is reached, all that is needed for warmth is a cozy nest.
To make a nest, fill a box or plastic tub (such as a laundry hamper) with clean, soft, absorbent bedding that is free of loose threads. Towels or fleece are ideal. There should be more than one set of bedding so that it can be changed regularly, and the fabric should provide good traction so that kittens can develop their motor skills.
Overhead Heating Fixtures
As it’s not always possible to maintain a room temperature warm enough for kittens, an overhead heat fixture (heat lamp) may be required. Overhead heat fixtures are safe as long as the kittens have the strength and the space to escape the heat source if they get too warm and the temperature in the kittens’ vicinity is monitored closely. Placing the heat fixture in one corner of the nest area leaves room for the kittens to move to a cooler corner if need be.
If using an overhead heat fixture, in addition to using a thermometer to keep track of the temperature, be alert to signs of dehydration in the kittens. Dehydration symptoms include:
- Dry mouth
- Weight loss
A good way to test for dehydration is to gently pinch a fold of skin on the back of the kitten’s neck. If the kitten is dehydrated, the skin will stay up instead of quickly springing back to its original shape. A kitten that has become dehydrated will require veterinary care unless the caretaker has the equipment and know-how to administer subcutaneous (sub-Q) fluids at home.
Another thing to consider with the use of heat lamps is the effect of continuous bright light, as many overhead heating fixtures also emit intense light. The Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook recommends using devices that emit heat only.
With the use of a heating pad, there is a greater risk of kittens overheating or being burned, so this is not the safest option. If using a heating pad, check the temperature regularly and don’t leave the kittens unattended at any time. Also, make sure that there are thick layers of bedding between the kittens and the heat source, and that they have enough room to crawl off the heating pad area if they get too hot. As a general rule, the heating pad should take up only half of the nesting box at most.
Observe the kittens to gauge whether the heating pad is maintaining the right level of warmth. If they keep crawling away from the heated area or sleep far apart from one another, it is too hot. If they sleep all piled on top of one another, the pad isn’t supplying sufficient heat. If kittens are sleeping side by side, the right temperature balance has been achieved.
See the Pregnant Cats and Kittens Page for information on caring for pregnant cats, kitten development week by week, kitten training, kitten care, and more. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- Eldredge, D.M.,DVM, Carlson, D.G., DVM, Carlson,L.D., DVM & Giffin, J.M., MD. (2008). Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, Third Edition. Wiley Publishing, Inc.
- Freeman, S. (n.d. ). Guide to Rescue Cats. RescueGuide.com.
- Kitten Rescue. (2009). Kitten Care Handbook. KittenRescue.org.
- Prince, J., DVM, & Foster, R., DVM. (2015). “How to Raise Orphan Kittens.” Drs. Foster & Smith, Inc., PetEducation.com.
- Richards, M., DVM. (21 February 2004). “Kittens Orphaned Very Young.” VetInfo.com.
- Richardson, J., Dr. (October 2004). “Help for Orphaned Kittens.” The Vet’s Corner, AnimalAllianceNYC.org.
- Siegal, M., Cornell Feline Health Center. (1997). The Cornell Book of Cats: A Comprehensive and Authoritative Medical Reference for Every Cat and Kitten. Toronto, ON: Random House of Canada Ltd.
- Wexler-Mitchell, E. (2004). Guide to a Healthy Cat. Hoboken, NJ: Howell Book House.