Raising Orphaned KittensCompared to most mammals, kittens are very premature when they are born. They have a large body surface to weight ratio and that makes them prone to chilling, dehydration and hypoglycemia as they have little reserves to go on if they miss a meal.
Feeding Orphaned KittensOrphans are labor intensive to raise, but it can be done effectively. Feeding during the first week can be daunting as kittens are tiny and eat often. When they are hungry, you need to feed them. Moms feed hourly during the first 48 hours. That may not be possible for us to do, but we do feed as often as needed during the first week. Kittens get restless and cry when they are hungry.
Overfeeding is more of an issue than underfeeding. Underfeed and you just have them hungry sooner but overfeed and Clostridium and other bacterial issues can complicate. Feeding a good feline milk replacer like Breeders' Edge® Foster Care will keep more calories in your kittens and reduce diarrhea and sore fannies.
Colostrum for KittensKittens are more dependent on colostrum antibodies for protection during the first eight weeks than other babies. There is not a colostrum substitute available from a queen's colostrum; however, we do have Breeders' Edge® Nurture Mate. Nurture Mate is a colostrum substitute made from cow colostrum that has many of the common proteins identified for kittens or puppies. These colostrum proteins are protective and bind viruses and bacteria until they can be dealt with.
More importantly and often forgotten is that colostrum tells the gut to digest milk the first week. The kitten's gut did not have to do that in the uterus. Giving orphans colostrum with their milk replacer once a day during the first week will turn on the gut to digest food. Colostrum substitutes can be added to a milk replacer or the gel can be wiped in the roof of the kitten's mouth once a day.
The runt or tiny kitten also gets a major benefit from colostrum. This kitten is often ovulated late but born the same day as his littermates and is actually a premature baby. When used daily during the first two weeks of life, colostrum substitutes make a difference in the tiny kitten's survival. You have to say "digest milk" every day to the runt or orphaned kittens to effectively get to two weeks of age where they can catch up with their littermates. Kittens double their size weekly in the first two weeks and after that most do well without colostrum's help.
Probiotics for KittensProbiotics are important to all orphans and they need them daily. Kittens are born sterile and there is no bacteria in the uterus. Mom normally licks kittens and gives them good bacteria to help them digest food. By day three, mom seeds the kitten's gut with the bacteria needed for life. Orphans need a once-a-day probiotic such as Doc Roy's® GI Synbiotics that bypasses the stomach to seed down the intestine with digestive bacteria. This bacteria also "takes up space," not allowing bad bacteria to populate the gut. It also helps prevent diarrhea issues. The first week we find it helpful to add a probiotic twice a day and once a day after that through the nursing period. A small amount is all that is needed to "seed the lawn" with good bacteria that will populate the intestine.
Kitten HygieneKittens only urinate and defecate when stimulated during the first three weeks of life. This is a protective mechanism to help keep predators at bay, and the nest clean and disease free. For tiny orphaned kittens, use a cotton ball to stimulate the genital area to encourage urination and defecation. Twice a week, use a warm, damp washcloth and give kitten a "towel bath." They love it and it keeps the kitten clean and comfortable, while avoiding skin issues.
If you have an abandoned or orphaned litter of kittens, be sure to educate yourself on how to properly care for them. It is labor intensive. If you aren't comfortable, there are several rescues that specialize in bottle feeding and managing orphans. If you have any questions about raising orphaned kittens, give us a call at 800.786.4751.
Don Bramlage, DVM, Former Director of Veterinary Services at Revival Animal Health
The materials, information and answers provided through this website are not intended to replace the medical advice or services of your personal veterinarian or other pet health care professional. Consult your own veterinarian for answers to specific medical questions, including diagnosis, treatment, therapy or medical attention.