Cats – Orphaned Kittens
Raising an orphaned kitten is a noble and rewarding experience. The bonding that will occur in the first few days will likely last for many years. However, orphaned kittens are very fragile; raising them requires jumping numerous hurdles.
What problems am I likely to encounter?
Several critical problems must be addressed in caring for orphaned kittens. Among these are chilling, dehydration, and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). These problems are interrelated and may often exist at the same time. Close observation and prompt attention if any of these problems develop are essential to survival. Of course, proper feeding of the orphaned kitten is extremely important.
Chilling in newborn kittens can lead to mortality. A kitten will dissipate far more body heat per pound of body weight than an adult cat. The normal newborn kitten depends upon radiant heat from the mother to help maintain body temperature. In the absence of the mother, various methods of providing heat, such as incubators, heating pads set on low and covered with a towel, heat lamps, or hot water bottles can be used. Caution must be used to prevent overheating. The box used must be large enough so that the kitten can move away from the heat if she becomes uncomfortable.
Rectal temperatures in a normal newborn kitten range from 95o to 99o F (35o to 37.2o C) for the first week, 97o to 100o F (36.1o to 37.7o C) for the second and third weeks, and reach the normal temperature of an adult (100o to 102o F; 37.7o to 38.9o C) by the fourth week.
When the rectal temperature drops below 94o F (34.4o C), the accompanying metabolic alterations are life-threatening. Therefore, immediate action is necessary to provide the warmth the kitten needs to survive. A healthy newborn can usually survive chilling if warmed slowly.
During the first four days of life, the orphaned kitten should be maintained in an environmental temperature of 85o to 90o F (29.4o to 32.2o C). The temperature may gradually be decreased to 80o F (26.7o C) by the seventh to tenth day and to 72o F (22.2o C) by the end of the fourth week. If the litter is large, the temperature need not be as high. As kittens huddle together, their body heat provides additional warmth.
CAUTION: Too rapid warming of a chilled kitten may result in death.
The lack of regular liquid intake or the exposure of the kitten to a low humidity environment can easily result in dehydration. The inefficiency of the digestion and metabolism of a chilled kitten may also lead to dehydration and other changes such as those discussed here.
Experienced guardians can detect dehydration by the sense of touch. Two signs of dehydration are the loss of elasticity in the skin and dry and sticky mucous membranes (gums) in the mouth.
An environmental relative humidity of 55 to 65 percent is adequate to prevent drying of the skin in a normal newborn kitten. However, a relative humidity of 85 to 90 percent is more effective in maintaining kittens if they are small and weak.
CAUTION: The environmental temperature should not exceed 90o F (32.2o C) when high humidity is provided. A temperature of 95o F (35o C) coupled with relative humidity of 95 percent can lead to respiratory distress.
Signs of hypoglycemia (low blood-sugar levels — abnormal decrease of sugar in the blood) are severe depression, muscle twitching, and sometimes convulsions. If a kitten shows signs of hypoglycemia, a solution containing glucose will have to be administered. A few drops of corn syrup on the tongue can be life-saving.
What do I feed my orphaned kitten?
Total nutrition for the newborn orphans must be supplied by a milk replacer until the kittens are about three weeks of age. At this age, the kittens are ready to start nibbling moistened solid food.
The preferred diet is a commercial kitten milk replacer sold in pet stores, but for short-term emergencies you can use: l cup of milk + l tablespoon corn oil + l pinch of salt + 3 egg yolks (no whites). Blend mixture uniformly
Is the temperature of the food important?
Since the newborn may have trouble generating enough heat to maintain her body temperature, the milk replacer should be warmed to 95o to 100o F (35o to 37.8o C) for the best results. Testing the milk replacer's temperature on one's forearm (as for babies) is generally accurate enough. The milk replacer should be about the same temperature as one's skin or slightly warmer. As the kittens grow older, the milk replacer can be fed at room temperature.
How do I feed my kitten?
Spoon feeding is slow and requires great patience. Each spoonful must be slowly "poured" into the kitten's mouth to prevent liquids from entering the lungs. The kitten's head must not be elevated, or the lungs may fill with fluids. Newborn kittens usually do not have a well-developed gag reflex to signal this.
Dropper feeding accomplishes the same result as spoon feeding but is generally cleaner and speedier.
Baby bottles made for kittens can be used quite successfully in most situations. The size of the hole in the nipple is critical for success. If the bottle is turned upside down and milk replacer drips from the nipple, the hole is too large. Use of this nipple may cause drowning of the kitten. If the bottle is turned upside down and milk replacer comes out only after considerable squeezing of the bottle, the hole is too small. Use of this nipple will result in the kitten becoming discouraged and refusing to nurse. The hole is the proper size if the bottle is turned upside down and milk replacer drips from the nipple with minimal squeezing of the bottle. If you are having trouble enlarging the hole, heat a needle with a match and push it through the nipple several times.
Tube feeding is the easiest, cleanest and most efficient method of hand feeding. However, it requires proper equipment and technique to prevent putting milk replacer into the kitten's lungs. If bottle feeding is not successful, your veterinarian will supply the equipment and demonstrate the proper technique. This is not a difficult procedure, so do not hesitate to ask about it, if it is needed.
When and how much do I feed?
Commercial milk replacers have directions on their labels for proper amounts to feed. It is necessary for the kitten's weight to be obtained properly in ounces or grams. The amounts on the labels are based on the kitten getting only the milk replacer. The amounts given are also for a 24 hour period. That quantity should be divided by the number of feedings per 24 hours. Four meals, equally spaced during a 24 hour period, are ample for feeding a kitten when adequate nutrients are provided. Six or more feedings may be necessary if the kitten is small or weak. Hand feeding can generally be ended by the third week and certainly by the fourth. By this time the kitten can consume food, free-choice, from a dish (see below).
How do I get the kitten to urinate and defecate?
The kitten's genital area must be stimulated after feeding to cause urination and defecation. The genital area should be massaged with a moist cloth or cotton ball to stimulate action. This cleaning should continue during the first two weeks. If this procedure is not followed, the kitten may become constipated.
When does the kitten start to eat from a bowl?
By three weeks, the kitten can start to eat food from the dish along with the milk replacer. A gruel can be made by thoroughly mixing a kitten food (canned or dry) with the milk replacer to reach the consistency of a thick milk shake. The mixture should not be too thick at first or the kitten will not consume very much. As the consumption of food increases, the amount of milk replacer can be gradually decreased. By four to four and one-half weeks, the orphaned kitten can consume enough moistened solid food to meet his needs. It is better to avoid starting a kitten on a baby food regimen. This creates extra work and can also create a finicky eater. Many such foods will not meet the nutritional needs of a growing kitten.
When is the first vaccination given?
The first vaccination is normally given to kittens at 6-8 weeks of age. However, if your kitten did not nurse from the mother during the first 2–3 days after birth, there will be no protective immunity passed to him. If that is the case, the first vaccination should be given at about 2–3 weeks of age.