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Care of Orphaned

Kittens

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by Arnold Plotnick MS, DVM, ACVIM, ABVP

Introduction

An orphan kitten is a newborn kitten without a mother. A kitten may become an orphan because of death or serious illness of the mother, or the inability of the mother to produce sufficient quality or quantity of milk. Proper care for the orphan is vital to maintaining health and helping the kitten to develop and mature. While raising an orphan, care must be taken to insure proper nutrition, cleanliness, environment, as well as both mental and emotional support. 

Despite all efforts, the typical mortality rate of kittens, including those that are not orphaned, ranges from 10 to 30 percent. Deaths may occur at any time from birth to weaning and may be due to pneumonia, hypothermia (low body temperature), dehydration, infectious disease, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), birth defects, parasites or trauma associated with birth.  The most common signs of illness in the newborn are continuous crying, decreased activity and failure to gain weight.

After birth, all newborns should be examined for birth defects such as cranial (skull) deformities, cleft palate or heart murmurs.

Vital Signs

For the first 2 weeks of life, the normal heart rate of a kitten is above 200 beats per minute and the respiratory rate is 15 to 35 breaths per minute.  Body temperature ranges from 96 to 97 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week of life. By 7 days, the body temperature rises to 100 degrees.  Newborn kittens typically weigh around 100 grams and are expected to gain about 10 grams per day.  At 6 weeks of age, kittens should weigh around 500 grams (a little more than a pound).

Nutrition

Orphan kittens depend on their caretakers to provide appropriate quality and quantity of food, in the form of kitten milk replacer.  Feline milk replacer is composed of water, fats, sugars, minerals and proteins similar to feline milk. Cow’s milk is not an appropriate substitute for kitten milk replacer.

Kitten milk replacer should be warmed to 100 degrees Fahrenheit before feeding.  If mixing powdered milk replacer, mix only 48 hours worth of milk at a time. The amount to give at each feeding will depend on the weight of the kitten and the number of feedings per day.  Follow the label directions on the milk replacer container.

Orphan kittens can be fed by stomach tube or by nursing bottle.  The stomach tube is quicker but may not be the best option for the developing kitten’s mental and emotional health.  Eyedroppers should not be used since it is very difficult to provide sufficient nutrition to the kitten using this method.   Nursing bottles are commonly used but the appropriate size bottle and nipple is necessary. Nipples that are too small can be swallowed and nipples that are too large make it very difficult for the kitten to nurse.  In addition to an appropriate sized nipple, the opening in the nipple must also be appropriate.  A hole too small restricts milk flow and does not allow the kitten to ingest sufficient calories.  A hole too large can result in excessive milk exiting the nipple, which may result in aspiration.  Bottle feeding should only be performed in kittens with a swallowing reflex.  This reflex appears in cats at around ten days of age.

Tube feeding is often performed in kittens under 10 days of age since kittens this young often do not have a well developed gag/swallow reflex.  With experience, tube feeding can be fast and easy.  Typically, a 5 French red rubber catheter is used for kittens weighing less than 300 grams and an 8 French red rubber catheter is used for kittens weighing over 300 grams. The tube should be measured from the tip of the mouth to the last rib and marked.   As the kitten grows, the tube will need to be re-measured and remarked periodically.  Moisten the tube and insert into the esophagus.  The tube should be inserted to the level of the pre-measurement.  A syringe filled with kitten milk replacement is attached and given slowly over 2 minutes.  If resistance occurs, stop feeding and remove the tube. 

After each feeding, the kitten should be burped to remove any swallowed air from the stomach.  Until 3 weeks of age, kittens need to be stimulated to urinate and defecate after each feeding. Use a warm moist cotton ball or tissue and rub it gently on the genital area. Urine and feces should soon be eliminated.

Newborn orphan kittens should be fed 6 to 8 times a day. Gradually reduce the frequency to 3 to 4 times per day by the time the kitten is 2 to 3 weeks of age.

Weaning

By 3 weeks of age, kittens can be offered solid foods. This should be introduced as a thin gruel made of kitten food mixed with kitten formula. Continue to feed the kittens formula with a bottle during the initial stages of weaning. Over the course of the next 2 weeks, gradually thicken the gruel. By the time the kitten is 6 to 8 weeks of age, the food should be near solid consistency.  Always have fresh clean water available.

Illness

Newborns dehydrate quickly and rapidly become hypothermic (low body temperature) and hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) when ill. Hypothermic should be warmed slowly to 97 to 98 degrees over 1 to 3 hours using heating pads, heating lights or warmer bottles.

Environment

The orphan kitten’s environment must be kept as clean as possible.  The kitten should also not be exposed to other animals or multiple people until about 4 to 6 weeks of age to reduce the risk of exposure to infectious diseases. Carefully wash your hands after each handling and clean all equipment after each use.

The kitten’s living area must be kept warm and draft-free. Use heat lamps, light bulbs or a heating pad covered in towels to provide heat. It is crucial not to overheat the orphan kitten. The temperature should be 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the first week of life and about 80 degrees for the next 3 to 4 weeks. Kittens can do well at a room temperature around 70 degrees once they are 6 weeks of age. Place a thermometer near the kittens to monitor the environmental temperature. In addition to maintaining adequate temperature, the humidity must also be monitored. Try to maintain a humidity level of 55 to 65 percent in the immediate vicinity of the orphans.

To keep the environment clean, use newspapers to line the floor and sides of the nest box. These can be changed quickly and easily when soiled. As the kittens mature, the newspapers should be replaced with cloth bedding to allow the kitten the ability to move around without slipping.  Change and wash the bedding on a regular basis.

Handle the kittens only 6 to 8 times per day, which includes feeding times.  Excessive handling will interrupt their sleep patterns and can predispose the kitten to illness.  Do not allow young children to handle the kittens until around 6 to 8 weeks of age.

Recommended Treatments

In the past, it was thought that kittens had to ingest colostrum (antibody-rich milk from the mother cat) within the first 24 hours of life so that they could become protected against infectious disease. Recently, it has been shown that kittens do not require actual colostrum. A kitten only needs to ingest feline milk within the first day of life. This means that a kitten can be placed with a foster mother and still acquire enough antibodies. But kittens that do not receive colostrum or milk from a lactating mother in the first day of life should receive serum as an alternate source of antibodies.  The serum can be obtained from any normal cat and can be injected under the skin at a dose of 1 milliliter per pound.  This generally gives the kittens some protection for about 6 weeks.

At 2 weeks of age, the kitten may be dewormed. This dose should then be repeated in 2 weeks.

Despite receiving serum, orphaned kittens should initially be vaccinated at 4 to 6 weeks of age, as opposed to non-orphaned kittens, who begin their vaccine series at 8 weeks of age.

Monitoring

A log should be maintained for each newborn kitten. This log should include the daily weight, amount of formula ingested, urination and defecation as well as deworming information and vaccination. Each day, kittens spend their time sleeping and eating. Interrupting this sleep cycle or depriving the kitten of sleep can be detrimental to its health. Therefore, make a schedule for the kitten and stick to it.  There should be sufficient intervals between feeding and sleeping to allow the kitten a chance for uninterrupted quiet time.

Kitten should be gently handled 6 to 8 times a day to mimic the stimulation they would have received from their siblings or mother. Prior to each feeding, spend some time handling the kitten.  Twice a week, bathe the kitten with a damp cloth.  After each feeding, the genital area should be stimulated with a warm, damp tissue or cotton ball. This should be done for the first 2 weeks of life.  Periodically, take and record the kitten’s temperature.  Until 3 weeks of age, take and record the kittens weight at least once a day.

Manhattan Cat Specialists carries kitten milk replacer and nursing bottles for people who are faced with the task of raising an orphaned kitten.  Please don’t hesitate to call us with any problems or questions. 

         

Updated 2/9/06