How to Hand Rear a Kitten – A Basic Guide
There is nothing more heavenly than a kitten. With their huge eyes; whisper-soft fur; and tremulous mews, they were born ready to steal our hearts. But that’s pretty much all they were born ready for! Blind, tiny, and unable to regulate their own temperature, they are as vulnerable as they are adorable. Ideally, kittens should stay with their mothers until they are fully weaned and only move to a new home at about 12 weeks of age. This allows their immunity time to mature, and also gives them a chance to learn appropriate social behaviours from their mothers.
The first few weeks with their mothers are especially crucial, but sometimes intervention is needed, such as if kittens are rejected or if the mother is not present to care for them. In these cases, a surrogate mother (with kittens of the same age) will commonly accept the orphan into her litter, and when possible, this is the best option. If there is not a suitable surrogate available, then the kitten needs to be fostered by someone who has the time, skill, knowledge and dedication required to give them their best chance of survival.
Young kittens are extremely fragile and have very specific needs. Their eyes only open one to two weeks after birth (earlier for Siamese and Oriental breeds), which makes them even more vulnerable and dependent. Hand rearing can be very rewarding, but is also challenging, time-consuming and can be emotionally taxing if kittens fail to thrive.
Raising a Kitten – The Keys to Success
The main threats to the survival of very young kittens are hypothermia, dehydration and starvation (or low blood sugar which results from not getting enough food). Controlling environmental factors and following a strict feeding routine are vital.
A kitten is only able to regulate its own temperature from about four weeks of age. As an orphan cannot rely on the body warmth of its mother, controlling ambient temperature is crucial. A hot water bottle or alternative heat source wrapped in a blanket should be provided, but with enough space around it for the kitten to move away if it becomes too hot.
Ideally, the temperature inside the kitten box should be approximately 30°C for the first week, then gradually reduced to about 27°C until about four weeks old(1). These temperatures can be reduced slightly if there are more kittens as they conserve heat by huddling together. Kittens must have enough room to be able to move away from the heat source.
Humidity is also important as kittens can become dehydrated in a dry environment.
Frequency of Feeds
Newborn kittens need to be fed every two to two and a half hours (equating to ten feeds within a 24-hour period). From two weeks old, the interval can gradually increase to every three to four hours; and from four weeks to every five hours.
The feeding schedule is very demanding, time consuming, and requires dedication and flexibility from the carer. Kittens tend to move around when they are hungry in search of food so this can be a useful cue. They do not have much reserve energy and can decline quickly, so daily weighing is helpful to make sure that they are consistently gaining weight. Newborn kittens generally weigh in the region of 100 grams, and this should increase by 5-10% every day for the first two weeks of life(2).
What to Feed
Kittens need feline-specific replacement milk, available at vet practices or pet shops. The milk replacer will have instructions on how to prepare it and how much to feed. Cow’s or goat’s milk are not suitable as they have the wrong proportion of protein and fat. They are not appropriate nutrition sources and may cause diarrhoea.
The kitten milk must be warmed to approximately body temperature (35 – 37,8°C).
How to Feed
There are different methods of feeding orphan kittens. If possible, it’s a good idea to have a vet check your method and your technique of feeding.
The most common method is bottle feeding, with bottles and teats designed specifically for kittens of different ages. The size of the hole in the teat is critical. If too small, the kitten will battle to drink; and if too large, the milk could run out too fast and be aspirated instead of swallowed. This means the milk goes into the lungs instead of the stomach, which is very dangerous and can drown the kitten.
Dropper feeding and spoon feeding are also commonly used, whereby the milk is poured into the kitten’s mouth in small amounts. Great care must be taken as without suckling, there is less active engagement and swallowing from the kitten, so aspiration can happen quite easily. The kitten’s head must not be elevated as this makes it easier for the milk to run down into the lungs.
Syringe feeding can also be used, but again great care must be taken to give the kitten time to breathe and swallow. Syringes sometimes stick, and when forced can suddenly expel a large volume of milk, which is very dangerous. The milk should ideally be dispensed only a drop at a time.
Tube feeding is the last method, where a tube is passed through the mouth to the stomach. This is useful for when kittens have a weak suckling reflex. It requires skill and special equipment so is usually performed by a veterinarian or veterinary nurse.
Solid kitten food can begin to be gradually introduced from about four weeks of age. KatKin can be fed from eight weeks of age.
Bowel and Bladder Movements
Until three to four weeks of age kittens are unable to pass urine and stool independently, and so it is necessary to stimulate the ano-genital area to help them void their bladder and bowels. The mother cat would lick this area to stimulate the voiding reflex, and in her absence, a wet wipe or soft tissue can be used by the carer. Stimulation should be performed before and after feeding(1), and if the kitten is crying in distress.
Constipation and Diarrhoea
Stool should have the same consistency as toothpaste; and should be passed at least every 24 hours. If the kitten is straining to pass stool, or if the faeces become hard, a laxative from your veterinarian may be needed. Alternatively, diarrhoea puts kittens at risk of dehydration, hypoglycaemia and hypothermia, so veterinary attention should be sought without delay.
The Litter Tray
A shallow litter tray can be introduced from about three weeks of age. At this stage, place the kitten onto the litter while stimulating the voiding reflex so that the association can be made.
Hand rearing may affect the personality and behaviour of the kitten, especially if it does not grow up in the presence of any other cats. Hand reared cats may fail to learn normal behaviours such as covering up faeces and urine in the litter tray, or normal self-grooming. They are also prone to being nervous or even aggressive. If possible, try to socialise your kitten with other (vaccinated) cats from about four weeks.
Vaccination and Deworming
Most kittens are vaccinated at eight weeks of age. However, if orphan kittens did not receive colostrum (the first milk produced by the mother) then they will not have received the protection of her immunity. For this reason, orphan kittens are sometimes vaccinated earlier, at two to three weeks old.
Appropriate dewormers can be started from three weeks of age. It is advisable to follow the recommendations of your vet for the vaccination and deworming schedule.
Good hygiene standards are critical as orphan kittens tend to have poor immunity and be at increased risk of infections.
Kittens need to be observed closely and taken to the vet if they begin to show signs of constipation, diarrhoea, inappetence, weakness, or muscle twitching (except when sleeping). Crying excessively or failing to suck are also signs that something is wrong, and that medical attention is needed.
It’s a good idea to have a vet examine the orphan kitten when you take it on, and to have their continued input and advice throughout.
Hand raising a kitten is a huge commitment and challenge, but it is also a great achievement! If you have a story about your own experience of hand raising a kitten, join our private Facebook group to share your story – we’d love to hear it!
International Cat Care. (2018). Hand-rearing kittens. Retrieved August 20, 2021, from: https://icatcare.org/advice/hand-rearing-kittens/
Pet Health Hub. (2021). Hand rearing kittens. PDSA Saving Pets Changing Lives. Retrieved August 23, 2021, from: https://www.pdsa.org.uk/taking-care-of-your-pet/pet-health-hub/other-veterinary-advice/hand-rearing-kittens