Taking care of newborn kittens can feel like a daunting task. They seem so fragile and vulnerable. Not to mention, these early days and weeks are a critical time in determining their survival.
Also, if all goes well, cats can have upwards of 8-10 kittens! That’s a lot of little hungry bodies to take care of.
In this article, we will discuss how to take care of newborn kittens, with a focus on how to properly feed them.
The best situation would entail their mom being around to provide them with nourishment and nurturing, but there are certain circumstances where you may need to be the direct caregiver to one or all of the kittens.
Keep Them with Their Mom
It is almost always best for kittens to stay with their mom as long as possible. They typically will nurse from their mom for 6-8 weeks, until they are weaned.
Their mom will provide them with warmth, protection, food, and will even bathe them regularly. It will definitely be easier for you if their mom is healthy enough and the kittens are healthy enough to stay with their mom for at least 6-8 weeks as they grow and develop.
When to Bottle Feed Kittens 🍼
That being said, there are certain situations where you will need to take over and be the primary caregiver to the newborn kittens. This will be needed if the mom doesn’t survive giving birth, if the mom gets sick or develops mastitis (inflammation of the mammary glands), or if the mom refuses to allow the kittens to nurse.
Occasionally, even if the mom is nursing the kittens, there may be a runt of the litter that just can’t quite get in on the feedings to get enough milk. You may have to bottle feed this one kitten to ensure their survival.
Bedding for Kittens
Newborn kittens are blind for the first 7-10 days of life. If their mom is not available to care for them, you will need to keep them in a small, enclosed area with warm, soft bedding.
A cardboard box or a cat carrier is a perfectly good option for this. Make sure the sides of the cardboard box are tall enough so the kitten cannot accidentally crawl out and get lost.
Warmth is especially important because newborn kittens cannot sufficiently keep their body temperature maintained on their own. Additionally, kittens cannot digest their food if they get cold, as their intestinal motility slows down.
Snuggling up next to their mom or their siblings is best. However, if that is not an option, keep them warm in the small enclosed space you have provided for the majority of the time during their first 2 weeks of life when they are not eating.
You may also need to provide them with a heating pad to provide extra warmth. Just make sure you always keep a protective layer, such as a towel or blanket, in between the surface of the heating pad and the kitten to prevent burns.
How to Bottle Feed Kittens
If you find yourself in a situation where you need to bottle feed one or multiple kittens, be prepared to dedicate a lot of time to this. Rest assured, the hardest part is the first 2 weeks, and then things will start to get easier as the kittens grow and begin to become more self-sufficient.
How Often Kittens Need to be Fed
Kittens less than 2 weeks of age will need about 9-12 feedings per day. This means you will need to feed them about every 2-3 hours.
Once they surpass 2 weeks of age, you can decrease the feedings to every 4-6 hours.
What to Use to Feed Kittens
Things you will need to get from a pet supply store:
- Bottles (for kittens)
- Nipples (small ones for kittens)
- Commercial kitten formula (a common one is called “KMR”)
- Kitchen scale
Important: Do not use cow milk or grocery store milk to feed the kittens. It is very important you only use kitten milk replacer.
How to Prepare for Feedings
Depending on the nipple, you may need to cut a small hole in the tip of it. Start small and test it out—the formula should slowly drip out when the bottle is turned upside down.
Follow the directions as described specifically on the formula package to mix it up properly. Once mixed, pour the formula mixture in a bottle. You can warm the formula by placing the bottle in a bowl of hot water. Make sure it is not too hot prior to feeding by testing it on your arm first.
Important: Do not put the formula mixture in the microwave—this could make it unevenly hot and burn the kitten’s mouth.
Feeding the Kittens
Now you should be ready to feed the kittens! Using a towel, gently wrap the kitten in the towel, keeping their head exposed. Keeping a towel around them will keep them warm while they eat, which as discussed earlier, is very important to help them with digestion.
Keep the kitten sitting upright or lying down horizontal on its belly during the feeding—just like how it would be nursing from its mom.
Do not hold the kitten’s head up or hold them on their back—this can cause them to aspirate the milk and develop pneumonia.
Hold the bottle sideways at a 45-degree angle and slowly place the nipple in the kitten’s mouth. The kitten should begin to suckle.
Allow the kitten to feed until it pulls away, indicating it is full. If you feel the kitten should have eaten more you can offer the nipple again. However, do not force the kitten to eat if it is resisting, as this could also cause them to inhale some of the milk and lead to pneumonia.
How Much Formula Should They Eat?
A general rule to go by when determining how much formula a kitten should be eating is:
8mLs of formula per ounce of body weight per day
(broken up into multiple feedings)
For instance, if your kitten weighs 3 ounces, they should eat 24 mLs (8x3) of formula that day. Since these 24 mLs will be divided into feedings every 2 hours, at each feeding they should eat about 2 mLs (24/12).
Weighing the kittens on a daily basis can help you monitor their growth, as well as determine how much formula they should be eating each day. As they grow each day, they should be eating a little more formula than the previous day.
Kittens will generally gain about a half an ounce in weight each day for the first week. They certainly should not be losing weight. If you are at all concerned about a kitten not eating enough and not gaining weight, take them to your veterinarian for further feeding recommendations.
What to do After Feeding
After each feeding, try to stimulate the kitten to urinate and defecate. You can do this by soaking a washcloth in warm water and using the washcloth to gently wipe the area under the kitten’s tail—around their anus and genitals. This is what their mother naturally does by licking them with her tongue.
By doing this after every feeding (or even before each feeding), you can help get their bowel movements on a regular schedule and keep things moving internally. Digestion and intestinal motility are paramount for the health of newborn kittens.
Keep the kittens clean and dry as well. After eating and passing stool or urine, clean the kitten’s face, underside, and rear with a warm damp washcloth. You can also gently clean out any gunk in or around their eyes.
Then, once they have eaten and you have tried to stimulate bowel movements and urination, let the kitten sleep in its cozy environment and rest.
Make sure to clean the bottles and nipples after every feeding. It is best if you can sterilize them as well to prevent the growth of bacteria. Do this by boiling water and placing the bottles and nipples into the boiling water for about 3-5 minutes.
What to Watch Out For
If for whatever reason the kitten is not suckling properly, or when it tries to suckle it sneezes or coughs, do not force it to eat. Take it to be evaluated by your veterinarian right away. Some kittens can have deformities such as cleft palates that can inhibit their ability to drink milk efficiently and safely.
Transitioning from the Bottle (Weaning)
By the time the kittens are 4 weeks of age, you can start offering them the formula on a spoon or small bowl. They should begin lapping up the formula with their tongue.
Once they are able to lap up the formula on their own, you can begin adding in canned/wet kitten food to the formula and mixing the two together.
Over the next few days to a week, gradually increase the amount of canned food and decrease the amount of formula you are giving them. You can still offer them formula from the bottle as needed throughout this transition to make sure they are getting enough nourishment.
Once the kittens begin eating more canned food and less formula, start providing them a water bowl to drink from as well. At about 5 weeks of age, you can also start adding in dry kitten food to their mix.
If the food is too hard for them to crunch, you can moisten the kibble with the formula mixture—this will also help to entice them to eat the kibble.
What to Monitor For
While you are transitioning the kittens to canned food and then to dry food, monitor their bowel movements daily. If they begin having loose stools or diarrhea, gently back down on how much canned or dry food they are allowed to eat and give them more formula.
As their stools begin to normalize, you can start back with adding in more of the newer food again and backing back down on the formula. Again, a gradual transition is key.
When to go to the Vet
If this is the first time you will be taking care of newborn kittens, it would be best if you could go ahead and schedule an appointment with your vet so they can go over all of this, in addition to any other concerns you may have.
They can examine the kittens and make sure they look healthy and do not have any physical deformities, such as a cleft palate, that may cause problems with feeding.
Other times you should seek out veterinary care for your kittens are if you notice any of the following:
- No interest in eating
- Sneezing with green discharge from the nose
- Green, mucousy discharge from the eyes; eyes matted shut
- Diarrhea that doesn’t resolve on its own within 12-24 hours
- Unable to get warm
- Issues with fleas*
*If you notice fleas on the mother cat or any of the kittens, you need to do everything you can to wash away the fleas as soon as possible.
You should call your vet to get a safe flea prevention treatment you can put on the kittens, if needed, as well. This is extremely important as even just a few fleas can cause severe and life-threatening anemia in newborn kittens.
Why would I need to bottle feed a kitten?
If the kitten’s mom is not able or willing to take care of them. If one or all of the kittens are not able or allowed to nurse from their mom, you will need to bottle feed them.
How long do kittens need to be bottle-fed?
Kittens can be weaned off of bottle feedings when they are close to 4 weeks of age. At this age, they can start to lap up formula from a bowl, and even be introduced to moist kitten food.
How often do newborn kittens need to eat?
Newborn kittens typically need to be fed every 2-3 hours until they are about 2 weeks of age. Then, they can be fed every 4-6 hours.
Do I need to try to stimulate kittens to poop?
Yes. This is exactly what their mother does by licking under their tail with your tongue. If the kitten’s mom is not available, you need to use a warm washcloth to gently wipe under their tail before or after each feeding to stimulate urination and defecation.
Taking care of newborn kittens can be overwhelming for sure. If you have any concerns at all, meet with your veterinarian to get the answers you need.
Many kittens do perfectly fine and thrive despite any obstacles they meet along the way. However, there will be some kittens that no matter what you do, they just were not meant to make it.
Keeping an open line of communication with your veterinarian and their support staff will help you work through this challenging, yet rewarding time.
Article by Dr. Leslie Brooks 👩⚕️