Bottle Babies

Rarely, unweaned kittens are brought to C.A.R.E. without their mother. As a foster parent you will have the double responsibility of bottle-feeding and socialization.

Feeding & Care

First things first: Warmth

Kittens under 4 weeks of age cannot thermoregu­late, and therefore rely completely on an external heat source to keep their body at an appropriate temperature. Typically, kittens will rely on their mothers for bodily warmth, but when orphaned, they must have a heat source at all times to keep them warm.

If you are fostering a litter of kittens 0-4 weeks of age, you will find a warming disc called a Snuggle Safe within your supplies. This disc can be heated up in a microwave (directions/microwave times on back of disc) and be used as a heat source for the kittens. Snuggle Safe discs usually remain warm for 6-8 hours, but make sure to check it every couple of hours just in case! It’s imperative that the kittens remain warm at all times.

Alternatively, we may supply you with a kitten/cat safe electric heating pad. It’s very important that you only use a fabric covered, pet safe pad, as normal plastic heat pads can lead to serious burns and possibly even death of a neonate kitten. Kitten/cat safe heat pads also remain on all the time, unlike normal heating pads that turn off after a period of time.

Never let a kitten lie on a heat source without cover. Make sure that they have space to crawl off the heat source if they get too warm. Constantly check the warmth of the heat source to make sure it cannot burn the kitten, and that it is staying warm enough. 

Kittens cannot maintain their own body temperature. The average rectal temperature of a newborn kitten ranges between 92-97 degrees. Between 2-21 days old, a kitten’s temperature will be about 96 – 100 degrees. You will need to build the kitten a nest to keep it warm. The temperature in the nest where the kitten is kept should be 86 degrees. The temperature can be lowered 5 degrees a week thereafter until a mild 75 degrees is reached. To create a good nest, place them in a carrier and put a towel or blanket over the carrier to trap in the heat. You can also do this with a cardboard box.

When to bottle feed a kitten

If we receive a kitten that is too young to eat on their own, has been abandoned, refuses to eat, or if the mother cat is no longer nursing her kittens, or her milk has dried up, we then need to bottle feed the kitten.  A mother cat’s milk can dry up when mother cats are sick, on medications, or too stressed. Supplemental bottle feeding can also be helpful when a kitten loses weight or fails to gain weight for a 7 day period, even if it is still nursing on mom. In this case, you will only be “topping off” the kitten after it nurses.

How to bottle feed a kitten

Warmth first! Heat kittens slowly so that you do not put them into shock. You can do this with a towel that has been heated in the dryer, place them on a towel that is resting on a Snuggle Safe disc, or tuck a kitten under your shirt and use your own body heat. While heating the kitten, gently massage the body and extremities to get blood flowing throughout the body.

It is important not to overfeed or underfeed your kitten. Overfeeding can cause serious health problems that begin with diarrhea, and end with dehydration. One way to tell whether you’re consistently feeding too much is the appearance of grayish stool. On the other hand, a kitten who is not fed enough will cry continuously, appear restless, and then listless. Refer to the table below for how much and how often to feed your kitten.

Check your bottle’s nipple to see if formula drips from its tip. If it does not, you will need to widen the hole. You can do this by using a hot needle to poke a larger hole, or use a razor blade to make a small “x” in the top. Do not make it too wide though. You only want the formula to drip slowly, not pour, out of the nipple.

Be sure you sterilize the bottle and nipple before each feeding, and warm the formula to no more than 100 degrees.  Test the formula on your wrist – it should feel warm, not hot.

Start feeding

Place your kitten on its stomach on a towel so they can grip the towel with their nails. Lift their head to a 45 degree angle. Squeeze a small drop of formula on to the tip of the nipple. Insert the nipple into their mouth (you may have to open their mouth for them). The angle will help keep air from entering their stomach and will keep milk at the front of the nipple. Do not hold the kitten on their back or in the air when you feed them. 

When your kitten is full, their tummy will be slightly rounded and bubbles will form around their mouth. If the kitten has not finished the bottle, do not force the kitten to swallow the rest of the milk.

After each feeding, wipe the kittens face and body clean of any milk that spilled with a warm washcloth. 

If the kitten is not drinking well, you can use a toothbrush to brush down their sides. This mimics a mother’s tongue and will often soothe them. They should nurse from the bottle better using this technique.

Kittens that aren’t latching

Burping your kitten

Just like human babies, kittens need to be burped. Hold the kitten up against your shoulder, pat and rub them gently on their back. Not all kittens will burp every time. If the kitten did not finish her bottle, you can offer it to them again.

Stimulating your kitten

Kittens younger than 3 weeks of age cannot urinate or defecate by themselves – they need your help. After feeding and burping the kitten, take a soft washcloth or gauze moistened with warm water and rub over the kitten’s stomach and bottom. The action mimics a mother cat’s licking and stimulates the kitten to relieve themselves. Kittens need to be stimulated to eliminate after every meal. Rub until you see evidence of urine and/or stool. A kitten should urinate with every feeding, but it may only defecate 2-3 times daily.

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