Maybe, you have found a litter of newborn kittens outside. Or maybe, you have signed up to foster abandoned kittens for your local animal shelter. No matter the case, bottle-feeding kittens can be very difficult.
That is why we worked with Stephen Quandt, a fear-free certified cat behavior consultant, to put together this five-step kitten feeding guide. We also discuss weaning orphaned kittens and address common bottle-feeding problems.
STEP 1: GET A KITTEN NURSING BOTTLE OR SYRINGE.
"If the kittens are under 10 days old or their eyes are closed, it is better to use a syringe," Quandt says. If your newborn kitten refuses to suckle, a kitten bottle will not work. Why? "Newborn kittens have to suckle on the tip," he says. "A syringe lets you deliver food directly into your kitten's mouth."
Quandt recommends attaching a Miracle Nipple to the end of a 3-milliliter syringe. It has the right size opening for newborn kittens and prevents them from breathing milk into their lungs. The Miracle Nipple also comes with a pad that allows newborn kittens to knead while they nurse.
If your kitten is more than 2 weeks old, you can buy kitten bottles for nursing online or at any pet supply store. Unlike human baby bottles, the nipples of kitten bottles usually do not have holes. To bottle-feed your kitten, you will have to cut a small hole in the nipple. When you turn it upside down, milk should slowly trickle, not pour, out of it.
HOW TO TELL YOUR KITTEN'S AGE
Not sure how old your kitten is? Check out Munchiecat's detailed kitten age guide below. It includes kitten developmental milestones from birth to 8 weeks.
STEP 2: PREPARE THE KITTEN BOTTLE OR SYRINGE
You are going to need to buy a kitten milk replacement formula like KMR. "Do not buy cat milk," Quandt says. "It is actually a treat supplement for adult cats."
If your kitten is less than 48 hours old, you will also need to buy an important immune system builder called Feline Colostrum. It provides water, digestive enzymes, growth factors, nutrients, and maternal immunoglobulins. These are all critical to the survival of newborn kittens. "Without colostrum, newborn kittens may actually have health problems down the road," he says.
When it comes to milk for kittens, there is nothing in your refrigerator that is safe for them to drink. "Almond, soy, and cows' milk do not have the proper nutritional requirements," Quandt says. "Cows' milk has a lot of lactose, which kittens are typically intolerant to. It also gives them terrible diarrhea. This means they cannot absorb its nutrients.”
After opening the kitten milk replacement formula, keep it refrigerated. Use the manufacturer's instructions to prepare the kitten milk.
"If you are using a powdered kitten milk formula, make sure it is well blended. If there are clumps of formula in the bottle or syringe, the kitten will not get enough food," Quandt says. Use a blender or a smoothie shaker. In a pinch, use warm water and vigorously shake the kitten bottle.
To make sure the kitten milk is not too hot, squirt a few drops on your wrist. The kitten milk should feel warm, but you should not flinch or say, "Wow, that is hot!"
STEP 3: CHECK YOUR KITTEN'S CONDITION
Before you bottle-feed your kitten, check her body condition and temperate. "Kittens cannot thermoregulate, which means they cannot maintain their own body temperature," Quandt says. When newborn kittens are not warm enough, they cannot digest food.
If your kitten's body temperature is not between 99°-101°F (or 37.2°-38.3°C), it is not safe to feed her. Is your kitten under 5 weeks old? Use a kitten incubator, or put newborn or abandoned kittens in a soft bed with a heating pad on low. Then cover both the heating pad and the top of the bed with a towel. To ensure your kitten can swallow, place a drop of milk on her tongue and feel her throat with one finger. If your kitten swallows, you can bottle-feed her.
STEP 4: BOTTLE-FEED YOUR KITTEN
The correct way to feed newborn kittens is with their bellies facing down. Never feed them on their backs like a human baby.
If you are feeding the newborn kitten with a syringe, use your dominant hand. You should use your non-dominant hand to hold the kitten in a natural, belly-down position. "To make sure your kitten is swallowing, put your finger gently around the front of the neck," Quandt says.
If you are using a kitten bottle, softly slide the nipple into your kitten's mouth. Then flip the bottle to make the milk flow. The bottle or syringe should be under your kitten's front teeth (incisors). "In some cases, kittens may prefer to be fed from the side, but feed them slowly to ensure they are swallowing," Quandt says. "This is not a completely natural position. If milk is bubbling out of their nose or coming out of their mouth, that is bad."
KITTEN WEIGHT & FEEDING GUIDE
Use Munchiecat's Kitten Weight & Feeding Chart to learn how often you should feed your kitten and how much your kitten should weigh.
STEP 5: CLEAN YOUR KITTEN
When you bottle-fed kittens, they get milk all over their mouths. It can cause them to have crusty faces or hot spots (acute moist dermatitis). After bottle-feeding your kitten, clean her face with a baby wipe or warm, wet cloth.
You will also need to stimulate your kitten to poop or pee. "You may want to wear latex or nitrile gloves," Quandt says. "Use a warm, wet paper towel or tissue to gently rub your kitten's penis or vagina."
FAQS ABOUT BOTTLE-FEEDING NEWBORN KITTENS
1. ARE BOTTLE-FED KITTENS MORE CLINGY?
Singleton kittens and orphaned kittens can both be clingy. The main socialization window for kittens is between 4 and 8 weeks of age. "If you socialize singleton or orphaned kittens with one person during this critical stage of development, they may be afraid of other people when they grow up," Quandt says.
2. WHEN CAN I START WEANING MY NEWBORN KITTEN?
"In nature, the mom cat wants to wean her newborn kittens as early as she can get away with. In terms of calories, producing milk (or lactating) takes a terrible toll on the mom cat. The kitten wants to gain weight and grow, but the mom cat wants to be done with it," Quandt says. "Having said that, you want to start transitioning your kitten to a slurry at 4 weeks of age. Mix commercial kitten wet food with kitten milk until it looks like a milkshake."
3. WHEN CAN KITTENS EAT DRY CAT FOOD?
Kittens can begin to eat dry cat food at 3-4 weeks, writes Dr. Kathy Gross, Worldwide Director of Research and Development at Hill's Pet Nutrition. But 95% of their daily calories should come from kitten milk replacement formula. When kittens are 5-6 weeks of age, 30% of their diet can be solid food, but the rest should be kitten milk.
"Kittens can start eating dry cat food once they are up for eating wet cat food that is no longer diluted with water," Quandt adds. "They are usually between 4-6 weeks of age."
4. DO I NEED TO GIVE MY NEWBORN KITTEN WATER?
"Newborn kittens get all the water they need in their kitten milk," Quandt says. Between the fourth and sixth week, gradually transition weaning kittens to wet cat food mixed with water. You can let them lap from a shallow cat bowl.
If you do not watch the weaning kittens, they may lap up the slurry too fast. Do not push their face into the slurry. It can cause them to breathe in the mixture and develop aspiration pneumonia. "Once your kitten eats dry cat food or wet food without water, offer a separate water bowl," he says.
5. DO I NEED TO WEIGH MY BOTTLE-FED KITTEN?
Use a postal or kitchen scale to weigh newborn kittens after every meal or at least once a day. A healthy kitten should gain 10 to 15 grams per day. If your kitten loses weight, she may have worms, food allergies, or exploding red blood cells (neonatal isoerythrolysis).
6. HOW MUCH SHOULD A NEWBORN KITTEN WEIGH?
Birth weight varies by cat breed and sex. For example, newborn male kittens usually weigh more than females. In general, newborn kittens should weigh between 80-140 grams. While they might lose up to 10% of their body weight in the first 24 hours of life, they should gain 10-15 grams each day. Newborn kittens should also triple their birth weight by 3 weeks of age.
7. WHAT IS CROSS-SUCKLING IN KITTENS?
Cross-sucking is when newborn kittens suck on the bodies of their siblings. Orphaned male kittens that are weaned too early are most likely to engage in cross-suckling. It may cause injuries in kittens, sometimes severe enough to need euthanasia. Cross-suckling may mean your kitten is distressed or in poor health.
FREE PUBLIC WEBINARS FOR MUNCHIECAT READERS
Is my newborn kitten a boy or a girl? How do I know if my baby cat is happy? What is the hardest kitten age?
Stephen Quandt is a fear-free cat behaviorist and consultant with the Animal Cares Centers of NYC. It is one of the largest no-kill animal shelters in the United States. Quandt (@CatBehaviorHelp) provides compassionate, expert, and non-judgemental advice to people with cat behavior problems.
He has 2 FREE webinars named Why Cats Do What They and Decoding the Mysteries of Cats. They are open to the public, shelters, rescues, veterinary practices, companies, and international cat organizations. Register below.
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