Born unable to hear or see, newborn kittens are entirely dependent on their mother’s milk for nourishment. Around four weeks of age, they will gradually begin to eat solid food, and they are fully weaned around eight weeks of age. The mother is also busy round the clock protecting her kittens and keeping them warm and clean, teaching them basic socialisation skills and helping them to urinate and defecate in the first three weeks. Should you come across a kitten she seems to have left behind, or if your cat is unable to care for her litter, you may need to look after the kittens yourself. In this case you will have to take over very quickly, especially if your kitten’s eyes are still closed, which means that the kittens are less than two weeks old. Taking over the mother cat’s role is a full-time job and requires a great deal of care and patience, especially in the first four weeks, but it can be very rewarding. Follow Perfect Fit’s practical guidelines on how to care for unweaned kittens to help your little felines grow into happy, healthy cats.
WHAT TO DO FIRST: MAKING YOUR KITTENS WARM AND COMFORTABLE
If the mother is not there to do it, it is important that you keep newborn kittens warm, as they are not yet able to regulate their own body temperatures and can easily go into hypothermia. To ensure your kittens are warm enough, keep them in a quiet room, out of the way of any drafts. Keep the room temperature at around 25°C. You can make them a cosy bed from a cardboard box lined with blankets or purchase a ready-made kitten bed. You can use an infrared light or hot water bottle securely wrapped in fabric to heat their bed. But make sure it is not in direct contact with kittens.
Reminder: if your kittens’ eyes are still closed or partially opened, this stage is even more vital. Once warmed up, take them immediately to the vet.
SECOND, DETERMINING THE AGE OF THE KITTENS
Once your kittens are inside in a warm, dry place, try to determine how old they are. Depending on their age, kittens have different needs. There are a few things to look for which may help you:
- Kittens’ eyes are closed the first week. They begin to open them from about a week to ten days, and somewhere between two to three weeks, their eyes should be completely open.
- A kitten’s first teeth (also called “milk teeth”) begin to erupt at around 3 weeks, with the first canine’s appearing at 3-4 weeks. All 26 primary teeth have usually appeared by 6-7 weeks old.
However, if you are not sure about how old your kittens are, ask your vet. In any case, it is very important that you take them as soon as possible to the vet who can assess their overall health and recommend treatment if needed.
THIRD, LET’S FOCUS ON FEEDING
What do unweaned kittens eat?
By this time, your kittens are probably very hungry and letting you know that their little tummies are empty by meowing pitifully. However, do not rush to give them a bowl of milk or cat food, which will do them more harm than good.
Under normal circumstances, a kitten exclusively needs its mother’s milk from birth to around four weeks of age. Until this time, your kittens should not eat any solid food. If they are less than four weeks old, you will need to bottle feed them with kitten milk replacement formula. Ask your vet to recommend the best formula for them. Follow the recommended quantity of milk and frequency of feedings indicated on the packaging.
How to bottle-feed a kitten?
Once you have made up a bottle of kitten milk replacement formula, heat it up slightly by running it under warm water or setting it in a glass of warm water. Place your kitty on her tummy and gently open her mouth with your finger and insert the nipple. Hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle to minimize kitty taking in air along with the formula. If she seems to have trouble with the bottle, you could try using an eye-dropper or syringe. Once she has finished, take a warm damp cloth and clean her face. Also wiping a soft, warm damp cloth around your kitten’s abdomen and anal region to stimulate her to pass urine and faeces.
A newborn kitten may need to eat around 6/8 times a day or every four hours, and less frequently after the first 2 weeks. Don’t worry: you will probably have no problem knowing when they need feeding as a hungry kitten can be quite loud! Try and make feeding time relaxing for all of you, by feeding them in a quiet place and making sure that you are comfortable too. If the kittens are waking you up during the night, keep in mind that eventually the kittens will be able to sleep through the night. You should find a way to regularly and accurately weigh the kittens to ensure that they are gaining weight appropriately. (See our recommended weight chart).
Note: never give newborn kittens any milk other than kitten replacement milk formula, as it is highly likely to upset their delicate stomachs.
Take advantage of this suckling time to create a moment to stimulate the kitten’s senses, just as their mother would during feeding. If their mother is not there, you may stimulate their visual, hearing and touch senses by petting them, handling them and talking to them gently when they are awake.
Transitioning to solid food: exploring new textures and smells
The transition to solid food occurs over a period from four to seven weeks old. At four weeks old, you may begin to mix a little wet food with the formula to create a kind of mush. Let your kittens get used to the taste and gradually increase the amount of wet food. At around 5 or 6 weeks, you may begin to introduce dry food, softened with water. Make sure to choose good quality food specially formulated to meet your kittens’ specific nutritional needs. By 7 to 8 weeks, your kittens should be weaned and eating only solid food.
FOURTH, CARING & TOILETING
Hygiene: helping your kittens eliminate
Surprising as it may seem, until four weeks old, a kitten is not able to eliminate (i.e. urinate or defecate) on her own. The mother cat normally helps her kitten to do this by stimulating her genital or anal areas (The things mothers have to do!). And while I know you might not be exactly thrilled to hear this, if she is not around you will have to do it too after each feeding until she is able to eliminate on her own. At this point you are probably asking yourself just exactly what this process entails? However, it is actually easier than it sounds. You need to gently rub under her tail with a warm damp cloth or paper towel, until she urinates and defecates. The good news is that around four weeks, you can provide a shallow kitty litter. Gently put her in the litter to get her used to the sensation and enable her to leave her smell. Don’t be surprised if you find your kittens sleeping in the litter. It can take them a while to figure out how it works. By 8 weeks old, they should be using the litter on their own.
Cats are usually incredibly clean animals. Mother cats spend a great deal of time self-grooming and keeping their little ones clean by constantly licking themselves and their kittens. This is important to keep your kittens healthy and comfortable. As mum is not there, you need to regularly clean them all over with a clean, damp cloth. Also check their eyes daily. If there is any discharge use a warm, damp, clean cotton wool pad and gently clean the eyes, using a new cotton wool pad for each eye. If it persists, or appears red and sore, inflamed or swollen it is important they are checked by a vet.
Socialisation and play
The early socialisation phase begins at around 3 weeks of age and is completed by around three months old although will benefit from daily interaction throughout her life. During this important time, the mother teaches her kittens invaluable lessons about keeping clean, how to get along with other cats, how to play and be predatory. She also sets important boundaries about such things as biting, scratching, or potentially risky behaviour. If you are caring for unweaned kittens, you should help socialise them. In particular, it is important that they learn how to get along with people and other cats early on, and how to deal with new situations or environments including new sounds, smells, and different forms of stimulation. Have fun and be confident playing with them and testing together the many cat toys available to enrich their lives. Assist them to explore new sensations, experiences and limits. At a time when the kitten is not feeding or sleeping, you should begin picking them up at an early age, stroke them gently while speaking softly. If they should bite or scratch you, immediately stop the interaction, and try again when they are more receptive. Punishment should not be used with kittens and cats. Unwanted behaviour should be ignored and desired behaviour should be rewarded, in this case with gentle handling.
Note: Start with short handling sessions from when kittens are 2 weeks of age and build up to at least 40 minutes a day outside of feeding times until they reach the age of 7 weeks. Do not forget that your kitten also needs a lot of sleep to grow well. Good conditions for sleep are important for your kittens’ health and growth.
By now, your kittens are hopefully on the road to becoming happy, healthy, well-adjusted cats. They may be adopted at around 8 to 12 weeks, or you may decide to keep them yourselves and have the pleasure of watching them grow up. Whatever your decision, you should feel good about all the care and attention you have provided and the strong bond you have developed with your kittens.