What to Know
Kittens generally do not begin eating solid food until they are roughly six to seven weeks old. Until then, they must be bottle fed.
Neighbors, friends, church groups, homeschool groups, family members, older children - you’d be surprised how many of these folks will help.
As the days grow longer and the temperatures rise, South Florida’s free-roaming cats have just one thing on their minds. This is when our clinic starts fielding frantic phone calls and emails that begin with “So I found these kittens...what do I do?”
Before you take on the project of hand-rearing a litter of kittens, it’s wise to discuss some of the things you shouldn’t do. The first decision you will need to make is whether or not you need to intervene at all. So before I get to the list of do’s, let’s go over some of the don’t’s.
Don’t assume the kittens have been abandoned by their mother.
When we find a mewling, helpless litter, the urge to jump in and save them can be very powerful. However, it’s important to note that like their wild counterparts, free-roaming cats must forage and hunt for their food. As a matter of necessity, mother cats must leave their kittens alone for several hours at a time. If you come across a litter, and mom is nowhere is sight, observe the litter from a safe distance for about three hours.
Since we are all busy, it’s a good idea to enlist the help of friends, and do this in shifts. If the mother cat returns, leave the family in peace - for now. You’ll want to check on them periodically to ensure nothing happens to mom, but if there is a mother cat in the picture, it is wise to let her nurse them until they are weaned. This usually happens at about eight weeks of age.
Don’t intervene without a plan.
Kittens generally do not begin eating solid food until they are roughly six to seven weeks old. Until then, they must be bottle fed every three to four hours. And without putting too fine a point on it, the other end of each kitten must be cared for as well! A cotton ball moistened with warm water is needed to activate the process of eliminating waste.
Mama cats do this with their tongues, so it could be worse...but joking aside, hand-raising kittens is a lot of work. While it is not nearly as rigorous as caring for a newborn baby, some of the same rules apply. A strict feeding schedule must be followed, including throughout the night. Plans may have to change, schedules rearranged, and “baby-sitters” must be found if your plans are set in stone.
Don’t assume “Somebody” will take them off your hands.
In the magical land of money trees and lollipop forests, there lives an elusive creature of myth named “Somebody”. If you scoop up an abandoned litter thinking Somebody will take care of them, you may be in for a rude awakening. Shelters may be full, rescues may be maxed out, and while veterinarians are usually happy to help, our hospitals can be dangerous places for neonatal kittens. The same holds true for animal shelters.
Both see sickness and disease on a daily basis, and the immune systems of bottle-feeding kittens are practically non-existent. Unless the facility has an isolation ward, and is staffed around the clock, they will probably not admit your foundling litter. While this may seem counterintuitive, the best place for a litter of neonatal kittens is often anyplace but a shelter or a veterinary facility. By all means, hit them up for advice, resources and discounted care, but don’t be surprised by “no bottle babies” policies. As my wife is fond of saying, “A synonym for Somebody is You.”
Don’t drop them off somewhere in the middle of the night!
Forget about the fact that it’s self serving and inconsiderate. It’s also horribly inhumane! If you’re thinking of leaving a litter on the kindhearted cat lady’s porch, that nice big property in horse country, the parking lot of your local animal shelter, or the doorstep of your kindly neighborhood veterinarian, know this - the kittens you “saved” are likely to be dead by the time they are found. Between dehydration, hypothermia, hypoglycemia, and predation by wildlife, these little souls don’t stand a chance.
Because this is considered an act of animal cruelty, it is also illegal. Most veterinary hospitals - including ours - are wired from top to bottom with hidden cameras. If you think we won’t turn the tapes over to the police, think again. You are not doing right by these animals. You are practically guaranteeing their deaths.
Don’t skimp on formula.
The only formula I personally recommend is Kitten Milk Replacer or KMR. The powdered version is a better value, and will give you greater flexibility if you need to experiment with consistencies. The cheap brands are cheap for a reason. As your kittens begin the weaning process, you will begin to thicken it with solid foods.
So don’t be alarmed by the rate at which your litter initially consumes formula. In a pinch (as defined by, nothing is open except the grocery store), you can use pasteurized goat’s milk, mixed with an equal part of water. NEVER use cow’s milk, or any grain or nut based milk product. Get them onto formula as soon as you can to optimize their chances of survival.
Now for the do’s!
Do be patient.
Your kittens are confused and scared. The bottle isn’t the same as Mommy. The milk probably tastes different. They may efuse the bottle at first, or have difficulty latching on. This usually doesn’t last. Hunger is a powerful motivator, and kittens are remarkably resilient.
That being said, if any of your charges seem listless, pale or cold, they need to see a veterinarian. You can check for dehydration by gently pulling the skin away from the body, then letting it go. If it snaps back immediately, your kitty is hydrated. If the skin leaves a “tent”, this too is a sign that it’s time to see the vet.
Do be creative.
Just like human babies, each litter of kittens is different. You may have to thicken or thin the formula. The nursing sets sold at pet stores come with nipples of varying shapes and sizes. There is a reason for this! If your kitties won’t latch on, try a different one until you find the sweet spot. If they demand to be fed more than every four hours, try thickening the formula. Make sure enough formula is getting through the nipple, and cut a larger hole in the tip if necessary.
Do keep them warm.
Warmth is essential to helping these wee ones survive. Keep them away from air conditioner vents, and make sure they always have plenty of small blankets or towels. Never use heating pads as these can cause life-threatening burns. An old-school hot water bottle is fine, as long as it is wrapped in towels. A safe and low-tech way to provide warmth is to make what’s known as a “rice sock”. Place a cup and a half to two cups of dry white rice or beans in a clean sock. Tie off the end of the sock, microwave it for 45-60 seconds, and place it under the kittens’ bedding. We have saved many a critical neonate with our hospital’s rice sock.
Do ask for help.
Neighbors, friends, church groups, homeschool groups, family members, older children - you’d be surprised how many of these folks are willing to lend a hand. The hardest part about hand-raising kittens is the 24/7 part. But when it’s spread out amongst several groups or individuals, it’s actually rather fun! Caretakers are less likely to suffer from burnout if they know there is an end in sight. Additionally, the kittens enjoy the benefit of additional stimulation and socialization.
Miami Dade Animal Services is currently seeking “kitten cuddlers” to help with their own kitten influx. This is a great way to help the community, as well as pick up the skills needed to care for any bottle babies who may cross your path in the future. MDAS can also provide the materials, formula and training you may need to raise a litter in your care.
The Feral Cat Coalition has a fantastic page on the specifics of feeding bottle babies, including feeding amounts, intervals, and troubleshooting tips. Click here to access the page directly.
The Cat Network can also help with bottle rearing questions. Joining Cat network allows you to participate in their adoptions program, which can help you find homes for your kittens once they are weaned.
Finally, the best way to ensure you never have to hand-raise kittens is to do your part to keep them from being born in the first place. Spay and neuter your pet cats. If you are feeding a stray, feral, or “neighborhood” cat, contact Miami Dade Animal Services or the Cat Network for information on low-cost or free spay/neuter programs for free-roaming cats.
An intact female cat will inevitably become six cats. In a year or less, that one little stray can turn into a colony of 30 - 40 cats! By preventing these births, we can make tremendous strides in reducing the number of unwanted cats both in our streets and in our shelters.
Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic.
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