Guide/How-to|

You’ve found a litter of kittens outside. Now what? This week-by-week guide will assist you if you find yourself caring for kittens who are newborn to 10 weeks old. It will help you determine how old the kittens are, based on their physical characteristics and behavior, and how to care for them so they’ll be healthy and adoptable!

Before you do anything, remember—never separate kittens from their mother. If you don’t see her, monitor the kittens from a distance for a few hours. If their mother returns, leave the kittens with her. If she doesn’t, take the kittens inside.

Then, contact veterinarians and no-kill shelters to see if they have a nursing mother cat to “adopt” the litter, or experienced volunteers available to offer advice or even help bottle feed the kittens.

If you take on the responsibility of raising the kittens yourself, this section of our website will guide you through this rewarding experience.

Note: Weights given are for healthy kittens nursing from their mother; malnourished kittens can weigh half as much. Use all physical characteristics to accurately estimate a kitten’s age.

Newborn

Characteristics

Weight: 85-110 grams/2.9-3.9 ounces
Teeth: No teeth
Eyes: Closed
Ears: Folded
Other: Umbilical cord may be present

 

Behavior

Newborn kittens are completely helpless and rely on their mother—or you—for everything.  They can’t stand, keep themselves warm, eat, or eliminate waste on their own. However, they can purr and make distress calls. They spend 90 percent of their time sleeping and the other 10 percent eating.

During their first week, their senses of smell, hearing, and taste slowly start to develop and they may begin to wiggle around a little bit.

Care

Neonatal—newborn to four-week-old—kittens require round-the-clock care.

Feeding:

Use specific kitten bottles to feed them kitten formula. Make sure you never feed them “Cat Milk,” which is designed for adult cats, or cow’s or goat’s milk, which could give the kittens life-threatening diarrhea.  Stick to kitten formula, such as kitten milk replacer (KMR), which can be purchased at most pet supply stores. Use specific kitten bottles to feed them kitten formula. Feed kittens on their stomachs—not their backs like human babies—and tilt the bottle. After they’re done eating, you’ll need to burp them. Put them on your shoulder or on their stomachs and pat them gently until they burp. For more information on what to feed kittens, visit Caring for Neonatal Kittens.

Feeding frequency:

Every two hours, round the clock

Dehydration:

Dehydration is one of the biggest killers of kittens, along with chilling. Some signs of dehydration include limpness, unresponsiveness, sunken eyes, and lethargy. You can also check by pulling up the skin at the scruff when the kitten is in a standing position. If it does not return to resting position quickly, the kitten is dehydrated.

Bedding (keep neonatal kittens warm):

Neonatal kittens can’t control their own body temperature until they are at least three weeks old and get cold easily, which can be life-threatening. From the moment you find them, keep the kittens warm and watch out for signs of chilling (i.e., listlessness and cool to the touch) and hold off on bottle feeding until the kittens have completely warmed up. If you have nothing else on hand, use your own body heat to warm up a cold kitten, and rub her gently to aid circulation. Keep kittens warm by building a soft nest, like a box with a blanket and Snuggle Safe, a rice sock, or a water bottle. Make sure that kittens have room to move away from the heat if they want.

Cleaning:

Clean kittens using a warm, damp washcloth after they’re done eating. A kitten can chill if wet, so never submerge kittens in water. If a kitten needs to be cleaned up, wash only certain parts of her body with a washcloth. Be sure to always fully dry kittens with a hair dryer (on low) and towel.

Bathroom habits:

Kittens younger than four weeks old must be stimulated to go to the bathroom after each feeding. A mother cat uses her tongue to do this, but you can use a warm and damp cotton ball, tissue, or washcloth to gently rub the kitten’s anal area. Completely solid feces usually will not form while kittens are drinking formula. If you notice the kittens are having trouble urinating or defecating, consult a veterinarian immediately.

A healthy kitten will urinate almost every time you stimulate them and have a bowel movement once or twice a day.

For more on caring for kittens younger than four weeks old, including health concerns and tips for stabilizing kittens, go to Caring for Neonatal Kittens.

Socialization

If you are fostering with mom, handle the kittens when they start to explore their surroundings away from her. If mom is not there, you will be handling the kittens for feeding and encouraging defecation. For more about socializing kittens, go to alleycat.org/Socialization.