Rising temperatures, melting snow, and blooming flowers signal the beginning of spring, and with it, kitten season. This is the time, from early spring through summer, when most litters are born, and animal shelters become inundated with kittens. People find kittens outside and take them to shelters, which typically don’t have the resources or programs to care for them. Sadly, most end up being killed.
But a movement is underway to reverse this pattern. A growing number of shelters are implementing programs such as Alley Cat Allies’ Wait Until 8, which empowers people to foster kittens, and save their lives, by keeping them out of shelters. Caring for neonatal kittens, who are less than 4 weeks old, is a round-the-clock job. Neonatal kittens need help with basic functions like eating, bathing, relieving themselves, and even regulating their body temperatures.
It’s a commitment that is well worth it, says Barbara Crawford, a Maryland woman who has fostered 60-plus kittens since 2015 alone. She began caring for so-called bottle babies more than two decades ago.
Crawford shared some of the caregiving tips she’s learned over the years. If you’re considering fostering neonatal kittens, you will find these to be particularly useful. Also, check out Alley Cat Allies’ kitten care guide, kitten progression poster and guide, and other materials to help you along the way.
Hints for Feeding
Neonatal kittens need to eat every few hours, depending on their age. They should only drink kitten formula, like Breeder’s Edge or KMR, not other animals’ milk.
Crawford records how much each kitten eats every time she feeds one, so she knows they are taking in a healthy amount. Consider feeding them in the same order every timethat way you don’t accidentally feed one kitten twice and another not at all, especially “at 3 a.m. when your brain is fried,” she says.
Kitten Cleaning Basics
Baby wipes are extremely helpful to Crawford because neonatal kittens can’t clean themselves, and they get messy during feedings and after relieving themselves.
Of course, you must be careful when cleaning kittens, and handling them in general. But you don’t have to be so careful that they don’t get clean. “If you’ve ever seen a mama cat bathe her babies, they are a lot less gentle than I am,” Crawford says.
To groom kittens, Crawford uses a gentle toothbrush. “It feels like mommy,” says Crawford. “Mommy’s got a rough little barbed tongue, so a toothbrush is a very good grooming tool. I’ve had kittens that scream and scream and scream, and then I start combing them with the little toothbrush and they settle down.”
Staying Warm and Cozy
Kittens can’t regulate their own body temperatures, so it’s important to keep them warm all the time. You can make them a cozy, soft nest simply by putting a blanket inside a box, and adding in a heating pad like a Snuggle Safe, which goes in the microwave and then stays warm for up to 10 hours. Make sure kittens have space to move away from the heat source, and always ensure the heat source is not directly on the kittens, but under the blanket, bed, or towel. Crawford keeps kittens in a handmade felted wool “nest” with a microwavable heating pad, inside a carrier.
Balancing Work and Life With Kittens
Since kittens need to eat so often and be looked after constantly, some people may think their work schedules make caring for kittens impossible. Crawford has her own pet sitting business, which allows her to be flexible around the kittens’ feeding schedule. But if you have a regular nine-to-five desk job, that doesn’t have to be a deal breaker, she says. You can take the kittens with you if your job allows for that, since the kittens stay put in a carrier.
“The feedings don’t take long, even if you have to do them every two hours,” says Crawford.
If that’s not an option, perhaps you can share the responsibility with a neighbor or friend who has a different work schedule than you.
Above all, Crawford says, the satisfaction of saving livesand being rewarded with tiny meows, purrs, and snugglesare worth the time and effort.