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Ask Einstein: How Do You Bottle-Feed an Orphan Kitten?

My people just found an abandoned kitten on their doorstep, but they don't know much about raising motherless kittens.

 |  Apr 14th 2014  |   21 Contributions


Dear Einstein,

My people just brought in a crying baby kitten they found out in the rain. Junior’s mom was nowhere around. Poor little thing is filthy and skinny. I feel like Prissy in Gone With the Wind. I don’t know nothing 'bout raisin' no babies!

Protective Poppy 

Tiny kittens need to be kept warm. Orange kitten being fed by Shutterstock

Yo, Pops,

As it happens, I have some experience in the area of motherless kittens. I was a little Hairy Potter myself. Poppy, since you don’t have the proper anatomical equipment, you’re going to need some help from your humans. 

Junior’s probably colder than penguin poop. So the most important thing is to warm him up -- slowly. Body heat works great in an emergency. A newborn kitten should stay in a room that’s about 90 degrees. A week-old can stand 80 degrees. At a month, 75 degrees is fine.

This little guy could probably benefit from a visit with your vet, especially if he’s too weak to eat. While he’s there, the vet can show your mom how to feed him.

Keep your kitty cozy with a teddy and a blanket. Kitten and teddy bear by Shutterstock

Sequester him like he’s on the OJ jury cuz he might have a bug or he might catch something from you. Your humans should always wash their hands before and after handling him. 

The best nest is a cardboard box. Place the box on a heating pad or cover the pad inside with a towel or light blanket so he can’t crawl directly onto it. Also the box should be large enough for him to move off the pad if it gets too hot. Check the pad temp frequently. The heating pad shouldn’t get warmer than 102 degrees, cuz you can’t have fun with a baked kitten. 

Now it’s mealtime

Forget the cow’s milk in the fridge -- that’s a prescription for explosive poop. Instead your humans should buy special kitten formula and bottles from a vet, pet store, grocery store, or even 24-hour discount store. 

You'll need special kitten formula, not cow juice. Gray kitten being bottle fed by Shutterstock

The most difficult part of bottle feeding is punching the hole in the nipple. If the hole is too large the formula can get into his lungs. If milk comes out of his nose, hold the kitten upside down until you see no more milk and he quits coughing. If the hole is too small he won’t be able to get any formula. Have your human suck on the nipple herself. When it flows right, it’s time to feed the baby.

Watch that formula level. If it stays the same there’s either a formula clump blocking the hole or the hole is too small. Never squeeze the bottle or you may shoot formula into the baby’s lungs. When he’s finished, you can offer to clean up the leftovers.

Like Goldilocks's porridge, the formula shouldn’t be too hot or too cold. Test it on your paw. And never feed a kitten with a low body temperature, either.  

Kittens being fed by Shutterstock

Your human should rest the kitten on his belly and put the nipple into his mouth. Slowly pull up and forward on the bottle so the kitten will be nursing with his head extended and slightly elevated. Never hold him flat on his back because of that milk/lung thing. Keep the neck of the bottle full of milk so the kitten doesn’t suck air.

Since they’re so small, newborns may have better luck chowing down with an eyedropper. At first, release only a drop at a time until he’s able to suck the formula out of the dropper himself. Let him control the flow. If he doesn’t actively suck by himself, he should see a vet.  

Check the instructions on the formula container or ask your vet how much to feed him. Kittens have tiny tummies, so don’t overfeed him. Most kittens will spit out the nipple when they’re full.

The kitten will soon figure out how to suck. White kitten and bottle by Shutterstock

Like human babies who nurse from a bottle, Junior’s going to get air in his tummy. After dinner your human can place him against her shoulder and pat gently until she hears that adorable kitten burp. 

What goes in must come out

The motherly duties aren’t finished. Very young kittens can’t pee or poop on their own. Poppy, if you’ve got the stomach for it, you could handle this with your tongue (like his mom did), but a cotton ball would be a more palatable choice for your humans. After his meal, Mom should use a warm, moist cotton ball to massage his privates using gentle circular motions. GENTLY! No pressure is needed. 

If Junior gets the runs, call the veterinarian right away. Kittens dehydrate very quickly. Don’t panic if he doesn’t poop every day. But if he holds his stuff for three days, pick up the hotline to the vet. 

Finish up with a kitten spa moment: a warm, barely damp washcloth will finish mom’s attention with a comforting bath. Soft short strokes imitate the mother’s natural tongue motions. Don’t let him get cold.

Your people should check him for fleas. Orphans are often crawling with them. The safest way to remove the little suckers is with a fine-toothed flea comb. 

Kittens are preprogrammed to use the litter box, but you may need to help them figure it out. Photo by Sarah Donner.

When he’s about three weeks old you may notice his linens are damp or poopy. Yuk, but also yippee! He can finally potty on his own. Now it’s time to introduce him to his new litter box. Humans don’t have to “housebreak” kittens. They come pre-programmed with toilet instructions.

Immediately after he eats, Junior needs to go to the litter box. (Use non-clumping litter with tiny kittens.) He’ll dig and play and try to get out, but eventually he will use the box just like a big cat. Like magic, he’s box-trained. 

Sometime between four weeks and six weeks, he’ll become interested in more solid food. He can eat a mush made of kitten kibble soaked in hot water with some formula added. When it’s cooled, your mom can place some on her finger and offer it to Junior. Even when he first starts to eat on his own, he will still need formula to supplement it. Also put a shallow pan of drinking water where he can get to it.

Kitties experience a critical socialization period between two and seven weeks when they learn to be a cat from their mother and siblings. They learn not to bite or scratch, and what’s safe and what’s dangerous. So your folks should carefully choose other humans to hold him and play with him. If he doesn’t meet people or other pets when he’s little, chances are he’ll be a fraidy cat for life. 

A kitten raised without his feline family learns only what his human mom teaches him. Lone bottle babies can grow up to be nasty little biters. Humans hands are verboten as kitty toys. If he’s allowed to bite the hand that feeds him, he learns zombie manners are acceptable -- cute when he’s four weeks, painful when he’s four years.  

Poppy, since you’re a genial guy, you can teach him manners. In absence of other cats to teach gentle play, humans have to step in and give lots of moving toys, exercise and socialization. He can attack stuffed animals to work off his predatory energy. 

Poppy, if you play your mice right, you’ll have a buddy to wrestle with and, better still, to blame when those expensive breakables hit the floor.  

Learn more about your cat with Catster:

Got a question for he who knows everything feline? Just Ask Einstein in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Letters don't have to be written from the cat's point of view.) Remember, any change in your cat's behavior or activities could be a symptom of disease and should be investigated by your vet, even if it unfortunately involves glass tubes and cat posteriors.

Einstein’s assistant, Dusty Rainbolt ACCBC, is the vice president of the Cat Writers’ Association, editor-in-chief of AdoptAShelter.com and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She’s the award-winning author of eight fiction and non-fiction books including her most recent paranormal mystery, Death Under the Crescent Moon.  

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