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7 Things to Do If You Find an Orphaned Kitten

If it’s been 12 hours since you found the kitten and the mother hasn’t come back, something is definitely wrong. Here's what to do.

 |  Jul 29th 2014  |   5 Contributions


It’s a natural human instinct regarding orphans: When we see a tiny baby kitten alone in the great big world, we want to swoop in and save the little wee thing from the dangers all around. If you find yourself in such a situation, stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and check out these tips about helping abandoned kittens.

This kitten may be in trouble: he seems to have an upper respiratory infection that's glued one of his eyes shut. Photo CC-BY-ND Denise Mattox

1. Be sure the kitten really is abandoned

Mother cats have to hunt for their food, and they can leave the nest for a few hours at a time while doing so. Sometimes a mom cat moves her nest in order to ensure the safety of the litter. Because she doesn’t have a car or a bus pass, she has to carry her kittens, one at a time, from the old nest to the new one. If the kittens are clean, plump and quiet, they’re okay and mom is nearby.

2. Observe from a distance

If you’re concerned that mom might not be coming back, watch the nest but don't get too close. If the mom cat is feral and she smells human scent near her nest, she might be too frightened to come back and care for her kittens. Kittens usually need to eat every four to six hours, so if it’s been 12 hours since you found the kitten and the mother hasn’t come back, something is definitely wrong and you can take the next step.

Kittens whose eyes haven't opened yet are less than a week old and need a lot of attention. Photo CC-BY Flóra Soós

3. Warm them up

Kittens less than three weeks old can’t control their own body temperature and can easily get so chilled. The means they can die, even when outdoor temperatures are warm. A chilled kitten is listless and may actually feel cold to the touch. To get abandoned kittens warm, prepare a nest lined with towels and put a heating pad or hot water bottle under the towels. Be sure to leave a place where they can crawl away if they get too hot, too.

4. Call for help

During the height of kitten season, your local shelter or rescue group might have nursing mom cats who might welcome some extra kittens. Mother-cat milk is by far the best nutrition a growing baby can get. If shelters don’t have mom cats available, they may have volunteers or foster carers who know how to bottle feed newborn kittens, or they might give you instructions on how to do so.

Bottle feeding is exhausting, but you'll melt every time you see the kitten's tiny little ears twitch back and forth as he nurses. Photo CC-BY kellinahandbasket

5. Be prepared for restless nights

If the kitten you find is a week old or less, you’re going to need to bottle feed her every two hours around the clock, then wipe her genital area with a cloth to stimulate her to urinate and defecate. At two weeks, kittens can be fed every four hours around the clock. Kittens should always be belly-down when bottle feeding to ensure that the formula goes into their stomachs and not their lungs.

6. Know what to do after feeding

After every feeding, kittens need to be burped and wiped. Burping a kitten is just like burping a human baby, except much gentler. If kittens are less than four weeks old, their genital areas need to be wiped with a damp paper towel or cloth in order to stimulate them to urinate and defecate.

7. Understand that it might not end well

Despite your best efforts, it’s possible that the kitten you rescued might not survive. Nature is not kind to abandoned babies. Without the benefit of the antibodies in their mother’s milk, orphaned kittens are extremely susceptible to infections, hypothermia, and other problems that their tiny bodies can’t handle. Don't be too hard on yourself if this happens. You took on a hero’s task and you did your best.

For tips from experts about how to hand-raise orphaned kittens, check out this post by Valerie Sicignano of the New York City Feral Cat Coalition. Kittenrescue.org’s Kitten Care Handbook, written by Carolyn McCray, DVM, is another excellent resource.

Have you ever rescued and hand-reared an orphaned kitten? How did it go? Do you have some other tips or resources for other people who find themselves in your situation?

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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.

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