By Dr Reeja George P.*
Little kittens come into this world with their eyes and ears all snugly closed, totally oblivious to the cacophony of a wide range of sounds, as the world goes about, bustling with its busy life. The early days are crucial to their survival, for which they rely heavily on their mother for all important warmth and of course an unending source of valuable cat milk. But sometimes, the inevitable happens, the cat mom could have behavioural problems that stand in the way of her caring for her kittens, or she may not be able to produce enough milk for them and in cases of a difficult birthing, she may not be able to respond to the needs of her kittens. In very unfortunate instances, we may even lose the cat mom. Of late, humans have made a rude entry into life cycle of a cat, sometimes deciding on whether the cat mom will keep or lose her kittens. The instances of cat owners abandoning new born kittens have become painfully common. As a responsible, humane pet owner one should remember that if you didn’t want kittens, in the first place, you should have spayed your cat. Throwing helpless kittens into streets is cruel and one of the most inhumane ways of responding to such a situation.
Coming back to our subject, in all such instances where kittens lose their moms, it is imperative that a pet parent steps in and dons the garb of a human cat mom. It is admittedly a daunting task – there is no doubt about that – but it is also a very rewarding one! You will need to do your homework, and in case you need any help, your vet could advise you.
The most important issue for a just born kitten is, besides milk, warmth. Without its mother’s warmth, it is doomed to hypothermia. It is very important to keep the room in which you keep kittens, at not less than 72oF or 22oC. The orphaned kittens should be kept in a box, wrapped in two to three layers of towels with a large blanket on top. In case you live in area with very harsh winters where temperatures go very low, you may also have to use a good quality heating pad for pets. Heat is very important for young kittens up to four weeks of age. The room in which you keep the kittens should also be free from draughts or cold winds and you could warm it with a room heater. Be careful with the bedding and check it regularly for dampness. Change damp bedding immediately. Touch the kittens and check if they are warm (their ideal temperature is between 98.6 and 100oF). In case a kitten feels cold, you should immediately wrap her in two to three layers of towel and place her on a heating pad turning her over every five minutes till she responds. You should also rub her well in between. If she fails to respond within twenty minutes, take her to the vet. Never attempt to feed an unresponsive kitten. Small bottles filled with hot water and wrapped in a towel can also be placed near the kittens. However you should change the bottles regularly.
Feeding Orphaned Kittens
Cow and goat milk contain higher amounts of lactose and hence are not recommended for kittens. Orphaned kittens should ideally be fed kitten milk replacers. Generally kittens are bottle fed with special neonatal bottles with much smaller nipples than that used for human babies. Nipples on such bottles come without a hole. Make a hole with a hot needle so that the hole is just large enough to allow milk to slowly drip out of the bottle when held bottom up. A smaller hole would tire the kitten and a larger one would lead to aspiration of milk. Kittens should ideally be fed on sternal recumbency or lying on their belly while allowing the kitten to push off with its front legs as it would have pushed against its mother while suckling. The nipple should be placed straight into the mouth and not tilted and the kitten’s neck should not be over stretched.
For the first 24–48 hours, each kitten would need around 1ml of milk per hour. You could increase this amount by 0.5ml per feed, each day, till she consumes a maximum of 7ml per feed at the end of the first week. She needs between 1–7 ml, per feed, in the first week. Generally newborns have to be fed nine to twelve times a day, which works out to ‘a feed every two hours’. As they grow up, this frequency tends to decline. By the second week, kittens would require nine feeds a day and each feed being between 7–9ml. You could slowly introduce a gruel mix from the third week onwards, 3 times a day along with the bottle feed. At three weeks, she would continue to require nine feeds a day of 10ml milk replacer per feed. By four weeks, they should be given around 4–5 bottle feeds a day along with 4–5 feeds of gruel as well. And by 7 weeks, they can be placed exclusively on solid food. If she is well fed, her stomach would have a rounded appearance. Be very careful not to over feed her. The milk replacer should always be fed at maternal body temperature of 38.6oC or 101.5oF; a drop placed on the back of your palm should feel slightly warmer than your skin. Directions on a commercially available kitten milk replacer have to be followed carefully.
All feeding equipment should be washed thoroughly and air dried. Formula should be mixed only in the required amount, preferably to last for a maximum of 24–48 hours. Any unused formula should be refrigerated and then warmed by placing it in hot water and tested for temperature before being fed to kittens.
There is a homemade kitten milk replacer called the Hoskin’s formula, which is a mixture of 90ml of condensed milk, 90ml of water, 120ml of plain yogurt (not low fat) and 3–4 small egg yolks that could be fed to kittens in case it is difficult to get a commercial preparation. Homemade milk replacers are associated with slower kitten growth rates and hence it is generally recommended that you use a commercially available formula rather than a homemade one.
Monitoring Weight Gain
Regular monitoring of the weight gain of kittens is important to know if feeding is adequate. Orphaned neonates should be weighed twice a day for the first two weeks. Generally the kitten would double its weight by the end of the first week and thereafter gain 1–2gm of their anticipated adult weight, each day. By the end of the first week, she would weigh between 100 and 200gm, increasing to 200–300gm in the second week, 300–360gm in the third week, 320–420gm in the fourth week, 400–500gm in the fifth week, 450–500gm in the sixth week and by the seventh week she should weigh between 500 and 700gm.
Cleaning, Grooming, Vaccinations, And Deworming
Each feeding session should be followed by a grooming one! Give them a full body, once-over, wipe with a barely damp cloth. Make short stokes to mimic the cat mom’s grooming style. Besides keeping their fur clean, this procedure also is a quick lesson for a kitten, on how to groom. Rubbing them this way also makes them feel wanted, giving them the mothering attention that they need. Kittens rescued from streets should be wiped extra well and their ears should also be checked for tell tale signs of ear mites. Check their bodies as well for fleas, for which your vet will give you proper sprays. They should be given medicine for worms and be vaccinated as per the schedule that your vet would be happy to share with you.
Toilet Training of Orphan Kittens
For the first three weeks of life, kittens rely on their mother’s rubs to urinate and defecate. In case of orphaned kittens, you will have to help in by wiping the anogenital region with a warm wet cotton ball just before a feed. Generally kittens are quick to respond to such wipes and will void a couple of medium yellow coloured stools in a day. Normal kitten urine should be pale yellow or clear. Watch out for dark yellow or orange coloured urine; this could be a sign that you are not feeding her enough. In such situations, increase the frequency of feeding and not the amount per feed.
* Author is an Associate Professor, Department of Veterinary and AH Extension, College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Mannuthy, Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Thrissur, Kerala 680 651.