Hand rearing newborn kittens is no easy task. It will test your nurturing instincts, attention to detail, and probably your patience as well. But for all that, it can be quite rewarding too. To help the conscientious folks who would take on this difficult task, we've consulted with former President of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Greg Hammer DVM, to put together the need-to-know information about hand-raising abandoned kittens.
When to Rescue
There are a number of risks involved in rescuing a litter of extremely young kittens; rabies and heartache being a couple of the most prominent. Yet another risk is accidentally intervening in a situation where the mother (a.k.a. the queen) is still caring for her kittens. You don't want to do that. Not only do cat mothers have a much higher success rate than human surrogates, but it will save you a lot of sleepless nights.
So how can you differentiate between a kitten that's waiting for its mother to return and one that's truly been abandoned? The answer, according to Dr. Hammer, is time. "Kittens need to be fed every four to six hours," Hammer tells Paw Nation, "There should be some concern if they're meowing and acting hungry." Queens usually are quite attuned to the needs of their young, so there shouldn't be any long lapses in the feeding schedule. "There's no hard and fast rule," Hammer stresses, "But I would say that if the queen hasn't returned for 12 hours, something is definitely wrong."
Under ideal circumstances, you will have had a chance to observe the queen before she disappeared. If a queen looks weird (read "rabid") or feral, that's a big red flag that you should leave it to the pros. Hammer recommends contacting your vet before committing to anything.
Assessing The Age of Your Kittens
Determining a kitten's age is crucial in determining the best way to care for it. If your kittens are 6 weeks old, your job may be fairly simple. If they're 6 days old, you've got an uphill battle. Once again, contacting your vet for help is always a good idea.
Here are a couple of important dates in early kitten development: A kitten's eyes typically open at 10 days old, and their ears open at around 18 days. If you determine that your kitten is younger than 14 days old, you must be aware of this highly important fact: A kitten can't urinate or defecate by itself for the first two weeks. You must help it do this.
It may seem kinda weird or gross, but this is literally a matter of life and death. "Wipe their rear end with any kind of soft cloth that's warm," Hammer explains, "You just basically imitate the mother licking them."
When it comes to feeding young kittens, there are a number of easy-to-use milk replacements on the market for just that purpose. The delivery method, on the other hand, can be a bit more problematic. According to Dr. Hammer, the bottle-and-nipple method is infinitely better and safer than the eye-dropper method.
If you must resort to a dropper, allow the kitten to suck the milk out; do not squeeze. If you squirt milk into the kittens mouth, it could get into your kitty's lungs, resulting in pneumonia. You should be able to wean you kittens off of the bottle starting at around 3 weeks by placing the milk replacement in a shallow saucer.
Pro tip: Hammer recommends you use nail clippers to cut a small 'x' in the nipple, rather than poke a hole with a pin.
When it comes to bedding, you want to provide a safe, quiet, and comfortable space for your kittens. If it's cool outside, you may need to simulate the queen's body heat. For this, fill a plastic bottle with warm water and wrap it in a towel.
Dr. Hammer does not recommend electric heating pads because kittens may not be able to get away from the heat, resulting in serious burns. If you use a heat lamp of some kind, the temperature reading at the level of the kitten should be 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Things to Watch Out For
You may need to be concerned about your kitten's susceptibility to illness. If the kitten was nursed for the first few days of its life, it probably received the colostrum, i.e. the "first milk" which contains important antibodies as well as high levels of proteins and fats.
But even with the colostrum, your kitten may be more prone to illness. "In cats that don't get nursed, we tend to see viruses that can affect the eye. Before they even open, they can get infected. If their eyes are bulging or there's pus, seek vet assistance," says Hammer.
If anything, you're most likely to encounter an upper respiratory illness of some kind, which is relatively easy to spot due to the coughing, sneezing, etc. If you notice these symptoms, once again, it's time for a trip to the vet's office.