Hand-raising Orphaned Kittens



A newborn litter of kittens is virtually defenseless against the environment around them and are dependent upon their mother's care for their survival. In some unfortunate cases, the mother is unable to provide this essential care for her young. There may be too many kittens in the litter for her to care for or a Cesarean birth or infection may not allow her to nurse her kittens. The kittens may be orphaned by the mother's death or rejected or abandoned after birth. While nothing can fully substitute for a mother's care, it sometimes falls upon a surrogate parent to provide this care.


If at all possible, it is always best to find another nursing cat to accept the kittens. Many cats will accept other kittens into their litter and other owners or vets may be able to help you find a cat who has just given birth to adopt the abandoned kittens. If a nursing cat is not available or able to adopt the litter, it falls upon humans willing to spend the time and effort to nurse the kittens to health in the vital first weeks. If you decide to hand-raise the kittens yourself, it is important to provide a warm, clean, and dry environment and a nutritious diet at the appropriate times and amounts. You may find it easier to keep a journal to track the times of feedings, weights of kittens, and other important observations to track the progress of their growth.

You'll also want to have the following items ready:

  • Incubator/ nesting box – even a cardboard box will work if it is changed regularly when it gets wet or dirty. It is important that the box is in a quiet, draft-free area. The sides should be high enough to keep the kittens inside and large enough for them to exercise when they start walking. A manual alarm clock or metronome in the bed can reduce stress by replicating the mother's heartbeat.
  • Heating pad – the pad should be on the lowest setting and only under one side of the box to allow a cooler area that the kittens can move to later.
  • Room temperature thermometer – during the first 7 days, the air temperature should be 88-92 degrees. The second week should be kept between 80-85 degrees. The third week should be kept around 80 degrees. The fourth week can be lowered to 75 degrees and after the fifth week the temperature can be lowered to 70 degrees.
  • Cotton balls and gauze
  • Gram scale
  • Nurser kits with bottle, brushes, and spare nipples
  • Unflavored Pedialyte
  • Milk replacement formula – a high quality liquid formula is better than powdered formula for consistency
  • Other items may be needed in emergencies. - Your vet should be able to provide most of these things, like syringes and tube feeders or emergency liquid replacement formulas. Food (dry and wet) and toys will be needed after the first four weeks when the kittens start to play and are being weaned onto solid foods.


Without a mother to nurse them, the kittens will need to be bottle-fed. Small kittens should be fed every 3 to 4 hours in the first weeks and older kittens can be fed every 6 to 8 hours. Each should eat about 2 tablespoons per four ounces of body weight every day and should gain about 10 grams per day. The weight gain might not be steady at first; it is normal for weight to remain constant for the first few days then leap in a sudden growth spurt. Prepare the formula by warming in a bowl of warm water to around 99 to 101 degrees. Avoid heating the bottle in the microwave. This can cause hot spots and not heat the formula evenly.

To feed the kitten, lay it on its stomach and insert the nipple into its mouth. Slowly pull the nipple out and up so the kitten's throat is extended and raised and move the bottle back and forth to simulate a nursing mother. The kitten should begin suckling on its own but always check the level of the formula to check. Most kittens will stop feeding when they become full but never force feed and always stop if milk comes out of the kitten's nose. Force feeding can force milk into the kitten's lungs and lead to ammonia and milk coming out of the nose is a sign that the hole in the nipple might be too large or the kitten's palate might not be closed properly. After feeding, the kittens do need burped. Burp them just like a human child by putting them to your shoulder and patting lightly on their back. If a kitten seems too weak or is not able to feed from the bottle, contact your vet for instructions on tube feeding or alternatives to prevent dehydration.

After every feeding until the cat is using a litter box, you will need to stimulate their elimination. Dip a cotton ball or piece of gauze in warm water and gently massage the anal and genital area. Kittens should urinate after most feedings and defecate at least every other day. If the area becomes sore, dab a small bit of Preparation-H on the area. Contact your vet if the stools seems loose, the kitten seems constipated or strained, or no bowel movement is passed in over a day, contact your vet. These may be symptoms of a more serious problem that may require immediate attention.

At 4 weeks:

At around 4 weeks, the kittens will start teething and can begin weaning onto solid foods. Start by encouraging the kittens to lap a drop of formula off of your finger. Rub a bit on their mouth if they don't lick it off of your finger, but avoid getting it into their nose. After the kittens have become accustomed to lapping, mix small amounts of slightly warmed baby food into their formula to form a gruel. Lamb, turkey, or chicken usually has the best smell and taste for the kittens. Slowly increase the amount of baby food and then the amount of wet food given to the kittens and keep some dry food available for the kittens to chew and teeth on. Supplement with formula if needed to provide enough nutrition and make sure the kittens aren't becoming dehydrated. If the skin has little or no elasticity (the ability to “spring back” if lightly tugged on at the nap), increase the liquids in the diet and consult your vet to see if injections or emergency liquids are needed.

The kittens should also start to play with their siblings around this time. If a kitten plays too rough, you'll need to take over the mother's role and discipline the behavior before it becomes an accepted habit. To discipline the unruly kitten, use both hands to restrain the cat on its side for a few seconds to teach it that this behavior is not acceptable. By the 8th week, the kittens are ready for a check-up by the vet and may be ready to be neutered or spayed. They also may be ready for adoption if you decide to find new homes for the kittens.

Other Health Concerns

Problems that are normally minor in healthy adult cats can be life-threatening to young kittens. A flea infestation can cause the kittens to become anemic or infected. Your vet should be able to provide a safe flea spray if you notice an infestation on your kittens. A gentle wash with mild surgical soap and a change of bedding after the spray should remove the dead fleas. After any bathing, dry the kittens immediately with a low-powered blow dryer or point the blow dryer into a closed carrier to circulate warm air after the kitten is towel dried. Other relatively mild conditions like a cold, distemper, diarrhea, ear mites, ringworm, or eye infections could cause permanent problems or death in young kittens. Even the most careful and devoted caretakers can lose a young and weak kitten.

We can never truly replace the care given by the litter's natural mother but with some preparation and effort, we may be able to raise the kittens into happy and healthy adults. Always involve your veterinarian in the health of the kittens and seek the advice of other owners for tips to keep the kittens healthy and thriving. Raising a litter of kittens from birth can be a truly rewarding and fulfilling experience!