It’s almost that time. It happens every year between April and October: Kitten Season. Now, if that sounds like a magical time to you, I get it. Who doesn’t love adorable fluffy kittens?
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Well, I’ll be the first one to steal a few feline cuddles, but when kitten season rolls around, I literally have nightmares. And, no… they’re not about laser-eyed, rabid kittens, trying to eat my face off. (Although, that would definitely be terrifying).
To put it in perspective, I’ll use a metaphor. Imagine dozens of human babies. People are just coming to your workplace dropping off dozens of day-old human babies, and they have no idea where the babies’ moms are.
They look at you, hand you the baby, and say, “Here. Isn’t it so cute?”
You say, “Yes, it is. It will need to be bottle-fed every three hours including overnight in order to survive. Do you think you can do that for a while until it can start eating on its own?”
They say, “Oh no. I am WAY too busy, but I’ll adopt it when it’s old enough.”
Then, with desperation and judgment in their eyes, they say, “You’re not going to let it die, right?”
So, you sigh and respond, “We will try our best.”
Then you take the baby into a room with the other 10 orphaned babies that came in that day. You have absolutely no idea how you are going to save them all.
Now, is it wrong for me to compare kittens to human babies? Maybe. However, I hope that after reading that you understand the struggles animal shelters deal with each year when kitten season rolls around.
Please take a moment and read below about what to do if you find a kitten, how to not be a kitten-napper, and what you can do to help save the lives of kittens in shelters this year…. even if you can’t foster.
Guide to this Post:
- Step 1: Don’t be a Kitten Napper! Follow these steps to make sure the mom cat is not around!
- What to do if you can’t care for the kitten(s).
- Kitten Care and Bottle Feeding
- Required Supplies
- What to do when you bring the kittens inside.
- Kitten Foster Catagories
- Anemia (usually from fleas)
- Weight and Food Tracking
- Minimum Feeding Requirements for Kittens (Based on Weight)
- Helpful Video Links, Websites, and Facebook Groups
So, you found a litter of kittens laying next to the sidewalk….
Step One: WAIT! Don’t be a kitten-napper! Do these kittens have a mom?
Pull out your magnifying glass, because its time to do some detective work! One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that a kitten is orphaned when mom is really nearby taking care of business.
Follow these steps:
- Wait away from the kittens…at least 50 feet or further. If you are too close, mom is not going to return. In fact, you might have to leave the area completely in order for mom to feel safe enough to come back.
- Before you leave, make sure the kittens are not in immediate danger. Is it raining heavily? Are there a lot of dogs or wildlife nearby who might harm the kittens? Are the kittens in the middle of the road?
- Kittens are A LOT more likely to die from getting too cold than they are from starvation. If its really cold or pouring rain, you might need to act more quickly than if its a warm and sunny spring day.
- Kittens are way more likely to survive if they are with their mom, so try your best to give her as much time as possible to return.
- If the kittens are sleeping soundly, they probably recently ate, and mom is more than likely nearby!
- If possible, sprinkle a very small amount of flour around the kittens. If you come back and see cat paw prints, mom is caring for the kittens. (I just learned this one, and I think it is genius!)
- If you return and one or more kittens are missing, there is a good chance mom is moving them. She can only carry one at a time, so leave the rest for her. She will come back for them!
What should I do if the mom cat returns?
Mom is going to be able to take care of her kittens better than anyone else. If the area is relatively safe, leave the family alone! You can offer the mom food and shelter. However, you are going to want to place the food away from the shelter. Mom won’t want to use the shelter if the food is too close because it will attract other cats, and she will want to protect her babies!
If you want to try to socialize the kittens and get them adopted, you will want to take the kittens from their mother at about 6 weeks of age. If the kittens are older than 8 weeks, you will likely want to Trap-Neuter-Return the whole family (spay/neuter, vaccinate, ear tip, and return back to the wild). Check with your local shelters and low-cost spay/neuter clinics. They may already have a program in place that you can use.
Remember that mom cat can get pregnant even while she is still nursing her current litter, so it is VERY important to get her spayed quickly, or you are going to get another litter of kittens soon!
Check out this awesome video from the Kitten Lady, Hannah Shaw about socializing kittens.
Check out this other awesome video also created by the Kitten Lady, Hannah Shaw about trapping a mom cat and her kittens.
What if mom returns, but the area is not safe?
If you absolutely have to, you can try to trap the mom cat in a humane trap, and then transfer the whole family to a safer place. Only attempt to do this if there is IMMEDIATE and GRAVE danger!
What if mom does not return?
If you are sure that the mom cat is not returning, or you see that she has been hit by a car, or something similar, the kittens will need you to intervene. This is where things can get tricky!
Try your best to prevent the kittens from going to an animal shelter. It can be hard to find an organization that has staff or volunteers who are able to bottle-feed the kittens. If you can do it, that is great! You may have luck contacting local animal organizations who can help you by providing supplies, vet care, or training. If not, don’t worry. Jump to the Kitten Care and Bottle-Feeding Section of this article.
If you absolutely cannot care for the kittens, follow these steps:
If you find a litter of kittens, and you know that you will not be able to care for them in the event that the mom does not come back, start researching and reaching out to organizations right away! The more time you can give any organization to scramble to find a foster, the better.
Do you know anyone who is into animal rescue? Call them and see if they can take the kittens, or if they know someone who can take the kittens. Find local Facebook pages and groups. Post on them to see if someone is willing to foster.
Do Your Research
Ues the wonderful world of Google to search for animal organizations in your area. Call them to see if they accept orphaned kittens. If they don’t, call ahead to your local animal shelter.
Kitten Care and Bottle-Feeding
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If mom does not come back, and you are willing to take on the responsibilities of caring for the kittens, follow these steps.
- Prepare and purchase all your supplies before you take the kittens off the street.
- Make sure the kittens are warm. As I mentioned earlier, kittens are more likely to die from becoming cold than they are from starvation. A heating pad that does not shut off is a must if you are going to take on kittens.
- If the kittens feel cold, place them on a heating pad as soon as possible. You will not be able to warm up a kitten enough with just your body heat. NEVER feed a cold kitten. It can kill them. Getting them warm is more important than anything else.
- Figure out how old the kittens are by using this aging chart on the Kitten Lady Website.
The following information is the guide I give my fosters when they take home kittens. It is adapted from one of the greatest life-saving shelters in the country, Austin Pets Alive! Feel free to use it to help you care for your new foster kittens!
I highly recommend reading Hannah Shaw, the Kitten Lady’s Book- Tiny But Mighty: Kitten Lady’s Guide to Saving the Most Vulnerable Felines
Bottle Babies (0-3 weeks):
❏ Bottle kit with nipples (You can purchase these from most grocery stores and pet stores, or online)
❏ Powdered KMR formula (This can be purchased from many grocery stores, pet supply stores, and online)
❏ Digital scale (food or postal) that weighs in grams
❏ Electric heating pad that does not shut off automatically
❏ NutriCal — nutritional supplement for weight gain
❏ Anti-diarrheal medication made for cats
❏ Small Syringes (without the needle) for feeding
Gruel/Syringe Gruel Babies (4-6 weeks):
❏ Electric heating pad that does not shut off automatically
❏ Empty room/bathroom to isolate kittens
❏ Digital scale (food or postal) that weighs in grams
❏ Shallow litter box (I recommend a shallow cardboard box, like a cat food box) & non-clumping litter
❏ Blender or food processor (syringe gruel only)
Gruel/Syringe Gruel Babies: Optional Supplies
❏ Human baby food (chicken or turkey w/ no onions, garlic, or spices)
❏ NutriCal — nutritional supplement for weight gain Pregnant/Nursing Mom: Required Supplies
Watch this video created by Kitten Lady, Hannah Shaw about setting up your space for kittens.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU GET YOUR KITTENS HOME:
- Get your kittens settled into their area. Make sure they have a heat source. Again, this is the most important thing!
- Be sure to kitten-proof their area and watch out for any common household hazards, such as wires, rocking chairs, tiny spaces where they can get stuck, etc.
- Keep a record of their weights and make notes about progress daily.
- Spend time playing with your kittens and socializing them, if they’re old enough!
- Give kittens plenty of time to rest. They will sleep most of the day!
There are 3 categories for kitten fostering:
|Feeding Stage:||Age Range:||Weight Range||Feeding Frequency|
|Bottle Babies||0 to ~4 weeks||90 to 400 grams||Every 2‐3 hours 4‐5 hours overnight|
|Syringe Gruel||3 to ~6 weeks||300 to 700 grams||Every 4‐6 hours 6‐8 hours overnight|
|Gruel/Kibble||5+ weeks||700 grams and up||Every 4‐6 hours 8‐10 hours overnight|
The most important thing to remember when caring for kittens is to WEIGH, WEIGH, WEIGH! Making sure your kittens are getting enough to eat is your most important duty as a foster! So, below are in-depth instructions on how to feed kittens according to their age and size, as well as info on issues to look out for during each stage of your kittens’ growth.
BOTTLE BABIES (KITTENS 0-4 Weeks)
Watch a video created by Kitten Lady, Hannah Shaw about “How to Bottle Feed.”
How to make formula: Feed PetAg KMR® powdered formula or Breeders Edge formula from a bottle and/or oral syringe. Mix 2 parts water to 1-part powdered formula. Shake well to dissolve lumps! Store mixed formula in the fridge up to 48 hrs.
All kittens must eat 5% of their body weight at each feeding. Weighing kittens before and after feeding is a great way to make sure they are eating enough!
- The formula should be fed warm.
- Feed kitten upright or on belly in a prone position, NOT on his/her back like a human infant!
- Gather kitten feeding charts and some warm towels.
- Bottle‐feed the kitten first. Some kittens take a while to latch on, so be patient! If the kitten does not gain its 5% via the bottle, proceed w/ syringe feeding. Only use 1mL syringes.
- Watch for formula coming out of kitten’s nose or a rasping “wet” cough. This is called aspiration – it means the kitten has ingested formula into her lungs and is in danger of “drowning.” STOP FEEDING. Once no more formula is coming out of kitten’s nose, continue feeding. You will need to seek veterinary assistance if this continues, as it can lead to pneumonia and possibly death in kittens.
- Weigh kitten periodically throughout the feeding process – the kitten is only done eating when she has gained her 5%.
- Thoroughly clean off any formula on kitten’s fur and dry kitten off. (Formula will stick and is very hard to remove if it dries and is also painful for the kitten!)
- Weigh and record after‐food weight!
- After each meal, stimulate kitten w/ cotton ball or non- alcoholic baby wipe to help with urine/stool bowel movement. The kitten will not always have to go, but it is crucial that this step is performed after every feeding. Failure to stimulate orphan kittens can lead to serious illness and/or death.
- Kittens should be fed at regular hourly intervals as stated above in the feeding chart. For guidelines on how much they should be eating, see the feeding chart at the end of this guide.
- Kittens should be kept warm at all times.
- Kittens should be weighed and weights recorded.
0-2 WEEKS OLD:
- Feeding: Kittens are fed at least every 3 hours, 24-hours a day, even if you have to wake them up to feed them.
- Kittens are kept on a heating source at all times (heating pad on low).
- Kittens this young require stimulation to go potty after each feeding. You will hold the kitten and gently rub a warm, damp cotton ball, baby wipe, or cloth on their bottoms shortly after they have eaten. They should pee after almost every feeding and poop at least once every other day. Watch an instructional video created by Kitten Lady, Hannah Shaw here: Stimulating Kittens Instructional Video.
- Weigh kittens AT LEAST once daily and record their weight to accurately assess growth. If any of the kittens lose weight 3 times in a row, or if any of them drop 10% of their body weight between weigh-ins, veterinary attention is necessary.
- Ear canals open between 5 and 8 days.
- Eyes open between 8 and 12 days. They open gradually, usually starting to open from the nose outward. All kittens are born with blue eyes, and initially, no kitten’s pupils can be distinguished from the irises – the eyes will appear solid dark blue.
- Behavior: Kittens this young will sleep 90% of the time and eat the other 10%.
2-4 WEEKS OLD:
- Feeding: Kittens continue to eat at least every 3 hours, but at 3-4 weeks old can go to every 4-6 hours every night.
- Heat should be provided but they should be able to move away if needed.
- At this age, the kittens will start to urinate and defecate on their own. You can provide them with a shallow litter box (I recommend using a small cardboard flat such as a cat food can box). Use unscented dust-free litter (I recommend using pellets. You can buy a big bag for relatively cheap at any feed store).
- If the kittens are not defecating on their own, you will still need to stimulate them to go.
- Unless your kittens are exhibiting any signs of illness, they should not need any medical care until they turn 2 weeks.
- At 2 weeks, the kittens will need to be dewormed.
- Continue to weigh each kitten daily, regardless of outward, visible health. Sometimes kittens this age may appear to be thriving and growing but without measuring food and output there is no way to know for sure how your kittens are doing. Kittens can go downhill very quickly, often within 24hrs.
- Avoid too many guests. Minimizing exposure will help keep the kittens healthy.
- Eyes are opening now, and the kittens are beginning to hear sounds. Adult eye color will begin to appear at 3-4 weeks, but may not reach the final shade for another 9-12 weeks. Kittens begin to see well, and their eyes begin to look and function like adult cats’ eyes.
- Around 4 weeks, kittens are beginning to walk confidently
- Kittens will begin to play with each other, biting ears, tails, and paws even before their teeth have come in. Their milk teeth are cut during this period. They learn to sit and touch objects with their paws.
- Kittens begin their socialization phase. Normally, they would have been strongly influenced by the behavior of their mother for the next several weeks. To socialize kittens without a mom, increase the amount of handling, and get them accustomed to human contact. It is important not to expose them to anything frightening; children may seem intimidating and should be supervised closely while visiting to ensure gentle handling.
SYRINGE GRUELIES (KITTENS 3-6 Weeks)
Bottle babies should be switched to syringe gruel when they reach 3‐4 weeks old (when their canine teeth begin to grow in). Instead of KMR, kittens will now eat canned kitten food mixed w/ water and blended to a smooth paste.
It is important to note that the syringe gruel phase is, essentially, nothing more than a layover between nursing (formula or mama’s milk) and weaning (eating independently). So, at this stage, you should make sure your kittens always have access to kibble, gruel, (canned food w/ water), and a bowl of water, as eventually, they will decide to go it on their own!
Until that magical day, though, you will need to step in! Remember that just because you see your kittens eating on their own, this does not mean that they’re eating enough independently to maintain their health. Too often, fosters assume that because they’ve witnessed their kittens eating kibble or gruel from a bowl, those kittens don’t need to be syringe fed anymore. This is not always the case
How to make syringe gruel:
You will need a blender. Blend approximately one can of food with 1/3 to 1/2 can water (double, triple, etc as needed). Your syringe gruel should be about the consistency of a milkshake, and you should be able to easily draw it up into a syringe. Again, kittens must eat 5% of their body weight at each feeding. Kittens should be weighed before and after feeding.
First, give your kitten the opportunity to eat independently! Offer kitten warmed up gruel and kibble in separate plates or shallow bowls. If kitten shows no interest after a while, proceed with syringe feeding.
- With the syringe in your dominant hand, use your non-dominant index finger and thumb to grip the kitten’s head at her temples. Tilt kitten’s head back at about a 45-degree angle, using your palm to gently force kitten into a seated position.
- Draw warmed syringe gruel (microwave to a bit above lukewarm temp – no more than 5‐10 seconds) into 10mL syringe.
- Insert the syringe into the side of kitten’s mouth. Do not put syringe directly in front of kitten’s mouth (even if she tries to position herself this way!) as kitten could very easily choke.
- Slowly plunge syringe gruel into kitten’s mouth, removing the syringe every few seconds to allow her to swallow.
- Weigh kitten periodically throughout the feeding process – the kitten is only done eating when she has gained her 5%!
- Always thoroughly clean off any gruel on the kitten’s fur. Dry kitten off well.
- Kittens should be allowed to free feed and should have easy access to fresh food and water.
- Kittens should be weighed and weights recorded.
4-5 WEEKS OLD:
- At this age, you will need to start to wean the kittens with gruel.
- Ideally, gruel is diluted with kitten milk replacer. Because this is expensive, water is used as an alternative. If you would like to purchase a milk replacer to use, I recommend KMR or Breeders Edge. Royal Canine Mother and Baby Cat is an excellent food to use as gruel for the early weaning process.
- Weaning should be a gradual process that occurs over several weeks. Introduce the kittens to gruel in a shallow plate before syringe feeding them. You can begin by placing one kitten by the plate of gruel and hoping for the best – if she starts eating, great! Her littermates will probably copy her and do the same. But without mom around to show them, many kittens do not have a clue about feeding from a saucer. The kittens will walk in it, slide in it, and track it all over. Some kittens may prefer to lick the gruel from your fingers. Be patient, sometimes it takes two or three meals before they catch on. If they do not seem interested enough to even sniff your finger, try gently opening the kitten’s mouth and place a little bit of the food in their mouth. Hopefully, this will result in the kitten starting to eat from the plate.
- Be sure that the kittens always have access to freshwater in a low, stable bowl.
- Behavior: Begin leaving a shallow litter box out for the kittens with unscented pellet litter at three to four weeks of age so that they can start to learn to go to the bathroom in a litter box.
GRUELIES (KITTENS 5+ Weeks Old)
This is the last stage of kitten rearing – rejoice! When your kittens begin eating enough gruel and kibble on their own to gain weight consistently every day, you’re well on your way to throwing those syringes out! Don’t get too excited yet, though – your kittens will still need to be syringe fed if they’re not able to eat 5% of their body weight on their own. The switch from syringe gruel to gruel/kibble is not a magical “aha!” moment on your kitten’s part – it’s a process you’ll both need to work through very thoughtfully!
Once you see that your kittens are gaining around 5% of their body weight daily, for at least 5 days, you can begin to weigh them twice a day, instead of every time they eat. NEVER go more than 24 hours without weighing your kittens – weight loss is the number one reason kittens pass away in foster care!
5-6 WEEKS OLD:
- Care: Feed gruel 4 times a day. Thicken the gruel gradually by reducing the amount of water mixed with it. Introduce dry food and water, but continue weaning. For reluctant eaters, try mixing some kitten milk replacer into the gruel or tempt the kitten with some meat-flavored human baby food mixed with a bit of water. The familiar formula taste and smell or the baby food’s meat flavor is often more appealing to the picky eaters than cat food. Once the kitten accepts the formula-based gruel or baby food, gradually mix in wet kitten food until the kitten has been weaned like the other kittens.
- At 6 weeks, the kittens can usually receive their first vaccines. Visit your vet or a local low-cost vet clinic to have this done.
- Behavior: At about 5 weeks, kittens can start to roam around the room, under supervision. The strongest, most curious kitten will figure out how to get out of the nest. The others will quickly follow.
6-7 WEEKS OLD
- Care: By this age, the kittens should be eating dry food well. Feed the kittens at least 3-4 times a day. If one kitten appears food-possessive, use a second dish and leave plenty of food out so that everyone can eat at the same time. Although the kittens may not eat much at a single sitting, they usually like to eat at frequent intervals throughout the day.
- Behavior: By this time, you have “mini-cats.” They will wash themselves, play games with each other, their toys, and you.
KITTENS 7-8+ WEEKS OLD
- Care: Offer dry food at least 3 – 4 times a day and wet food at least 2 times a day. Leave down a bowl of water for them to eat and drink at will.
- At 8 weeks and/or 2lbs, most vets will spay/neuter kittens. Schedule an appointment and start looking for homes for your kittens!
Until they have been vaccinated, you should carefully restrict their exposure to any disease. This means checking with visitors to make sure they have not been around any sick dogs or cats and ensuring they always wash or sanitize their hands before handling the kittens.
Kittens stay hydrated by drinking water and eating canned food. You can do a quick elasticity test. Pinch a little skin between your thumb and forefinger on your kitten’s back. When you release it, it should pop back into place immediately. Your kittens’ gums should be pink and not white. If you are concerned your kitten is becoming or is dehydrated, contact a veterinarian right away. Dehydration can quickly lead to death in kittens.
Your kitten’s temperature does not need to be taken regularly. However, if you are concerned a kitten is too cold or running a fever it is best if you can take a rectal temperature. It is not difficult to take a rectal temperature but is easiest with two people. Using petroleum jelly or a similar substance insert the thermometer into the rectum. A normal temperature is between 99.5-102.5 .
Kittens will quickly become hypoglycemic if they miss even one meal. Just like a baby, kittens need to eat 3-4 times a day and always have access to fresh food. If kittens become even slightly hypoglycemic they can begin to go downhill very quickly.
Signs of hypoglycemia are:
If your kitten has a decreased appetite, contact a veterinarian right away.
Kittens are also susceptible to anemia. Anemia is a loss of red blood cells that, in kittens, is most often caused by an infestation of fleas or intestinal worms. You will need to bathe your kittens with blue dawn dish soap if they have fleas to prevent anemia. Watch a video here. The easiest way to check for anemia is to look for white or very pale gums. Normal kitten gum color is close to salmon pink. If your kitten’s gums are white or grey contact a veterinarian right away.
It is important to recognize a lethargic kitten from a tired kitten. Kittens will normally play, play, play then get tired and sleep for a period of time. If your kitten is going through this cycle, that is normal. If your kitten seems lethargic, contact a veterinarian right away.
Socialization is very important. Be sure to handle the kittens often when they are old enough to do so.
Weight and Food Tracking
Kitten’s primary/secondary color:
|Date||AM/PM||Type of Food Eating||Weight|
Minimum Feeding Requirements (Based on Weight)
Helpful Video Links, Websites, and Facebook Groups:
o Orphaned Kitten Bottle Feeders and Fosters Facebook Group (please ask to join!)