If you believe you found an orphan kitten, these steps will help you determine what to do and gives you all of the instructions on how to feed a baby kitten.
Kittens should have either mom’s milk or a milk replacer until at least 5 weeks of age or until their premolars start coming in. This will allow their bodies to properly process the food. If you feed them only cat or kitten food too early, it merely passes through their system and they do not get enough nutrients.
Step 1: Is this kitten an orphan? Does it need help?
Before removing a kitten from their nest and trying to bottle feed them, determine if they are truly an orphan and in need of your help.
- Review our flyer “How to Know if a Kitten is an Orphan” to see the differences between kittens that are healthy and most likely have a mom caring for them and those in need of rescuing.
- Next, determine the kitten’s age. See our “How to Determine the Age of a Kitten” chart to help you correctly age the kitten.
- Kittens who are orphaned AND are 5 weeks old or under will need bottle fed.
- Note: At 4 to 5 weeks old, kittens may take a bottle, but the older they are when they are orphaned, the more likely they are to reject the bottle and chew on the nipple. In those cases, it’s best to start weaning them on to a milk replacer mixed with kitten food and feed from a bowl.
Step 2: Examine the Kitten’s Health
- If the kitten appears sick, lethargic, or won’t eat even though they are old enough to eat on their own, consult a veterinarian.
- If the kitten is cold, place them on a heating pad that has been covered with a thin blanket. They must be warm before you attempt feeding them.
- If the kitten needs to be bottle fed, but they are weak, make sure they are able to swallow before trying to feed them. Put a small drop of formula in their mouth. Place a finger on their throat to see if they are swallowing. This will aid in avoiding aspiration.
- If the kitten needs bottle fed but won’t latch on to the bottle or can’t swallow, they will need tube fed until they are strong enough to take a bottle. There are a number of videos online that demonstrate this process. A veterinarian may also be able to show you how to do this.
Step 3: Gather Your Supplies
- At a minimum, you will need a bottle with a nipple small enough for a kitten, kitten milk replacer (such as Breeder’s Edge, Fox Valley, or KMR), blankets, a heat source, and a container or enclosure to keep the kittens safe between feedings. See our list of recommended supplies.
- A highly recommended nipple is the mini or full-sized miracle nipple.
- If you do not have a miracle nipple on hand, purchase a bottle from a local pet store and use the nipple that came with the bottle. Many times these nipples are not precut. Cut the nipple on an angle or use a sharp point to make a very small hole. When held upside down, the bottle should drip only one small drop of milk at a time.
- For newborns, you can use a syringe with the nipple. Do not plunge the syringe. They must suck the formula out themselves. When the syringe becomes stuck, use a new one. Switch to a bottle with a mini or full-sized miracle nipple for kittens over a week old.
Step 4: Get the Kitten Warm
- NEVER feed a kitten that is cold. Make sure the kitten’s body is warm before attempting feeding, even if the kitten has gone a long while without eating. Feeding a cold kitten can cause death.
- Use a heating pad under a blanket to give them a heat source. Kittens under four weeks old are unable to regulate their own body temperature. Make sure you have a heating pad that does not shut off automatically. Place a towel or blanket over the heating pad and make sure the kittens have space to crawl off the pad if they get too hot. If they become overheated they will quickly become dehydrated.
- In an emergency, a sock filled with uncooked rice will work. Heat the rice in the microwave for a few seconds. The sock will hold its heat for several hours.
Step 5: Prepare the Formula
- Only use kitten milk replacer that is made specifically for kittens (such as Breeder’s Edge, Fox Valley, or KMR).
- Do not use cow’s milk or any other kind of milk. If you are in a pinch and have no formula on hand, search for homemade kitten formula recipes online. Many of these recipes use readily available ingredients so you can get by until you can get to a store.
- Follow the directions for the powdered formula (this is typically 2 parts water to 1 part formula). If a kitten becomes constipated, you could try a 3-to-1 ratio. If using a pre-mixed formula and the kitten becomes constipated, add a small amount of water to the formula.
- For new kittens recently separated from their mom, start with an 8-to-1 ratio (8 parts water to 1 part formula) for the first 12 hours, then 4-to-1 for the next 12 hours, then 2-to-1 after that. This will aid in the transition from mom’s milk to formula.
- If the kittens were abandoned at birth, skip the transition step above.
- Give newborns a colostrum supplement if available within the first 24 to 48 hours after birth .
Step 6: Prepare the Bottle
- Add the formula to the bottle and warm slightly. Fill a cup with hot water and place the bottle in the water to warm. Do not submerge the top of the nipple.
- You can warm the bottle in a microwave but make sure to swirl the formula around so the heat evens out.
Step 7: Feed the Kitten
- Always feed a kitten on their stomach, NEVER on their back. They need to eat in a belly-down position like they would be situated when nursing from their mom. It’s best if you set them on a blanket rather than hold them. You can prop their front legs on a stuffed animal or rolled up blanket so they can take the bottle in the same position they would when nursing from their mother. Although, some kittens are fussy and will do better if you hold them against your chest.
- Hold the kitten’s head still with one hand. You can even cup your hand over their eyes from above. It is instinctual for them to bury their face into their mother’s fur when looking for a nipple.
- While holding their head still, offer the nipple by gentle pressing it into their mouths. Hold the bottle up and allow them to suck on the nipple. DO NOT force feed by squeezing the bottle or plunging the syringe. This can result in aspiration, which can cause death. If you believe the kitten has aspirated on their formula, we highly recommend they see a vet for a shot of penicillin.
- Use our feeding chart to determine how much the kittens should eat. When the kitten is done eating they will slightly turn their head away from the bottle. If you feel like they did not eat enough, then you can try offering the bottle once more. If they do not latch on or they turn their head and stop sucking again, they are done eating.
- If the kittens are five weeks or older, try weaning them on to soft kitten food. If they successfully eat on their own, there is no need to bottle feed. You can mix in the kitten formula with their soft food for two to three weeks until they are about 7 to 8 weeks old. This will give them probiotics and other necessary nutrients.
- For kittens that do not latch on to the nipple, tube feeding is the best option. Usually they will latch on to the bottle after a couple of days of tube feeding. If tube feeding is absolutely not an option, use a syringe and drip feed.
Step 8: Stimulate the Kitten so it can Pee and Poop
- Stimulate all of the kittens in the litter to go to the bathroom at each feeding.
- Use a tissue or soft wash cloth to gently rub the kitten’s back end.
- Hold the kitten in one hand and gently rub from underneath with the cloth in the other hand.
- Kittens should generally poop once a day and should pee at every feeding.
Step 9: Keep the Kitten and the Bottle Clean
- Keep the kitten clean by using a warm washcloth or baby wipes for both their face and their back end. If they are not kept clean, sores can develop.
- Use a soft bristle brush to clean out the bottle and the nipple. You can also boil a pan of water, remove from heat, and let the bottle and nipple soak in the hot water for five minutes to disinfect.
Step 10: Weigh the Kitten and Monitor Their Health
- Check the kitten’s weight at each feeding. As they get older, check their weight daily. They should gain an average of 10 grams per day. Digital mailing scales or kitchen scales that weigh in grams work best.
- If they are not gaining any weight or are losing weight, check with a veterinarian for assistance. Often times kittens like this will benefit from a low dose of antibiotics to help them fight off an infection or pneumonia from aspiration. Tube feeding should also be considered so they are getting enough formula to gain weight.
- Also watch for signs of the problems listed below. Contact your foster coordinator or a veterinarian with concerns, questions, or issues.
- Watch for chewing on the bottle’s nipple. If the kitten bites off a piece of the nipple, they can choke on it. Often times they will start chewing on the nipple when they are ready to wean and eat from a bowl.
- Adjust your feeding schedule based on the kitten’s age and weight. See our feeding chart for kitten feeding guidelines.
Signs of Trouble: Symptoms to Watch For
- NOT SWALLOWING FORMULA: If the kitten is no longer swallowing and seems to be fading, contact your veterinarian or foster coordinator if you are working with a rescue. Tube feeding may be necessary. A course of antibiotics may also be necessary to get kittens back to full health and get them properly eating from the bottle.
- STOOL CONSISTENCY/ DIARRHEA /CONSTIPATION: Check consistency and color often. Take note of any changes or oddities. Kittens with diarrhea or constipation that does not resolve in a day or two could be a sign of a serious issue.
- LETHARGY: If the kitten is no longer as active as they used to be this might be a sign of a serious issue.
- VOMITING: This could be a sign of a serious virus.
- FLEAS: Immediately take care of any fleas, which can cause flea anemia and can kill kittens. Flea medications need to be dosed appropriately for kittens. If you do not have a veterinarian or foster coordinator to work with, bathe the kittens in Dawn dish soap. Make sure to dry the kittens off thoroughly. Use a hair dryer on low setting. Otherwise kittens can crash from a bath.
- LIMPING: This could be the result of a soft tissue injury or symptoms of calicivirus. Rapid high fever and an ulcerated mouth can also accompany this virus. Antibiotics could be needed immediately! Don’t just think your kitten has hurt their leg or foot if they are limping. Check their temperature and reaction to verify the cause.
- STOMACH BLOATING: This could mean worms. Kittens should be dewormed at two weeks old, then every two weeks after that.
PLEASE REMEMBER YOU ARE DOING YOUR BEST
- Caring for an orphaned kitten can be difficult, and even the most conscientious foster parent may lose a little one. If a kitten dies in your care, you should not blame yourself. Remember that they would have certainly died if you hadn’t tried to help. You gave that kitten love and compassion in their final days. You are a hero.