Hand rearing kittens
- Hand rearing kittens can be very rewarding but is also a big commitment.
- It involves regular feeding, toileting, cleaning, health monitoring, keeping the kittens warm and socialisation.
- Always contact your vets for advice before deciding to hand rear.
- Contact your vet ASAP if you notice that your kittens aren't thriving, or you're worried about their health.
Newborn kitten care
Hand rearing can be a very rewarding process but there is no getting around the fact that it’s a hard job. Before taking on the responsibility, it’s important to speak to your veterinary practice for advice, consider exactly what’s required and whether you’ll be able to do it. This article covers:
Kittens can’t regulate their own body temperature, so without a mother they are likely to get cold. You will need to keep them in warm environment, with a cosy bed and a heat pad or heat lamp. Heat pads need to be covered with bedding, and heat lamps need to be far enough away to prevent burns (follow the safety guidelines carefully). For the first week to ten days your kittens need to be kept between 29-32˚C, which can be gradually reduced to room temperature (around 21˚C) over 4-6 weeks. A large cardboard box containing soft bedding makes a great bed for newborn kittens. It’s very important to give your kittens an area big enough for them to move away from the heat if they need to.
Things you'll need
- Artificial milk formula specifically for kittens (available from vets and some pet shops). Kitten/puppy milk form the supermarket is not suitable. Cow's milk is also unsuitable.
- A kitten feeding kit (available from vets and some pet shops)
- Sterilising tablets or solution (from any chemist)
- Cotton wool
- 2ml Syringes
- Weighing scales
When and how much to feed
Your milk formula packaging will have an instruction chart that tells you how much, and how regularly to feed. From 0-2 weeks old, your kittens will need feeding approximately 2mls of milk every two hours (including through the night). Once they are 3 weeks, you can extend the time between milk feeds to 3 hours. At 4 weeks, you can start to introduce kitten food, but they’ll still need their 3 hourly milk feeds. At 5 weeks, they will be eating much more kitten food and drinking fresh water, you can start offering their milk on a saucer - any kittens eating a bit less may need a top-up milk feed throughout the day. By 6-7 weeks of age, your kittens should be fully weaned off milk, eating kitten food and drinking water. See our summary below:
|Week 1||Milk feeds every 2 hours|
|Week 2||Milk feeds every 2 hours|
|Week 3||Milk feeds every 2 hours|
|Week 4||Milk feeds every 3 hours, introduce wet, sloppy kitten food|
|Week 5||Wet kitten food, milk to lap, also fresh water to lap. Top up bottle feeds only if necessary.|
|Week 6||Wet kitten food and fresh water|
Hand reared kittens are slightly more vulnerable to infections (because they don’t receive normal antibody protection from their mother’s milk), so it’s important to keep their bottles clean:
- Use warm soapy water and a bottlebrush to clean the bottles after each feed, rinse well.
- Sterilise everything after cleaning using a sterilising solution or tablet (from a chemist). Leave everything in the sterilising solution for the correct time. You don’t need to rinse the bottles afterwards, just flick them to shake off any excess.
artificial milk formula usually comes as a powder that needs mixing with warm water.
- Wash your hands
- Clean your work surface and collect your clean, sterilised bottles
- Boil fresh water and allow it to cool to the correct temperature before mixing it with the formula (correct temperature can be found in the formula instructions). This is an important step because mixing at the correct temperature allows the milk powder to dissolve properly without clumps (which can cause constipation).
- Carefully weigh out the powder and the correct amount of water. If you use a measuring cup, make sure you level the powder with the flat edge of a knife to ensure you don’t put too much in.
- Once the milk is prepared, test it on the underside of your wrist to make sure that it’s a comfortable drinking temperature.
As long as your kittens have a strong suck, they can be bottle-fed.
- Hold, or put your kitten in a natural feeding position (as if they were feeding from their mother). The natural feeding position for a kitten is on their belly. Never feed a kitten on its back as this could cause them to breath in the milk.
- Present the bottle teat to them and allow them to suck.
- Give them a break if they try to detach, otherwise let them suck until them seem full.
- If you see any bubbles of milk coming out of your kitten’s nose, stop feeding and wipe them clean. This usually indicates that the milk has gone up into their nose or down into their lungs. Wait to make sure they are breathing ok before trying again, a bit slower and in the correct feeding position.
Tip: Make sure that there are holes in the end of the bottle teats (some come without!). If the teat you are using has no holes, use a pin to prick a few into the end of it. Milk should come out comfortably with a light suck, if the holes are too small your kittens may swallow air instead of milk, if they are too big the milk may come out too quickly.
if your kitten is struggling to feed from a bottle, you may need to syringe feed them until they are strong enough to suck. Syringe feeding has to be done carefully because your kitten has no control over how much milk they get.
- Use a 1ml or 2m syringe, ideally with a teat attached the end of it.
- Hold your kitten in the position that they would be in if they were feeding from their mother (see above ).
- Drip small amounts of milk onto their tongue and let them swallow it.
- If necessary, encourage your kitten to swallow by gently massaging their throat.
Be very careful not to force milk into your kitten - they may choke.
Your kittens will need help weeing and pooing until they are approximately 3 weeks old. Normally, their mother would lick them to stimulate them to go to the toilet, so you will need to use damp cotton wool to replicate this after every feed.
- Use warm, damp cotton wool to gently, and repetitively wipe their bottom and vulva/penis area (in the same way that their mother would lick them).
- Continue until you see them pass urine and/or faeces.
- Wipe them dry afterwards.
It’s important to keep hand-reared kittens clean because they aren’t receiving antibodies from their mother’s milk and will be slightly more vulnerable to infections. Wipe away any spilt milk after feeds and ensure they are clean after toileting. Clean their bedding and living area every day.
From day one, make sure you identify each kitten individually, record their birth weight, and weigh them every day (at approximately the same time). Kittens usually weigh around 100g at birth and should gain weight every day. Contact your vet for advice if any of your kittens lose weight or aren’t keeping up with the others.
My newborn kitten seems constipated, what can I do?
Contact your vet for advice if your kitten isn’t pooing normally; constipation is very painful and can be dangerous. Your vet may prescribe medicines to help your kitten poo, or if you’ve caught it early enough, they may advise replacing their next feed with cooled boiled water (no milk). A water meal is fine as a one-off and can help loosen constipation. Constipation in artificially fed kittens is often caused by clumps in formula milk (that are difficult to digest). Clumps tend to develop when formula powder is mixed with water that is too hot, or too cold. Make sure that you follow your milk preparation instructions carefully to prevent problems.
My kittens have diarrhoea, what do I do?
Contact your vet straight away - diarrhoea in young kittens can be very serious.
My kittens are weak, what do I do?
Weakness in young kittens can indicate serious illness such as low blood sugar. Contact your vet for an emergency appointment.
How long can newborn kittens go without eating?
Newborn kittens need to be fed every 2 hours through day night for the first 3 weeks of their life. Feed frequency can then be slowly reduced until they are fully weaned at 6-7weeks old. Contact your vet if any of your kittens aren’t feeding properly.
How much does a newborn kitten weigh?
Newborn kittens usually weigh around 100 grams. They typically increase in bodyweight by about 5-10% each day over their first 2 weeks of life.
Published: January 2021
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Written by vets and vet nurses. This advice is for UK pets only.
Illustrations by Samantha Elmhurst