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Newborn kittens: A vet’s guide to care

Two newborn kittens sleeping
(Image credit: Getty)

When you have newborn kittens, usually mom handles the majority of their care and early upbringing with little need for intervention from us humans.  But what happens if the mother isn’t around or is unable to care for her kittens?  You’ll need to step in to raise the newborns yourself, and that can be a daunting task!  But never fear, we have the tips you need to get started raising newborn kittens the right way.  To care for newborn kittens, make sure you’re following these four major steps to keep them healthy and happy.

Keep them warm

One of the most vital aspects of caring for newborn kittens is keeping them warm.  Kittens under four weeks of age do not have the ability to regulate their own body temperature and must rely on outside sources of heat, such as their mother’s body heat, to keep warm.  Under normal conditions, the mother’s body heat would provide a warm environment of about 100-103 degrees Fahrenheit for the kittens.  If the kittens are to survive, they must be kept in a warm environment and you must provide a heat source for them.  The ideal ambient temperature for a kitten room is about 85 degrees Fahrenheit, with heat sources added to bring the temperature in the kittens’ enclosure to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

To provide a heat source for your kittens, consider purchasing microwavable heating discs such as Snuggle Safe heating pads.  You can also use a traditional heating pad if necessary, just be careful with the wires.  Whichever option you choose, be sure to wrap the heat source in a towel or blanket to ensure it does not burn the kittens.  Feel the heat source in your hands before giving it to the kittens and make sure it does not feel too hot or too cold.  Check your heat sources frequently and be sure to give your kittens an area of their enclosure where they can move away from the heat if they feel too hot.

Keep them clean and dry

In addition to keeping kittens warm, the mother also spends a significant amount of time keeping them clean.  You will need to take on this role by cleaning the kittens after each meal.  This is important not only for their health, but also for socialization and for the kittens to learn how to groom themselves as they get older.  To clean the kittens, use a slightly damp, warm washcloth and gently rub them all over.  Use short strokes similar to a mother cat grooming with her tongue.  Make sure each kitten is clean and fully dry before returning it to the enclosure with its litter mates.

Kittens under 3 weeks of age will also need to be stimulated to urinate and defecate.  To do this, simply use a cotton ball dipped in warm water and gently rub the kitten’s lower abdomen, rectum, and genitals.  This should stimulate the kitten to urinate every time.  Kittens should also defecate at least once a day with stimulation.  Kittens under three weeks of age should be stimulated to urinate and defecate before and after every meal.  At three weeks of age, kittens will begin to urinate and defecate on their own and will no longer need stimulation.  At this point, you can place a small litter box with non-clumping litter in the kitten enclosure for the kittens to explore.

A newborn kitten being fed from a syringe

(Image credit: Getty)

Keep them fed with proper nutrition

Never feed a kitten cow’s milk or goat’s milk – these do not have the right balance of nutrients for a growing kitten and may cause serious digestive upset.  Instead, feed your kittens 1 part KMR powder to 2 parts water.  The formula should be around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which will feel warm to the touch but not hot.  Formula that is too hot can burn the kittens and cause injury, while formula that is too cold can be unappetizing and can slow digestion.  Always check the temperature of the formula prior to feeding your kittens.

Kittens need frequent feedings throughout the day in order to digest the formula properly.  For kittens under two weeks of age, formula should be fed at least every 2 hours.  Kittens 2-4 weeks of age can be fed every 3-4 hours.  Any kitten that is weak, ill, or not eating as much as the others should be fed more frequently to ensure adequate intake.  

To bottle feed a kitten, place the kitten on its belly on a blanket or towel.  Hold the bottle at a 45 degree angle and gently place the nipple in the kitten’s mouth.  It may take a few tries at first, but once the kitten understands that this is a source of milk, it should latch on and start suckling right away.  Never place a kitten on its back to bottle feed, as this can cause the kitten to aspirate.  This can potentially cause aspiration pneumonia, which can be fatal.  Always keep the kittens upright and leaning forward, as they would be when nursing from their mother.

To ensure your kittens are eating well and getting enough calories each day, monitor their daily weight gain.  This will tell you if you need to increase their daily feedings.  Kittens should be weighed at the same time every day for accuracy.  A healthy kitten will gain a half ounce per day or 4 ounces per week.  If any of your kittens aren’t gaining enough, you may need to increase the frequency of their feedings.  If they still aren’t putting on an appropriate amount of weight, it’s best to consult your veterinarian as there may be an underlying medical issue contributing to the problem.

Keep them mentally stimulated

Kittens are natural explorers and it’s extremely important for their development to have new experiences at a young age.  Socializing your kittens should begin at 3 weeks of age.  At this time, you can begin introducing the best kitten toys, different play surfaces, and new people.  Handling the kittens frequently is also important to ensure they will be friendly and outgoing when it comes time to adopt them out.  As they continue growing and learning about their environment, you can also begin to introduce household noises such as the TV and the vacuum cleaner, which will help them be more successful at settling into their new homes when they are adopted.  If you choose to introduce other pets to the kittens, this should be done very gradually and under direct supervision at all times to reduce the risk of a fight.

Newborn kittens: A fun handful!

Raising newborn kittens is a lot of work and they can definitely be a handful.  But the rewards are invaluable when you see your kittens grow and thrive.  With these four major tips, you’ll be able to get started raising your kittens so they’ll have a bright future ahead of them!

Dr. Elizabeth Racine is a small animal general practice veterinarian covering all things pet health and wellness.  Her special interests include veterinary behavior, nutrition, and internal medicine.  As a freelance writer, Dr. Racine has written content for major companies in the industry such as the American Kennel Club, Merck Animal Health, Bayer PetBasics, Elanco, and CareCredit.  In her free time, Dr. Racine enjoys playing trampoline dodgeball, hiking with her beagle Dasher, and spending time with her three mischievous cats.  Dr. Racine can be found at www.theveterinarywriter.com (opens in new tab) and at https://www.linkedin.com/in/eracinedvm/ (opens in new tab)