When a kitten is without a mother, it's up to us to lend a hand. Here are some tips you'll want to have in order to do so safely.
1. Gather Your Supplies
Places to shop are local pet supply stores, baby aisles and on-line suppliers (Amazon.com and Chewy.com are excellent sources).
You're going to need kitten formula. It is designed specifically for a kitten’s (newborn to six weeks of age) nutrition and digestive needs. DO NOT feed kittens cow's milk , dairy alternatives, or human baby formula, as this can be fatal to the kitten. Our preference is KMR - Kitten Milk Replacer
You will need a bottle. Be aware that the nipple that comes on the bottle is not cut; you will need to cut a hole in it yourself. The hole should be big enough that if you hold it upside down, formula can slowly drop out of it, but not so large that formula flows out freely.
Suggestions are the PetAg bottle kit, which contains a feeding bottle conveniently marked in tablespoon measurements for accurate feeding, assorted soft nipples, and a cleaning brush. In addition, for neonates, consider the Mini Nipple . It will fit a 1 ml slip tip syringe, a 3 ml slip tip or luer-lock tip syringe and bottles. The nipples appear much like mother's nipples, so that even the smallest newborn can suckle.
A Bottle warmer. The simplest alternative is warming a mug of clean water in the microwave in 30 second intervals until the water is warm (not hot), and then warming the bottle of formula in the water.
A Blender Bottle / Shaker Bottle which eliminates clumps easily and has the ability to store mixed formula.
Wash cloth, Towel, and Unscented Baby wipes to stimulate elimination and help keep the kitty clean.
A Receiving Blanket can be used to help the kitten feel comforted and warm.
2. Assess the Kitten
Avoid feeding a kitten until it is warm. It is essential to only feed a kitten once you’ve increased its temperature. Feeding a kitten with a temperature less than 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 degrees Celsius) can be life-threatening. A kitten can’t digest food if it’s chilled. Try warming the kitten as described in “How to Keep Kittens Warm”.
3. Prepare the Formula and Bottle
KMR - Kitten Milk Replacer must be mixed. It is important to closely follow mixing directions, one part powder into two parts warm water ((a part may be a teaspoon, tablespoon or a cup), as it can cause diarrhea or constipation if not done correctly. When mixing do not use a blender. A Blender Bottle / Shaker Bottle which eliminates clumps easily and has the ability to store mixed formula can be utilized. Any reconstituted powder formula can be refrigerated for up to 24 hours. After that, it must be discarded
Formula that has been in the refrigerator must be warmed to just above room temperature. Place the bottle in a bowl of shallow water, then heat in the microwave for 10 seconds. Or you may place the bottle in a mug of hot water for a few minutes. If mixing up fresh KMR powder formula, use warm water, it will be easier to mix. Before feeding the kitten, always test the temperature of the formula by placing a few drops on your inner wrist to be sure it is not too hot. It should be warm, but not hot: around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t boil the KMR, since boiling will destroy the nutritional value.
When bottle nipples are brand new, you will need to cut a hole in the top. Cut an X in the tip of the nipple using small, sharp scissors. Once the hole is made, test it by placing the nipple on a bottle of formula and turning the bottle upside down. The formula should drip slowly out of the hole. If the hole is too big, the kitten will ingest too much formula too fast; if it is too small, it will have to work harder to eat and will not eat as much as he should.
Bottles should be cleaned thoroughly before each use.
4. Feed the Kitten
Always wash your hands well with soap and water before and after feeding the kittens. In addition, to prevent the possibility of spreading viruses between the kittens and other pets in your house, keep a “kitten gown” (a robe, sweatshirt, etc.) in the kittens’ room to wear during feeding and handling of the kittens.
Never feed a kitten on his back. The kitten should be on his stomach in a position similar to how he would lay next to his mother to nurse. You may also try holding the kitten upright swaddled in a warm towel or have the kitten lay on a towel in your lap. Experiment with what position works best for you and the kitten.
Follow the feeding chart for a guideline of amounts and frequency. Using a kitchen or small postal scale, weigh the kittens daily to calculate the amount of formula they need. Keep a log listing daily weights and amount of formula consumed at each feeding.
Turn the bottle upside down and allow a drop of formula to come out. Place the bottle nipple in the kitten’s mouth and gently move it back and forth, holding the bottle at a 45-degree angle to keep air from getting into the kitten’s stomach. This movement should encourage the kitten to start eating. If at first you don’t succeed, wait a few minutes and try again. Usually the kitten will latch on and begin to suckle. If the bottle appears to be collapsing, gently remove the nipple from the kitten’s mouth and let more air return to the bottle.
Allow the kitten to suckle at his own pace. Be very careful not to squeeze formula into the kitten's mouth as this can cause aspiration. If a kitten refuses to suckle, try stroking the kitten’s back or gently rubbing her on her forehead. This stroking is similar to a mother cat’s cleaning and it may stimulate the kitten to nurse. Rubbing the face with a cloth or toothbrush can also simulate a mother's tongue and help them feel prepared to eat. If this does not work, try rubbing some Karo Syrup on the kitten’s lips. If the kitten still does not want to nurse, contact your veterinarian immediately.
5. Finishing Up
Just like human babies, kittens should be burped following bottle feeding. Hold the kitten with its belly down against your shoulder and pat gently until the trapped air is released.
Also, kittens are not able to urinate or defecate on their own until they are 3-4 weeks old, so they will need to be stimulated to empty their bladder and/or bowels after each feeding. In addition, if the kitten refused to eat or detaches from the bottle very quickly, they may need to be stimulated before the feeding as well.
To stimulate a kitten, turn the kitten onto its back and rub a moist cotton ball or slightly damp washcloth on their genital area to start the flow of urine. Urine should be very light yellow or colorless. Dark urine may indicate an issue with the kitten (dehydration, not eating enough, etc)
This will also help stimulate a bowel movement (BM). Kittens may have a BM once a day or every day and a half. Feces should be yellow/tan and soft or pasty - Watery yellow/green stools may be a sign of overfeeding, but any diarrhea in bottle fed kittens should be addressed sooner rather than later!
After feeding, always clean the kitten’s face by wiping away any formula with a warm, wet cloth or Unscented Baby wipes. Formula left behind can cause the kitten to get a crusty face or moist dermatitis that causes the fur to fall out.
Once the kitten is clean, return it back to its warm container.
Addressing Eating Issues in Bottle Fed Kittens
Not all bottle fed kittens are alike, and many will have their own preferences and needs regarding eating (temperature, nipple type, delivery method, etc). There are many things that may cause an eating issue with a bottle fed kitten, but there is most often a relatively simple solution to their issues. If the kitten is not interested in eating but otherwise appears normal (alert, clean, responsive to touch, etc), see if any of the following issues apply, correct them, and try again:
Improper Feeding Position - Kittens should be positioned feet down (sternal) with head slightly elevated and stretched out. NEVER feed a kitten on its back
Milk Temperature - KMR should be 97-100 degrees F. It should feel slightly warm when dripped onto the back of your wrist. If the milk is too cold, it may lower the kitten's body temperature and cause other issues; too hot and it may burn the kitten.
Kitten too Cold - Normal bottle fed kitten temperatures should range from 97-100 degrees F. If the kitten is too cold, their digestion will be compromised and they may not be interested in eating. If the kitten's extremities feel cold or the rectal temperature is below the above range. Wrap the kitten in a warm towel or place near a warming disc to warm them at no more than 2 degrees per hour, and attempt feeding again.
Milk Flow Fast - If the flow from the nipple is too fast the kitten may have a hard time swallowing the milk and may aspirate into the lungs. Make sure that the flow from the nipple is at a drip of 1-2 drops/second and not a consistent stream.
Nipple Type -There are various nipple lengths and styles and some kittens may prefer a different nipple type than others. If they are not responding to the nipple or appear to be choking on the nipple, try a different kind or feed out of a syringe until a different nipple type can be obtained.