Raising Kittens

By Courtney Barnes, BSc, DVM; Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

Raising kittens can be a rewarding experience, though problems can occur along the way. The following information should help increase your chances of success when caring for young kittens.

How do I care for newborn kittens?

If the kittens were delivered without incident, the mother cat (called the queen) will spend most of her time with her kittens during the first few days after birth. For the first month of life, kittens require very little care from their owner because their mother will feed and care for them.

In fact, in most cases, the pet owner should not interfere with the mother’s care. Within a few hours of birth, it is important that kittens receive colostrum, or the first milk, from their mother. Colostrum is rich in antibodies and helps protect the newborns from infection.

The kittens need to be kept warm and should nurse frequently. Check them every few hours to make certain that they are warm and well-fed. You should also check the mother to ensure she is producing adequate and normal-appearing milk.

If the mother does not stay in the box, you should make sure the kittens stay warm. Kittens are not able to control their own body temperature and rely on the external environment to keep them warm. It may be necessary to provide supplemental heat. During the first four days of life, the newborns' box should be maintained at 89°F to 93°F (32°C to 34°C). The temperature may gradually be decreased to 80°F (26.7°C) by the seventh to tenth day and to 75°F (24°C) by the end of the fourth week. If the litter is large, the temperature does not have to be kept as warm, because the kittens huddle together and their body heat provides additional warmth.

"Kittens are not able to control their own body temperature and rely on the external environment to keep them warm."

If the mother feels the kittens are in danger or that there is too much light or noise, she may become anxious. Placing a sheet or cloth over the top of the box to obscure much of the light may resolve the problem. An enclosed box is also a solution. Some cats, especially first-time mothers, are more anxious than others, and may attempt to hide their young. She may continually move the kittens from place to place, which may endanger them if they are placed in a cold or drafty location. If your cat shows this behavior, you should cage her in a secluded area.

What are the signs that the kittens are not doing well and what do I do?

Kittens should eat or sleep 90% of the time during the first two weeks of life. If they cry during or after eating, it may indicate that they are ill, are not getting adequate milk, or the milk has become infected (mastitis). If excessive crying occurs, your veterinarian should examine the mother and her entire litter as soon as possible.

When the mother's milk supply is inadequate, supplemental feeding is recommended, one to six times per day. Supplemental feeding may be necessary with any litter with more than five kittens. There are several excellent commercial milk replacers available. They require no preparation other than warming. These milk replacers should be warmed to 95°F-100°F (35°C-37.8°C) before feeding. Test the temperature on your forearm: it should be about the same temperature as your skin.

Commercial milk replacers have feeding directions based on their nutritional constituents. If the kittens are still nursing from their mother, feed one-third to one-half the recommended amount. Supplemental feeding is needed until the kittens are old enough to eat kitten food, usually around two to four weeks of age. Goat’s milk is not recommended for kittens, as it is far too low in protein and fat. Pasteurized goat’s milk can be used in an emergency, but kitten milk replacer should be provided as soon as possible.

"Supplemental feeding may be necessary with any litter with more than five kittens."

If the mother’s milk becomes infected, the kittens will cry. If this occurs, the entire litter could die within 24 to 48 hours. Total replacement feeding, using the mentioned products, or fostering the kittens with another nursing mother is usually necessary. If you choose replacement feeding, feed the amounts listed on the product label. Kittens less than two weeks old require feedings every two to four hours. Kittens two to four weeks of age need feedings every four to six hours. Weaning, as described below, should begin at three to four weeks of age.

If the mother is unable to raise the litter, due to abandonment, illness, or death, then hand-rearing will be necessary. This includes feeding them as above, keeping them warm, and in the first couple weeks of life, stimulating them to pass urine and stool. This is done by massaging the genital area with a warm, moist, cloth or cotton ball after feeding.

What should I expect during the kittens' first few weeks of life?

Kittens are born with their eyes closed. Most kittens open their eyes within seven to fourteen days of birth. If you notice swelling, bulging, or discharge under the eyelids, the eyes should be opened manually. Ideally, you should take the kittens to your veterinarian, who will determine if this procedure is required. If this is not possible, you can use a cotton ball dampened with warm water to apply gentle pressure to the eyelids and open them. If the swelling is due to infection, you will see pus; in this case, a veterinarian should examine the kittens immediately. If the eyes have not opened within 14 days of age, the kittens should be examined by a veterinarian.

Kittens should be observed for their rate of growth. They should double their birth weight in about one week. Weigh them routinely, daily to weekly, to ensure they are growing normally. Failure to gain weight may indicate a problem and the need for veterinary care. At two weeks of age, kittens should be alert and trying to stand. At three weeks, they generally try to climb out of their box. At four weeks, all the kittens should be able to walk, run, and play.

"Failure to gain weight may indicate a problem and the need for veterinary care."

Kittens should begin eating solid food about 3.5 to 4.5 weeks of age. Initially, make gruel by mixing milk replacer with a small amount of kitten food; place this mixture in a flat saucer. The kittens' noses should be carefully dipped into the mixture two or three times per day until they begin to lap; this usually takes one to three days. The amount of milk replacer or supplemental moisture should be decreased daily until they are eating the canned or dry food with little to no moisture added (usually by four to six weeks of age).

I have heard of milk fever. What is it?

Eclampsia, or milk fever, is caused by depletion of calcium in the mother due to heavy milk production. It generally occurs when the kittens are three to five weeks old (just before weaning) and most often to mothers of large litters. Early signs include restlessness, panting, and loss of attention towards their kittens. It can progress to tremors, muscle spasms, and collapse. This condition can be fatal in 30 to 60 minutes, so a veterinarian should be consulted immediately. Prompt treatment with intravenous calcium will reverse the condition. If the mother develops milk fever, her kittens should be weaned as soon as possible.

Do weaned kittens need a special diet?

Diet is extremely important for a growing kitten. Many commercial foods have been specially formulated to meet the unique nutritional requirements of kittens and should be fed until 12 months of age. Kitten foods are available in dry and canned formulations.

You should buy a kitten diet that has gone through feeding trials for growth and development. Adult cat food does not provide the nutrition required for a kitten. Advertisements tend to promote taste, texture, and certain ingredients, rather than nutrition; it is important not to be influenced by these ads.

"You should never feed dog food to a cat, since it is deficient in nutrients essential to cats and does not contain enough protein to meet the requirements of either kittens or adult cats."

It is recommended that only food with the AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials) certification is purchased. Usually, this label is clearly visible on the food label. AAFCO oversees the entire pet food industry. It does not endorse any food, but it indicates if the food has met the minimum requirements for nutrition, which are set by the industry. Most commercial pet foods have the AAFCO label.

You should never feed dog food to a cat, since it is deficient in nutrients essential to cats and does not contain enough protein to meet the requirements of either kittens or adult cats. Table scraps should not be fed to a cat. Although the kitten may show a preference for table food, this food is not balanced or complete. If you wish to feed your cat a home-prepared diet, it is vital for your cat's health to have the diet properly balanced by a veterinary nutritionist (see handout “Feeding Growing Kittens” for more information).

When should vaccinations begin?

Kittens from a healthy mother will have passive immunity to some feline diseases before and shortly after birth. Before birth, the mother's antibodies cross the placenta and enter the kittens' circulation. Immediately after birth, the mother produces colostrum, or first milk, which is also rich in maternal antibodies. These maternal antibodies protect the kittens against the diseases to which the mother is immune. This is why it is often recommended to boost the mother's vaccinations a few months before breeding.

Although very protective, maternal antibodies last for only a few weeks; after this time, the kitten becomes susceptible to disease. The kitten should receive its first vaccines at about six to eight weeks of age. To provide strong immunity, several vaccines are required to complete the kitten vaccine series, ideally with the last one at 16 weeks of age or older.

Kittens should be vaccinated against feline panleukopenia, feline viral rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, feline leukemia, and rabies. Your veterinarian will discuss your individual cat's needs at the first visit for vaccinations. The specific vaccines and frequency of vaccination will be based on your cat's lifestyle and its potential risk of contracting infection.

Maternal antibodies are passed in the mother's milk only during the first one to three days after delivery. If the kittens do not nurse during this important period, their vaccinations should begin about four weeks of age or earlier if the risk of disease exposure is very high. Your veterinarian will make specific recommendations for each situation.

Do all kittens have worms?

Intestinal parasites (worms) are common in kittens. Symptoms of intestinal parasites include a generally poor condition, chronic soft or bloody stools, poor appetite, a pot-bellied appearance, loss of luster to the coat, and weight loss. Some parasites are transmitted from the mother to her offspring either in utero (while in the womb) or in the milk, while others are carried by fleas or other insects. The eggs and larval forms of some parasites are transmitted through the stool of an infected cat.

Very few of these parasites are visible in the stool. However, a microscopic examination of the kitten's feces will reveal the eggs of most of these parasites. Generally, the stool is examined for intestinal parasites at the time of the first vaccinations. However, a fecal analysis may be performed as early as two to three weeks of age if an intestinal parasite problem is suspected. Treatment is based on the type of parasites found, although some veterinarians choose to treat all kittens on the assumption that they will have worms. Occasionally, a fecal test is falsely negative, due to low numbers of parasite eggs shed in the feces of a young kitten.

The Companion Animal Parasite council recommends deworming kittens for roundworms and hookworms every two weeks starting at two weeks of age. Other treatment may be needed, based on the results of a fecal examination. Consult your veterinarian for specific recommendations for your kittens. You should not administer any over-the-counter deworming compounds or herbal dewormers without first consulting your veterinary hospital.

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