Hopefully everything goes well and Mama does all the work, in which case your job is to make life easier for her. But if, for whatever reason, you find yourself being surrogate mum, here’s how to care for those precious orphan kittens.
Mother Knows Best
Mother cats are amazing. They give birth to a litter of kittens and instinct kicks in. Without the benefit of ante-natal classes they know what to do, and hopefully mum will do all the heavy lifting when it comes to raising the babies. You can help by providing everything she needs to do a good job.
1. Safe Sanctuary
The mother choses where to have her kittens and is usually pretty determined about it. If the location is totally unsuitable you can try and relocate the litter, but be warned that the mother may have other ideas. Where possible, try and go with the flow and change the environment to suit her rather than upset her chi.
Your aim is for her to have privacy, peace, and quiet. This might mean a strategically placed cardboard box to shield her from a busy thoroughfare, or temporarily accepting that she has first refusal on use of the wardrobe.
Newborn kittens in the house are quite a draw, but make sure Mamma is not overwhelmed with visitors. Those first few days don’t have open house and only let one person at a time view from a distance.
2. EnSuite Facilities
A new mother will be reluctant to leave her babies; in fact she might not eat if this means abandoning the nest. Make sure she has everything she needs within easy reach, including food, water, and a litter tray. Oh yes, and use non-clumping litter in the tray. When the kittens are older and starting to explore, if they eat clumping litter it can block their bowel.
3. Feeding the Family
The mother needs to take in a lot of calories to provide for her growing family. A good quality wet kitten food is ideal as the water content helps mum produce plentiful milk. Make sure she has food available at all times, so in hot weather this might mean a compromise of leaving out dry kibble to snack on, with plenty of fresh water.
4. Housekeeping and Hygiene
The young kittens have weak immune systems so you need to keep the place clean. If Mamma doesn’t want the nest disturbed leave her in peace, but when possible change the newspaper and wash the bedding; and be sure to wash your hands before handling the kittens.
If Mama has no milk or she rejects the kitten then you become surrogate mother. All the things that a mum does instinctively, you are now in charge of.
A bit like Goldilocks’ porridge the new-born kitten mustn’t be too warm or too cold, but just right. Imagine being snuggled up against the mother and aim for an ambient temperature of around 35-38 degrees Celsius (which is 96-100 degrees Fahrenheit).
Keep the kittens together as they’ll help keep each other warm. Provide a heat source such as a heat pad with a towel on top (this prevents burns from direct contact with the mat). Set up their box so there is a warm and a cool end, so the kittens can wriggle to the place they feel most comfortable.
The kitten needs to be warm for the bowel to digest milk, so if the kitten feels cool to the touch warm her up before attempting to feed.
If at all possible encourage the new-born to suckle at least once and get the mother’s first milk. The latter is called colostrum; it strengthens the immune system and populates the naive gut with bacteria.
After that, if Mama isn’t feeding then over to you. Congratulations. You have a full time job on your hands for the next couple of weeks because tiny kittens require feeding every two hours (day and night) for the first week or so.
- 0 – 1 week: Feed every 2 hours
- 1 – 3 weeks: Feed every 3 hours
- 3 – 4 weeks: 3 hourly feeds during the day, but 11pm and 5 am overnight
- 4 weeks: 4 feeds a day and start weaning
Just as human babies need human formula milk, so kittens need cat replacement milk. Sadly, cow’s milk won’t do and is likely to give the new-born kittens diarrhoea. Kitten milk replacer (KMR) is widely available from vets’ and pet stores but if you are caught on the hop and don’t have access drip feed a little sugar water as an emergency measure. This prevents dehydration and will give the kitten a little energy, whilst you source the KMR….And don’t forget to make sure the kitten is warm before feeding.
You can buy special kitten feeding bottles, but at a push you can make do with an eye dropper or dripping milk from a syringe. When feeding, rest the kitten on their belly with paws in contact with your lap since kittens are not designed to suckle on their backs like a human baby.
The other job you just inherited is toileting duties for the youngsters. A kitten doesn’t urinate or defecate unless the area around their anus is licked by the mother. This is a survival tactic as it avoids them soiling the nest and drawing a predator’s attention. To mimic the mother’s licks use a clean damp washcloth and wipe vigorously until the kitten ‘obliges’. Clean the little one up with cotton wool and make sure they are dry before returning to the nest. Do this after every feed.
A kitten’s immune system is weak and they are not good at fighting infection so pay careful attention to hygiene. Wash your hands before handling the kittens and save a clean apron for kitten duties.
Replacement milk is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria so never make up a bulk lot, but create it fresh for each feed. Likewise, pay the same scrupulous attention to sterilising bottles and feeding equipment as you would to a human baby’s bottles and teats.
Those experienced at raising orphan kittens suggest putting a cuddly toy into the nest, for the little one to snuggle up to. Also, a ticking clock nearby can mimic a heartbeat and give some degree of comfort to an orphan.
6. Litter Mate
And finally, your dedication and devotion will pay off around four weeks of age, when the youngster is old enough to start weaning.
But remember, when raising a lone kitten, when she enters the play stage if she’s over rough with her teeth and claws, be sure to yelp and cry if she hurts you. This is because lone kittens lack the feedback from their littermates about when she’s being too rough. So as well as being a surrogate mother, you need to pretend to be a kitten and teach her to be gentle
Have you ever experienced the joy of being a surrogate mama and raising kittens? We’d love to hear your experiences and any other advice you have?