A mother cat's milk is the best option for newborns, but if you've recently received newborn kittens who don't have a mother, you need to know how to properly care for and nourish these little ones. There's a lot involved in making sure your kittens grow into healthy cats, but it's well worth the effort.
Why Bottle Feed Kittens?
Similar to a newborn baby, a newborn kitten is very fragile and vulnerable. Their bodies are just beginning to develop, and thus, proper nutrition is vital to their survival. Cat milk is the best source of this nutrition and is gentler on your kitten's digestive system, so if possible, consider finding a surrogate cat who is nursing and can feed the kittens.
If that's not possible, bottle-feeding is the next best option.
Although feeding newborn kittens may take only 10 to 20 minutes each feeding, you'll need to do it every couple of hours until they can eat on their own, so it is a big commitment.
What to Bottle Feed Kittens
The only thing a newborn kitten should eat (other than a mother cat's milk) is kitten milk replacement formula, which can be purchased at a pet store or online. Only use a product made for kittens, like PetAg KMR Kitten Milk Replacer or Breeder's Edge Foster Care Kitten Milk Replacer. Do not feed standard cow's milk from the grocery store because this can upset their stomach and cause serious problems.
How Much to Feed
You'll need to know the weight of your kittens in order to determine how much to feed them, so you may need to purchase a small animal or baby scale for this purpose. Depending on which brand of kitten food you use, the label will give you explicit instructions on how much to feed based on your kitten's body weight. In general:
- A kitten should have 8 milliliters of kitten formula per ounce of body weight daily.
- Kittens under two weeks of age should eat every two hours, and kittens three to four weeks of age should eat every three to four hours.
- The pet feeding bottle you use should have measurement marks on the side to indicate how much the kitten has taken.
Record your kitten's weight at the same time every day to track their progress. Newborn kittens should put on an extra 10 to 14 grams each day. If your kitten isn't gaining enough weight, contact your veterinarian immediately.
Sterilize Your Bottle Before Feeding
The other thing you'll need, aside from the milk replacer itself, is a small pet bottle, which you can pick up at your local pet supply store or order online. You'll need to sterilize these before you use them because newborn kittens are extremely susceptible to infections and germs. Sterilize both the bottle and the nipple in boiling water for about five minutes, then allow both pieces to cool before you begin.
How to Bottle Feed Newborn Kittens
At first, bottle feeding a kitten might seem a little overwhelming, but once you're familiar with the routine, your feedings should go like clockwork. To help, I've included some video demos and tips from one of our favorite bottle-feeding experts, Kitten Lady.
- Fill the bottle according to the feeding guidelines and then set the bottle in the bowl of warm water to take the chill off of it.
- Test the temperature before giving it to the kittens by dropping some on your arm, just as you would with feeding a human baby. The temperature should be warm on your skin but not boiling hot, around 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
- You may or may not have to cut a slight sliver in the nipple to adjust the flow as needed. You can either cut a tiny "x" in the tip of the nipple with scissors or use a heated needle to poke a hole into the top of the nipple.
- Place your kitten belly down on a towel on your lap. This is important because when a kitten is fed on their back or upright, they're at risk of inhaling the milk into their lungs.
- Do not lift the kitten's head, but place the nipple of the bottle near their mouth instead. Your kitten should begin nursing right away. If your kitten doesn't, try to encourage them by placing a drop on your clean finger and wiping it on their mouth. Never, ever force liquid into your kitten's mouth.
- Let the kitten nurse for as long as they need, but do not try to force the kitten to take more than they want. When the kitten turns their head and stops eating, they're full.
- Carefully observe how much milk it takes to fill the kitten. Some kittens may take a little more or less formula than the guidelines recommend. You want to see a slightly rounded tummy after feeding and a kitten that now seems content. After a couple of feedings, you will begin to get a feel for how much your newborn wants.
Feeding a cold kitten can lead to digestive problems, and, unfortunately, young kittens can't regulate their body temperatures. Place kittens on a heating pad on LOW to keep them warm between feedings.
You Must Stimulate a Kitten After Feeding
Stimulating a newborn kitten to poop is something you have to do after every single feeding. Kittens can't poop or pee on their own until they reach about four to five weeks old, so their mom will stimulate them to relieve themselves. Because their mother isn't there, it's now your responsibility to help them.
To do this, grab a clean, soft material like a few squares of toilet paper or cotton squares. Wet it with water, then gently rub your kitten's genital area. Make sure you're holding them over a towel to catch anything that isn't absorbed by the tissue. Do the same process by rubbing their rectum to stimulate a bowel movement. Don't forget to clean them up and dry them off afterward!
Tips for Feeding Newborn Kittens
Once you're used to feeding newborn kittens, you should feel comfortable with the process, but there are some things you can do to set yourself up for success from the get-go.
- Buy extra nipples for your bottle. If you find you need to cut the nipple to facilitate feeding, it's good to have some spares on hand in case you cut too much.
- You can test out how well your nipple will work by turning the filled bottle upside down to see if it drips. You should see one drop at a time come out. Any flow stronger than that, and you've cut too much.
- Using a smoothie shaker can make mixing the powdered formula much easier and prevent unmixed clumps from forming.
Bottle Feed Kittens Until It's Time to Wean
Luckily, bottle feeding newborn kittens doesn’t last forever. When a kitten is about four weeks old, you can start mixing some wet kitten food in with their milk replacer (referred to as a “slurry”) and begin the weaning process. With the right techniques and tools, those first few weeks with your bottle babies will just fly by.