5 Essentials for Caring for Orphaned Kittens

Updated September 29, 2021
Kittens playing in broken window

Orphaned kittens under the age of 8 weeks old need constant care in order to thrive. And unfortunately, many shelters are overwhelmed and don't have the necessary resources for young litters. If you've come across kitten orphans that need your help, it's important to understand the five essential elements they require. The decisions you make are crucial to these kitties' survival.

Considerations Before You Provide Care

If you've stumbled upon a litter of kittens outside with no sign of mom, you might feel compelled to rescue them. First, it's important to determine whether they've actually been abandoned. Kittens under the age of 8 weeks have a much better chance of survival if they're raised by their mother.

Experienced rescue organizations recommend evaluating the environment and the kittens' overall condition. If their location puts them in immediate danger or they appear ill, it might be best to rescue them.

However, if the kittens are in a safe place and look healthy, don't interact with them. From a hidden location (mom may be reluctant to approach if you're in view), monitor the area for around 4 to 6 hours. The mother cat should tend to the kittens within that amount of time to feed or clean them. If she doesn't, they may be truly orphaned.

The First 24 Hours

The initial 24 hours after rescuing orphaned kittens is the most crucial. Many rescues advise putting a bit of Karo syrup or sugar water on kitten's gums right away to prevent hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. It's difficult to know when orphaned kittens last had a meal, so this is an essential measure.

It's also important to get them to a veterinarian. Your vet can make sure they're healthy and can give specific recommendations for care based on their age and condition. In the mean time or following their checkup, you should provide orphaned kittens with the five essentials they need to thrive successfully.

5 Essential Care Tips for Orphaned Kittens

Listed in order of most urgent to least, the following are the five most critical things orphaned kittens require.

1. Warmth

It is very important to keep young kittens from becoming chilled. As soon as you find the orphans, wrap them in warm layers of blankets or clothing. If you don't have anything with you, you could instead put them under your clothes and use the heat from your body to keep them warm. Kittens generally get the heat they need from their mother and each other as they lie close together.

Once you have taken the orphans home, keep them in a warm, draft-free room. Although having an incubator would be ideal, prepare a box or cat carrier as a substitute. Bedding should be soft, warm, and absorbent. Kittens can be messy, so be sure to change layers out as often as needed. Make sure that the bedding does not have any loose threads or strings, as these can present a strangulation risk to kittens. Consider using towels, blankets, or fleece.

There are a few different methods for keeping their environment warm, but whichever you choose, it's important to place heat on only one side of the box. This way, the kittens can instinctively move to the unheated half if they become too warm. You can use a heated cat bed as well as a hot water bottle or heating pad beneath the box. It's possible for pets to burn their skin on these heat sources, so use caution by setting it on the lowest temperature setting and always wrap it in a blanket to prevent this.

Kittens that are less than one week old should be kept at a temperature range of 88 to 92 degrees Fahrenheit. The second week, you can lower the temperature to 85 degrees. From 2 to 4 weeks old, slowly reduce the temperature to 80 degrees. Once the kittens have reached 5 weeks old, they can be in a room where the temperature is 75 degrees.

2. Nutrition

Growing kittens need adequate nutrition, so it's important to find a kitten milk replacement. Do not give kittens cows milk. Instead, find a product like KMR Kitten Milk Replacer powder or liquid, which is available at pet stores and vet hospitals or create a homemade kitten milk. Hoskins formula is a popular recipe used by shelters and rescues.

A rescued baby kitten cradled in hand getting fed with a tiny bottle of warm milk

The frequency of feedings depends on a kitten's age and size. Allow a kitten to eat until they are full. If orphan kittens won't eat or stop eating, seek veterinary care.

  • Under 4 weeks old: Kittens under 1-month-old (weighing about 13 ounces or less) should be bottle fed every two to four hours.
  • 4 to 8 weeks old: Once a kitten reaches 4 weeks of age, they are likely old enough to eat on their own and can be weaned from the bottle. Mix the KMR with canned kitten food to create a gruel-like mixture. If they don't appear to be eating well on their own, you can continue bottle-feeding a few times each day until they can supplement themselves. Continue offering food several times each day (every four hours or so) to keep them growing.
  • Over 8 weeks old: After they reach 2 months old (around 2 pounds in weight), kittens likely no longer need formula and can eat just kitten food. Canned food is ideal as it will provide them with moisture to keep them hydrated. You can even mix in some extra warm water to create a nice, soupy consistency.

3. Stimulation to Eliminate

Until they reach 4 weeks old, kittens are not able to go to the bathroom on their own. They rely on their mother to stimulate eliminations, which means you'll have to act as their parent and do it. Although this may sound intimidating, it's a simple process you should perform after each feeding.

  • Take a sterile cotton ball or a soft tissue moistened with warm water.
  • Hold the kitten comfortably with their belly in your palm. Be sure to have a small towel underneath them to catch any urine or stool.
  • Next, gently massage the kitten's genital area. The massage will stimulate the elimination process.
  • Then move to their anal region and perform the same massage to stimulate defecation.
  • Make sure to rub the area gently to prevent chafing. Once the kitten has gone to the bathroom, clean the area.

4. Proper Hygiene

Keeping the kittens clean is vital to preventing disease or infection. After you have fed and helped the kittens eliminate, you should clean them with a soft towelette or paper towel that is barely damp with warm water.

Use short, gentle strokes of the towel to wash the entire kitten. The strokes should emulate the mother's tongue as she would have washed the kittens. Doing this gives the kittens a nice feeling of well-being as they enjoy the attention and have their fur cleaned. It also teaches them how to clean their fur as they get older. Also ensure their environment is clean and free of stool or leftover food.

5. Handling/Socialization

Another important aspect of raising orphan kittens is providing the love and emotional closeness they need. Kittens need to feel the warmth of your touch as they snuggle and cuddle against you. Pet and hold them as often as possible.

owner playing with young kitten

Early handling and socializing with other people and animals will also help these kittens grow into loving pets. This will increase your chances of finding them homes when they're old enough. Many cat experts believe that kittens that are hand-raised show greater affection and loyalty for their caretakers and are more intelligent.

Alternative: Finding a Foster Mother Cat

Sometimes a person that finds orphaned kittens is fortunate to also find a foster mother cat. Generally, a foster queen will accept kittens that are about the same size as her own. Although they will nurse the foster kittens, they may not be able to care completely for all the kittens if there are two full litters. You will need to help with supplemental feeding using a bottle.

If you do not know anyone with a queen that is suitable as a foster mother, try calling local veterinarians, shelters, or rescue groups in your area. Someone there may be able to help you locate a nursing queen that will accept the orphans.

Act Carefully Yet Quickly to Save Orphan Kittens

Although caring for orphan kittens can be very demanding, the rewards of raising kittens to the age of adoption are many. You may even end up adding the little furry felines to your own family.

5 Essentials for Caring for Orphaned Kittens