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Kitten Care: Raising Tiny Newborns

Part 3: Your Role as Surrogate "Cat Mom"

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In Part one we discussed preparing for your new kitten, bringing him or her home and integrating her into the household, and the all-important initial health check. Part two covered the basics in caring for your kitten. This final section involves the special needs of newborns.

It Ain't Easy

Raising newborn kittens may be the most challenging, time-consuming task you've ever attempted, and can be both intensely rewarding and heartbreaking. If you do not have the time or the emotional stamina to deal with the potential of losing kittens you've invested your heart in, you might want to leave the job to people who are trained and experienced. Little lives are at stake here.

So someone has dumped a box of newborns in the court of your apartment building, with or without the mother cat. Where do you go from here?

  • If the mother cat is with the kittens and seems to be in good health, you're lightyears ahead. She will do a lot of the work for you, and your task will be to make sure she's healthy by taking her to the veterinarian right away; next, that she's nursing all the kittens and attending to their cleaning.
  • If the mother cat abandons her kittens or was never there, this article will give you some tools to help turn the odds in favor of the kittens.

How Old Are They, Anyway?

Kittens mature so rapidly the first three or four months, that your job as surrogate mother will be determined by the kittens' age at any given time. This key, by Jeri Dopp, gives a quick way of estimating age.

    You can tell their age very approximately by several methods. If they still have their umbilical cords they are probably between 1 and 3 days old. If their eyes are still closed they are probably between 1 and 10 days old. By 10 days their eyes should be open. Open their mouths and look for teeth. Do you see little nubs coming in? About 2 weeks. Are they attempting to stand? Possibly 2 to 3 weeks. Are they starting to play? Figure their age at about 4 weeks.
    Safe Haven For Cats

You'll want to arrange a "nest" for your kittens. This can be either in a carrier, or even a cardboard box lined with clean towels will do in a pinch. If you have other cats in your home, the kittens must be isolated in a separate room, and you'll want to practice diligent hygiene in washing your hands both before and after caring for them. Tiny feral babies can be little time-bombs of disease, which you don't need spread to your other cats. In any case, they'll be safer and your job will be a bit easier in a small area, such as a bathroom.

Basic Needs of Newborn Kittens


Warmth:
A chilled kitten can die quickly, and is considered a veterinary emergency. You can warm the kitten by holding it next to your own skin, or by using a heating pad, set to "Low", well-wrapped with a thick towel or flannel sheet. Make sure there is plenty of unheated surface in the box so the kittens can move away from the heat source if they become too warm. Feeding a chilled kitten can be fatal, so wait until its temperature is up to its normal range of 95° F to 99° F before attempting to feed it. If a kitten's temperature falls below 94° F it must be warmed gradually to avoid metabolic shock. At the same time, give it Pedialyte (the same stuff sold for human babies) to hydrate it and prevent shock.

Nourishment:
You'll need K.M.R. or equivalent, available from pet stores, and a feeder of some sort (either a bottle, syringe, or eye-dropper.) The K.M.R. box will include instructions for feeding by weight of the kitten. Tiny babies will need to eat as many as 12 meals around the clock, so plan on 2 a.m. feedings.

At three weeks or so, you can start training the babies to eat food in a dish. Do so by mixing either dry or canned kitten food with the milk forumula and moosh it until it is a thick liquid. Go ahead and use your blender, and pretend you're making a milkshake. You'll probably need to "prime" the kitty by putting a bit of the mixture on your finger tip, then showing her the saucer. As the kitten learns to eat and enjoy her "mush", you can gradually reduce the amount of milk replacement forumla.

Finally, she can graduate to solid kitten food. Ideally, you should start kittens out with a premium brand of canned kitten food. Canned food remaining in the can should be covered and refrigerated immediately after opening, and the next serving can be warmed in a microwave for just a minute or so. Uneaten canned food in the plate should also not be left out after the kitten has had her fill, as it can spoil rapidly. Since kittens' tummies are small, the best plan is to give four or five small meals a day. Some cat owners provide dry food to be eaten at will, supplemented with a small serving of canned food once or twice a day, however for optimum nutritional benefits, a canned diet is better.

Next > Nurturing, Vet Visit, and The Litter Thing

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