It’s possible to stumble upon a litter of orphaned kittens in an area prone to stray or feral cats. When the situation arises, it is important to know the basics of proper kitten care. Kittens, like all animals are generally better cared for by their mothers than by any substitute but it is possible to rear healthy cats without a mother.
Deal with immediate health issues first
Kittens born outside can have a number of health issues including infections of the eyes and ears, internal and external parasites, respiratory infections, and exposure to the elements. These issues must be addressed in order to prevent further health issues. Do not use chemical flea and tick treatments on cats younger than eight weeks. If fleas are present, bathing the animals with a mild detergent will usually do the trick. Worms and ear mites are trickier with young animals and are better left for a veterinarian to treat. The same is true for infection. The best treatment for infection is antibiotics from the vet. Make sure the kittens are warm and dry and that they don’t show signs of dehydration including loose skin, excessive panting, and white gums.
Determine the age of the kittens
The needs of kittens change with age so knowing how old they are is the first step in providing proper care. There are a few basics to aging a cat. First, the umbilical cord falls off when the kitten is over three days old. If the cord is attached, the cat is a newborn. Cats’ eyes begin to open at around seven days old and are completely open when they are around ten days old. A quick check of the teeth is also a good way to determine the age of a cat. Kittens get their first teeth in the front of their mouths when they are about two or three weeks old. Their lower molars come in at five to six weeks and upper molars erupt at about eight weeks. The level of mobility in a cat is a good indicator of their readiness to be weaned from their mother. If cats run with good stability, they are at least five to six weeks old and should be capable of eating on their own.
Mother’s milk is best for kittens but it is never a good idea to look for a surrogate for orphans unless all of the cats have tested negative for disease. Serous health issues including Feline Immune Deficiency Virus can be passed from nursing mother to kittens and from kittens to mother. A good kitten milk replacement can be purchased from a pet store of vets’ office and this is generally the best solution as some cats will not accept kittens that are not their own and nursing additional kittens will pace a greater burden on the mother. Kittens should be bottle fed warm formula when they are on their stomachs. Younger cats require more frequent feeding than older cats as they drink smaller amounts per feeding. They should be offered a bottle every three hours at times when they are most alert and awake. As kittens age they will cry when they are hungry. This is a good indicator of the appropriate feeding schedule. Be sure to clean their faces with a warm washcloth after feeding.
All kittens should begin drinking water at around four weeks old. They can be weaned from milk at between five and eight weeks old. First feeding should consist of soft kitten food that is warmed to room temperature and mixed with a small amount of formula.
Litter boxes should be introduced early for sanitation purposes. Some cats just take to a litter box while others need coaxing. It is not uncommon for kittens to sleep and play in the litter box while they figure out what it should be used for. They will also learn by imitating their litter mates or adult cats in the household. It’s important to be persistent when litter training. Droppings that are found outside the box should be placed in the box so the kittens can use their sense of smell to figure out where they should be going. Don’t use clumping litters until cats are over four months old.