Oct 19, 2008

Feral Kitten How-To - Care, Feeding, Keeping Your Kitten Alive!

What To Do With A Rescued Kitten

1. Small kittens need kitten formula milk to drink. Cows milk will not give them the nutrition they need. You must get a formula for kittens, which fortunately is available at pet stores, Fred Meyer and farm stores everywhere. It comes pre-made in small boxes with long shelf life and in powder formula. If you get powder, follow the directions carefully and blend thoroughly.
Use fresh kitten milk every day, heated to around 105 degrees F (this feels warm on your wrist, not cool, not really hot). I usually put the bottle in a bowl of warm water to heat it, making sure that the water doesn't get into the bottle through the nipple. Don't use a microwave (same rule for human babies). BTW, you can get the kitten bottles at the same place as you got the formula. Be sure to carefully snip off the very end of the nipple (they don't come with holes in them and just poking one with a needle doesn't give enough flow).
The first few times, your little kitten will need encouragement. The nipple won't feel right to him/her, and the milk doesn't taste right. Keep trying to gently get the nipple into the mouth, stroke the kitten gently, sometimes very lightly squeeze the bottle to get things started. With your help, she'll soon learn that the bottle means warm milk, and she'll get very excited when she sees it.

Holding the kitten when feeding: You have to hold the kitten kind of upright, as if it were sitting up on its haunches - not on its back. This is compromise between nature and human technology. Kittens naturally nurse lying on their bellies and snuggled up to momma, but you can't get a bottle to flow at that angle. The bottle has to be angled downward so milk can flow into the nipple. Yet if you put them on their backs, they could choke. The compromise, therefore, is that you hold them upright so you can angle the bottle correctly for milk flow. (NOTE: If a kitten is very tiny and/or weak then it becomes trickier. You will need to allow the kitten to have its head downward to avoid drowning it - then you will squeeze the bottle very gently until milk flows into its mouth. This is messy but necessary with very weak kittens).
You will have middle of the night feedings for kittens younger than about 4 weeks. At 4 weeks, you may be able to get them to wait until morning for a feeding as long as you have a late feeding just before your bed time.. How to tell the age of the kitten.

One more thing related to feeding very young kittens: After feeding, use a paper towel soaked in warm water to remove milk from around the mouth. THEN use the paper towel to wipe the anal area gently, back and forth. This will cause the kitten to urinate on the paper towel. They need this help when they are very young. Momma cats do this, and it is necessary the first two or three of weeks of life. Once the kitten gets to be 4 weeks old or so, it will know to go potty on its own. Until then, you have to help.

2. Provide a warm place to sleep, in a safe place. A carrier with room for a sleeping spot and a feeding area is best, or a deep box. Don't just leave your kitten loose - you'll accidentally step on it in the night or it will get lost and hypothermic.
For warmth, I place a heating pad under ONE CORNER of the carrier and turn it on the lowest setting at night. I place a shirt I would otherwise discard in the corner on the inside so that the kitten has something soft to curl up in.
With small or sick kittens, I also fill a screw-top coke bottle with hot water, tightly cap it, place it inside a thick sweat sock and then put it in the box in or near the sleeping area. This provides extra warmth as well as something warm and soft to cuddle with.
There should always be room in the box for the kitten to move away from the heating pad if it gets too warm, and a newspaper to go potty on.
If your kitten becomes chilled, it will not only slow down, but it will also stop being interested in drinking its bottle. This can cause a downward spiral toward death. You can't fix everything that can go wrong with a little baby cat, but temperature regulation is one of the big things that can be fixed, along with feeding and flea control.

3. Remove fleas daily! This is much more critical than most people realize: Fleas cause anemia and can kill a kitten. This is one of the more common causes of death for abandoned kittens: Mother cats clean their babies many times a day, which removes most fleas. Without that attention, FLEAS CAN KILL A KITTEN over the space of just a few days.
You can't clean a kitten like the mom and you can't use flea medication or flea shampoo on a small kitten, but you CAN use a flea comb and gently brush it daily: Remove fleas with a flea comb. DO NOT USE FLEA COLLARS (EVER!) and don't use cat flea shampoo on young kittens. These things can kill them.
When you're at the pet store, get a flea comb (very tiny tines) and gently comb the kitten every day. I keep a bowl or cup of water next to me to drown the fleas that get caught in the comb.
While you're at it, groom little kittens like their mom: mimic the cleaning of mom cats using a barely damp washcloth and clean them all over their bodies with short strokes. In addition to keeping the little ones clean, it teaches the kittens how to groom themselves. Do this after each feeding, as this also stimulates bowel movements and is very important to their good health.
Advantage for cats under 9 lbs can be obtained from a farm supply store, a vet, or online - or Revolution (which also kills ear mites but you can only get it from a vet) can be used on kittens over 8 or 9 weeks of age - or a vet may even put it on a kitten as young as 4 weeks.
If your kitten suddenly wants to wander, if it becomes unusually hungry, if it gets weak and doesn't want to move around or eat, fleas may be causing anemia. It could be something else, but you should try to fix the things that human can fix, while accepting that sometimes there's nothing that can be done. Flea-caused anemia (which is fixable if caught early) has similar symptoms to acute feline leukemia, which you can't fix.

Other home flea remedies include a bath using Dawn dish soap and water. Fleas are repelled by its smell. However, you have to be very careful about the temperature of the water, and you have to rinse thoroughly. Also remember to dry the kitten carefully afterwards to prevent hypothermia. Another one, which I have not tried, is orange juice: Put some orange juice on a paper towel and wipe the kitten down with it. As with Dawn, the smell repels fleas and presumably the orange juice won't hurt the kitten when it bathes itself.  It has been suggested that you should do this outside because fleas will start hopping off as soon as you start wiping, and you don't want them in your house.

4. Take the baby to the vet when you can. Feral kittens usually have problems like ear mites and stomach parasites. Your vet can help you with all of that. The vet can't cure feline herpes (humans can't get this) or feline leukemia (also not contagious to humans), but there are many other things a vet can help with.

5. Box training: I make a small "cat box" out of cardboard (or a shoe box) and put litter in it. And have this available in the kitten's sleeping box at all times. It can be as small as a checkbook at first and then you build them bigger as the kitten gets bigger. They will eventually learn to use the box naturally if you do this.

6. The Future: Once the kitten gets passed 5 weeks old, you need to let it loose more often so it can explore and grow. Kittens need socialization. This is also a time to try small cat toys.
If you are going to try to give away a kitten after putting this much work into it, make sure it goes to a good home. Trust no one. Verify. We just had s story on TV where a guy was adopting kittens to feed to his pitbull. Be kind and make sure your baby has a good home.
If you keep it, have it spayed/neutered between 5 and 6 months of age. If you live near a road or where dogs or coyotes run loose, it is best to keep your pet indoors. This is an area of controversy because it is often said that outdoor cats have richer lives. That's probably true, but you have to decide if your kitty is likely to be injured or killed. We like them to have rich lives but we don't want those lives to be cut short. My original pet kitty was killed by a neighbor's dog in her own front yard.

NOTE: If you spot very young kittens in the wild, it's hard to know what to do. I try to keep an eye out for mom but a lot of it is guesswork. In general, feral kittens have hard lives and most don't survive. On the other hand, if they're very young, their best chance for survival (as bad as it is) is often to stay with mom. Here is an article about that.

God bless you for being a rescuer. Whatever else you do in your life, you will have been a hero for one small soul... or two... or three. That makes you a gold star angel, in my opinion.  ...

If you have questions, I will try to answer them. Just use the comment form.

Other resources:
Here is another take on how to raise an orphaned/abandoned kitten.
And Friends of Feral Felines Kitten Care.

Try to be a good parent for your kitty - I know you will.