Newborn kittens are totally dependent upon their mother for survival.  She provides them with food, warmth, cleanliness, and helps them eliminate.  Humans can also provide these necessities, but not as well as a mother cat.  Newborn kittens can neither see nor hear, but they can smell, and they have sensory receptors on their faces that enable them to zero in on their mother’s body heat.

If you find a newborn, orphan kitten, resist the urge to immediately take it away.  Assess the situation first.  This time of year, shelters and rescue groups are inundated with orphaned kittens, and in many cases, the kittens should have been left with their feral mothers until they were old enough to be weaned.  Survival odds for newborn orphans are much lower when they are removed from their mothers.

Consider the following if you find a kitten:  Is there a mother around?    Are there other litter mates?  Is the kitten in physical danger?  Does the kitten appear weak or emaciated?  Is it covered with fleas?  If you find a clean kitten with a slightly full belly, it is unlikely an orphan and you should probably leave it alone.

Taking in a newborn kitten is a big responsibility, so you need to be prepared and do things correctly.  Kittens are unable to eat and eliminate on their own for about four weeks, so this is a big part of your job.  Newborn kittens need to drink cat milk replacer every 2-3 hours round the clock for their first week of life, then about every 3 hours when you are not sleeping.  If they do not have the opportunity to nurse from their mother during their first 24 hours of life, they miss out on colostrum and the important antibodies it provides.  Each time a kitten eats, it also has to be “pottied.”  A queen stimulates her kittens to eliminate by licking their genitalia.  You can replicate this action using a cotton ball, tissue, or soft washcloth soaked in warm water and gently wiping the kitten’s genitalia.  After each meal, a kitten should pass some urine and feces.

When feeding, make sure that you are using a feline milk replacer, and not any other kind of milk.  Although they love the taste of cow’s milk, cats are fairly lactose intolerant.  They lack the enzyme needed to properly digest the sugar found in cow’s milk, so more than a taste or two will cause diarrhea.

Kitten ears open around five days of age.  They can orient to sounds at about 10 days, but they don’t recognize sounds until they are three weeks old.  Eyes open between 5 and 14 days after birth, but kittens cannot visually orient until their eyes have been open a few days.  Newborn kittens can feel with both their front and rear limbs.  They can walk with uncoordinated motions at two weeks and can visually place their front legs and climb by three weeks.

It is important to keep newborn kittens warm and confined.  You can make a box and use a heating pad set on low covered by a thin towel.  You need to make sure that the kittens are not too cold or too hot.  You need to make sure that they don’t have fleas.  If you cannot comb or pick off fleas, then consult your veterinarian to find out what can be safely used to rid the fleas.  You should also consult with your vet if the kitten is not passing urine and feces with your stimulation.  Kittens can get constipated, so using a cotton swab thoroughly coated with Vaseline and inserted about an inch into the rectum (back and forth) will help stool pass.

After you get through the first couple of weeks of raising an orphan, socialization becomes very important.  The critical socialization period for kittens is 2-7 weeks of age.   During this time they should be handled by multiple people and exposed to other cats (and dogs if you have one).  Orphan kittens often grow up to be brats if they have not had contact with other cats.  Other cats teach them manners and how to properly interact, and there is nothing that humans can do to imitate this.

Raising an orphaned kitten or litter can be a very fulfilling experience.  Be sure that taking in the kitten is in his best interest for survival.  If you choose to take on this job, do it right and get advice from rescue groups and veterinary professionals if you have questions.

Written by Dr. Wexler-Mitchell of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA
Copyright © 2011 The Cat Care Clinic