We strongly encourage everyone to have their cat spayed or neutered. This is the single most effective way to reduce the over population of felines in our community. If, however, you find yourself with a litter of kittens or have made the decision to care for a stray, please refer to the following information to help you care for your kittens until they are 8 weeks old - the minimum age they can be away from their mom and/or littermates.
Mom will do most of the initial care but you will need to check on the babies frequently to ensure that the mother is caring for them and to monitor for any signs of illness.
A clean, warm and dry place should be provided for moms and babies and a nesting box is essential for better health and survival. The nesting box should be located in a quiet, out of the way, warm and draft free area. The bottom portion of a plastic dog or cat kennel often works well as a nesting box and can easily be cleaned and disinfected. A kennel bottom about 24” x 20” and 10” high should be a good size for a mom and kittens. Mom should be able to step (not jump) out of one side of the box. Cardboard nesting boxes should be disposed of after the kittens are weaned. The box or kennel should be large enough for the mom to comfortably lie away from the litter if she chooses, but small enough so that newborns can easily reach her. The sides of the box need to be high enough to prevent the kittens from wandering away but low enough that mom can come and go easily.
Avoiding drafts is extremely important as they can quickly lower the body temperature of a kitten to a dangerous level. Line the box first with a layer of clean news paper to absorb any moisture or odor. Clean towels, blankets or mattress pads should go on top of the newspaper. Towels and blankets used in the box should be free of any holes or frayed edges as little heads or paws could easily get caught or entangled. Having towels and blankets in the nesting box will provide good traction so the kittens can crawl around without slipping. Do not use deep, loose bedding such as straw, hay or shavings which might obstruct breathing or be inhaled and lead to respiratory infections.
Kittens will also need to be kept very warm as they are not able to regulate their own body temperatures until 3 weeks of age. The temperature in the nesting box should be between 85 and 95 degrees F. A heating pad set on low will keep the babies warm, placing it under a blanket or towel will prevent burns. Check the heating pad often to be sure the babies are not overheating. Electric blankets should not be used as they can become too hot and easily cause burns. Even with the added warmth of a heating pad and sufficient room temperature, drafts and dampness will easily chill young puppies and kittens. Do not place cardboard nesting boxes directly on concrete as it will draw large amounts of heat from the young.
Make sure to closely monitor the health of both moms and nursing kittens. Watch to be sure that mom is nursing the kittens and caring for all of them. A kitten neglected or rejected by the mother may be showing signs of health issues. This is a very vulnerable age for kittens and illnesses can become quite severe in a very short time. Illnesses are usually acquired in utero, during the birthing process or in the post-weaning period. Illness during these periods is usually caused by infections (bacterial, viral, protozoan and parasitic) or malnutrition during weaning. Some of the most typical signs of illness in neonatal puppies and kittens are:
If you notice any of these signs contact your veterinarian immediately.
Animal Humane Society veterinarians and staff can not legally treat or recommend treatment on animals that are owned and have not been surrendered to our organization. If you are having a medical problem with your kittens and you can not afford treatment, you may surrender the kittens to AHS at any time. Understand we have limited resources and can not guarantee treatment. Once surrendered we can not inform you of status of kittens or return the kittens back to you once they are surrendered.
If the baby is cold, gradually warm it by placing hot water bottles wrapped in towels near it. Turn the baby often to encourage breathing. When the baby begins to warm up, encourage them to take in some food such as warmed gruel, baby food or milk replacer. Monitor hydration by checking the moisture of the gums, skin elasticity and color of the urine. Healthy puppies and kittens have moist gums, elastic skin and colorless urine when they are adequately hydrated. Dry gums, loss of skin elasticity or yellow color in the urine indicates dehydration.
Young kittens can also suffer from what is called “Fading kitten syndrome”. A “fading” kitten is one that appears healthy at birth but fails to survive beyond 2 – 12 weeks of age. Deaths generally occur due to one of the following:
Loss of a kitten “fading” is common and most times it is unavoidable. Please remember that between 15% and 40% of all kittens born alive will not survive to the age of 12 weeks. Most of these losses will occur before 2 weeks of age.
Neonatal period: Birth to 2 weeks of age
All of their time is spent sleeping and nursing. Newborn’s eyes will begin to open about 7 to 10 days after birth (sometimes up to 16 days). It takes about two or three days for both eyes to fully open. Even though the eyes are open, the newborn’s sensory system during this time is dominated by stimulation through temperature, touch and hearing.
Transitional period: 2 to 4 weeks of age
This marks the beginning of locomotion and sensory development which allows the babies to interact with their environment. Teeth will start to erupt just before 2 weeks of age and will continue until the kitten is about 5 weeks old. This first set of teeth will begin to be replaced by the permanent adult teeth at around 4 months of age. The sense of smell is present from birth and will become fully developed by 3 weeks of age. Vision does not play a major role in guiding behavior until about 3 or 4 weeks after birth. By the end of the third week the baby is able to use visual cues to locate and approach its mother. Visual orientating and following will develop between 2 and 4 weeks. Response to depth perception, guided paw-placing and obstacle avoidance all develop somewhat later, between 3 and 5 weeks.
The sensitive period for a kitten to become comfortable with human handling starts at 4 weeks and begins to close at 7 to 8 weeks of age. For this reason it is very important that many different types of gentle people handle and play with kittens from 4 weeks until the age of weaning. Studies have shown that just 5 to 15 minutes of handling per day is sufficient to aid in socialization at this age.
Social play with mom and littermates becomes prevalent by 4 weeks of age and continues at a high level until 12 to 14 weeks. Playing with objects begins a bit later as the kitten starts to develop the eye-paw coordination and has a marked increase around 7 to 8 weeks after birth.
Play changes a lot near the end of the weaning period, about 7 weeks. Social play becomes more associated with predatory play patterns such as pawing, pouncing, stalking and biting. Continued positive interactions with people are critical at this stage.
To help them develop, the environment should be mentally stimulating for kittens. Acquaint the young animals with different sights, sounds and textures. Kittens enjoy things like paper bags, wads of crumpled paper, and ping-pong balls. Avoid toys with strings and small pieces as they can be chewed off and swallowed. Make sure all toys are safe, appropriate and large enough so that the kitten can not choke on them.
Exposing kittens to a variety of unusual sounds helps them get used to these noises and minimizes fearful, nervous reactions. To help stimulate them, make noises by blowing whistles, clapping hands, jingling bells or turning on the vacuum cleaner throughout the day. Encourage the kittens to explore, sniff and investigate the noise makers. Praise kittens for positive reactions but do not punish them by forcing them to approach. Do not comfort a kitten that shows fear - to them, it shows that there is something that they should be afraid of.
At around 4 weeks of age encourage the kittens to be handled individually by different people, men, women and supervised children of varying ages.
Combine simple play with restraint exercises. This will familiarize kittens to having their paws touched, mouths opened, muzzles held and ears touched. Combining this with regular grooming sessions and body massages helps prevent aversion to touch.
Much time and effort is needed to properly socialize kittens between the ages of 4 and 12 weeks. Daily sessions are very important in shaping the animal’s future personality and emotional growth.
Weaning time depends on the size of the litter, condition of the mother and availability of the mother’s milk. Generally it is best to start weaning kittens at about 4 weeks of age. Weaning is a gradual process and should be completed by 6 to 7 weeks of age.
Note: Read all instructions carefully when using milk replacer. The powdered form is only good for 24 hours after reconstituting with water, even if it is kept refrigerated. Mix up no more formula than you think you will use in a day. Canned milk replacer can be easier to use but it must be kept refrigerated. The label on the can will tell you how long the product is good for once it is opened. It is critical to the health of kittens that only fresh, wholesome milk replacer is used. Cow’s milk, goat’s milk or any other type of dairy product is not an acceptable substitute. The digestive system of kittens is not designed to digest other types of animal’s milk and it can cause serious issues which could include diarrhea, constipation, gas and vomiting.
Begin by introducing kittens to a semi-solid gruel made from 1 part kitten chow and 3 parts milk replacer three to five times daily. Mash the food really well or use a blender or food processer. Canned food can also be used in place of the dry chow to mix with the milk replacer. The gruel should be served at body temperature, about 98 to 100 degrees. Offer the mash to the kittens in a shallow pan, like a pie plate, with lots of newspaper under it. They are very messy eaters at this age. If a kitten doesn’t get the idea of eating after a few tries, dip your finger into the gruel and gently smear a small amount on the baby’s lips, be careful not to get any in the animal’s nose. Encourage them to lick the food from your finger.
Once the babies know how to eat some of the gruel, stimulate their appetites by removing them from their mother for an hour or two before feeding time. Mom will likely appreciate this break by this time anyway. Allow them to eat the gruel for about 15 or 20 minutes and then return them to mom. Some kittens take longer than others to acclimate to the weaning process. Watch the litter at feeding time to be sure everyone gets enough food. Check tummies after feeding to see if they are full. Weigh each baby regularly to ensure they are all gaining weight.
This is also the time to teach kittens how to drink water from a bowl. Be sure to have fresh, clean water available in shallow bowls. The first few tries will probably result in water up the nose and lots of sneezing. Put newspaper down under the bowls as it can get messy.
As the kittens grow, mix less of the milk replacer with the dry food mash. Healthy weaned animals are able to consume dry food only by the age of 7 or 8 weeks. Dry food (not mixed with formula) should always be made available during the weaning process for the kittens to experiment with.
The gradual weaning process outlined above also helps mom by gradually decreasing the amount of milk she produces. Even with gradual reduction, sometimes moms develop a painful engorgement of the mammary glands after the young are completely weaned.
To prevent this from occurring (and to treat the condition) cut moms food to half of her normal intake amount. She will be hungry but the reduced calorie intake will cause her body to produce less milk.
If she does become engorged and is still painful after 24 hours of reduced food, begin restricting her fluid intake by half as well. The fluid restriction should only be in place for 24 hours but it can dramatically decrease the amount of milk in the mammary glands. Warm or cold compresses may make her feel more comfortable. Place the compresses on the swollen tissue for 20 minutes. Do not rub compress over the area, this can cause irritation. Do not allow the young to nurse in hopes that it will reduce the milk; mom will just produce more to replace it. If any of the mammary glands turn rock hard, bright red or are painful, call your veterinarian. Mom may have developed mastitis and require antibiotics in addition to food restriction. Three or four days of restricted food is usually enough to reduce the engorgement.