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Orphaned Kitten Care

Raising orphaned kittens is an incredibly rewarding experience. The following discussion is a guide to their basic needs and recommended care between birth and four months of age.

  • Warmth, nutrition, and regular elimination (of both urine and stool) are most important at this point.
  • Keep a heating pad on the low setting underneath half of the kittens' box or carrier so that the kittens do not overheat and are able to move to a cooler area.
  • Until weaning begins around four weeks of age, bottle feed orphaned kittens approximately 10 to 15 mL of KMR or other kitten milk replacer every two to three hours around the clock. Their stomachs are small and not able to hold a large volume of liquid at one time. Slowly increase the volume per feeding to promote appropriate weight gain (1/4 - 3/4 ounce per day). Weigh the kittens regularly (daily if possible) to ensure they are thriving.
  • After four weeks of age, wean the kittens gradually over a few days. Start by mixing a small amount of canned kitten food with the KMR to create gruel, and offer it to the kittens in a bowl or on a saucer. At each feeding, progressively increase the amount of canned food and decrease the amount of KMR in the mixture. By five to six weeks of age, the kittens should be eating canned food exclusively (or in combination with kibble).
  • Any commercial kitten diet may be fed. Science Diet, Iams, and Royal Canin are a few examples of manufacturers that offer canned kitten diets. Many brands of dry kitten food also are available. A diet of canned food is best, either on its own or combined with kibble. Kibble can be moistened with water when first introduced. At this age, kittens can be free fed; no restrictions need to be placed on the volume of food they consume.
  • Stimulate urination and defecation every few hours. Gently massage the area around the anus with a warm, moist cotton ball. A fair number of kittens on formula develop constipation, but this problem often resolves after they transition to a regular kitten diet. Internal parasites also can cause constipation. In some cases, however, the problem does not resolve on its own, and an enema must be administered. If a kitten has not produced stool in 48 hours or if a kitten's appetite decreases, consult your veterinarian.
  • Introduce a litter box once the kittens are steady on their feet. Place them in the box to show them where it is located. Most kittens instinctively know how to use a litter box. Unscented, dust-free litter is recommended.
  • Have the kittens tested for the feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) between six and eight weeks of age. Kittens can acquire these viruses from the queen (mother cat), but FeLV antigens and FIV antibodies may not be detectable in the bloodstream until the kittens are a couple of months old. Transmission of the feline immunodeficiency virus from a queen to her litters is possible but rare. More commonly, the queen's antibodies to the virus, not the virus itself, are transmitted to her litters. The antibodies to the virus may be detectable in the kittens' bloodstream up to approximately six months of age. Kittens should be kept separately from other cats in the home until they have been confirmed negative for both of these viruses.
  • Vaccinations should be started around this same time (between six and eight weeks of age). The two core vaccines are the (1) rabies vaccine and (2) feline viral rhinotracheitis, calcivirus, and panleukopenia (FVRCP) vaccine.
  • The rabies vaccine is required by law for all cats in Cook County -even indoor cats- and can be given at 12 weeks of age.
  • The FVRCP vaccine protects against feline upper respiratory and feline distemper viruses. For best protection from these viruses, this vaccine is given every 3 to 4 weeks, starting at 6 to 8 weeks of age until 16 to 20 weeks of age.
  • Other vaccines usually are not necessary for cats that live exclusively indoors. If owners are unsure whether they will keep their cats exclusively indoors, Cat Hospital of Chicago may recommend the feline leukemia vaccine in addition to the two core vaccines. Feline leukemia is transmitted through direct contact with infected cats, so strictly indoor cats are at minimal to no risk of exposure to this virus.
  • Stool samples less than 12 hours old should be analyzed for the presence of parasites. Certain parasites, such as intestinal roundworms, are not consistently shed via stool, so kittens may be harboring them even if they are not detected through fecal analysis. For this reason, kittens should be dewormed at least two to three times during their first three to four months of life (usually every couple of weeks).
  • Male kittens may be neutered after their testicles have descended. The testicles usually descend by 8 to 12 weeks of age but in some cases may not descend for several months (up to nine months or more). Cat Hospital of Chicago checks whether the testicles have descended when kittens are brought in for their FVRCP boosters. Female kittens may be spayed after 12 weeks of age. Neuter (orchiectomy) and spay (hysterectomy) surgeries are outpatient procedures.
  • Last -but not least important- kittens love to play. Encourage playtime, but discourage kittens from "play biting" or scratching humans as part of their fun. Redirect this behavior to an appropriate toy or scratching post. Kittens that are allowed to play roughly with humans learn that this behavior is acceptable, and many continue to play in this manner as adults, at which point the habit is harder to break. Active, well-socialized kittens will grow up to be happier, healthier cats. Cats should be encouraged to play throughout their adult life to stimulate their minds and bodies as well as prevent a sedentary lifestyle and undesirable weight gain.

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