neonatal kittens AA Caring for neonatal kittens (kittens up to four weeks old) can be a difficult job, but success is so rewarding it makes the rest worth it. Kittens at this stage are very unstable, which means it is likely they will not all survive. So, the first thing to do when caring for neonatal kittens is to prepare yourself for possibly watching them fade, but hoping for the best. Below is more information on how to help these helpless kittens and the importance of using an incubator. Contact us today if you have any questions!

Don’t Go it Alone

If you suddenly find yourself with one or more kittens on your hands and you aren’t an experienced rehabber, it’s always best to find some help. You can try contacting your local vet or no-kill shelter to see if they have resources available for you, such as a nursing mother cat or someone experienced with neonatal kittens. You can also contact animal welfare networks online and see what help they can give you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; it is a kitten’s best chance for survival!

The First Step: Heat

Babies animals, especially baby mammals, usually have a hard time regulating their own baby temperature until they get a little older. This is true of kittens that are under three weeks old. We have more information below on how to estimate a kitten’s age so you know the best type of care to give them.

For young kittens they need to be placed on a heating pad or in an incubator like one of our TLC units. They should always be able to get away from the heat if necessary, but it is very important that they do not chill. A chilled kitten will be lethargic and cool to the touch.

Warming up a kitten is the first real step in the care process, because you should never bottle feed a kitten until they have warmed up. If you don’t have a heat source like an incubator you can always use your own body heat by gently rubbing the cold kitten.

Clean up messes and accidents in their bedding as necessary, but do not bathe a neonatal kitten. Wet kittens are cold kittens, and this can be very dangerous for them. If they need to be cleaned you can use a moist towel and gently blow-dry them afterward. 

Second: Food

If you do not have a nursing mother available, the only safe food for kittens is kitten formula. TV shows and movies might lead you to believe that kittens will do just fine on cow’s milk, but this can cause diarrhea which leads to dehydration. In kittens this can be deadly. 

Pet supply stores and vet usually carry kitten formula, and you can feed kittens with a bottle that is designed specifically for this purpose. Follow the directions that come with the bottle when preparing it, and always sterilize the bottle before using. Wash your hands before and after handling the kittens for feeding.

You can hold or place the kitten on its stomach when feeding, never on its back. Arch the bottle so that less air gets in and always warm up the formula (warm, not hot) before feeding the kitten. As a reminder, do not feed kittens until they are warmed up properly. Tube feeding may be necessary if the kitten is too sick to bottle feed, and you should consult with a veterinarian before attempting this if you are inexperienced with tube feeding.

Kittens usually stop eating when they are full, and for kittens up to 10 days old they should be fed every two hours around the clock. From 11 days to two and a half weeks you can feed them every three to four hours. From two and a half up to four weeks old, every five to six hours. Any older than this and you can start weaning them, which means feeding two to three times a day with a wet food/formula mixture.

After Feeding

Kittens need to be burped just like babies, and you can use the same method for this. Place them on your shoulder on their stomachs and pat gently until you feel a burp. You may need to clean the sticky formula off the kitten with a warm, damp cloth and blow-dry them.

Third: Potty Training

Nursing mothers will lick their kittens to stimulate urination and defecation, so if you do not have a nursing mother you will need to improvise. A warm, moist cotton ball can be gently rubbed on the kitten’s anal area after feeding to help them go to the bathroom. While on formula kittens will be unable to form solid feces, so they may need to be cleaned afterward.

At about four weeks kittens can start litter training. Be sure to use a small, shallow pan with non-clumping litter to start. Using material other than litter (such as paper or fabric) can create bad habits in kittens, so stick with litter. 

Common Health Problems

Even without added health problems caring for kittens can be complicated business, but a few health concerns need to be watched for carefully. Being so small and vulnerable, kittens can spiral quickly, which means constant monitoring to ensure they are doing well. The best way to spot health problems early on is to weigh your kittens regularly and watch for lack of weight gain. Weigh them twice a day at the same time and log the weight each time. Losing weight or not gaining weight can be a bad sign, so you may want to get in touch with your vet as quickly as possible if you notice this.

Upper Respiratory Infection

URIs are common in kittens, but they are very important to keep an eye on. Symptoms include a heavy yellow discharge or the kitten having trouble breathing or eating. A serious URI requires veterinary care, but a mild URI can be treated by cleaning up the discharge and keeping kittens in a warm, damp place like an incubator with humidity control.

Fleas

Fleas on adult cats are no fun and can carry diseases, but fleas on kittens can actually cause anemia. Use a flea comb to remove as many of these pests as possible. For a particularly bad case of fleas you may need to bathe the kitten in warm water with a small amount of liquid dish soap. Avoid the eye area and rinse thoroughly. Do not use any kind of flea medication or flea shampoo on kittens that are younger than six weeks old, and do not submerge kittens in water. Use a blow dryer or incubator to dry the kittens off after their bath.

Parasites

Deworming treatment can start on kittens as young as 10 days old, so consult with your vet about this. Otherwise, be on the lookout for any drastic change in stool consistency. Parasites can cause diarrhea and other problems, which can be dangerous if left untreated. Get your kitten to a vet if you notice anything out of the ordinary.

Cat House on the Kings

Cat House on the Kings is a no-cage, no-kill sanctuary for feral and abandoned cats and kittens. We donated a TLC unit to them in the past to help with their work, and we recently reached out to them for more information on just how important an incubator is for what they do. Below is the response we got from Beth in public relations:

We have many newborn kittens that come in during the summer “kitten flood” and they cannot regulate their own body temperature when they are so young. Incubators and other forms of heat are important for the work we do because we don’t always receive newborn kittens with their mothers. We do also have new or young mother cats that need help with their first litter of kittens. This also helps when we have many critical needs kittens all at the same time. Our Founder, Lynea, usually cares for the difficult case kittens or adults and being only one person, it makes a huge difference having an incubator to help keep kittens at the right temperature, while Lynea attends to other kittens needs, etc. 

Not spayed mama and kittens

We had just rescued this adult female cat (pictured above), who actually arrived with a certificate showing that she’d been spayed. A very short while later, she gave birth to a litter of 6 kittens! (Definitely an OOPS on someone’s part!) Mom and fluff balls are doing well, with help from staff and our incubator. Being an inexperienced mother, she needed help keeping her kittens warm. When ready, mom WILL be spayed once she’s finished raising these little ones. The kittens should be ready in about 9-10 weeks or so… Halloween kittens? Rescue is always a challenge! Your greatly-needed and much-appreciated donation will allow us to continue our efforts to save kittens in our community! Wee kitten Wee kitten (pictured above) came in as part of a mama-less litter and she was the tiniest and took longer to thrive. She needed special additional treatment and had to be separated temporarily from her siblings. The incubator and keeping her warm were vital to her healing and growing since she had to be without her many siblings that used to keep her warm. In the photo she is reunited with her siblings after her specialized course of treatment. The incubator also helps provide individual care when needed, even if the kittens are a part of a litter.

How to Estimate a Kitten’s Age

Estimating a kitten’s age is important for feeding and weight tracking, so below is a chart that can help you roughly estimate the age of the kitten in your care. Please note that the weights listed below are an estimate for the age ranges, not an exact number.


Newborn - one week

Weight: 100-200g. Kittens will be unable to walk. Their eyes will be shut and their ears folded down. They can purr and make small noises, with a visible umbilical cord.

One - two weeks

Weight: 200-300g. Kittens will be able to move around a bit by crawling and cuddling. Their eyes and ears will start to open.

Three weeks

Weight: 400g. Kittens can stand and take short steps. Their eyes and ears will be fully open. Kittens will be responsive to interaction. Baby teeth will start to appear.

Four - five weeks

Weight: 500-600g. Kittens will be much more active with running, digging, and jumping. Kittens can begin to wean and use a litter box at this age.

Eight weeks

Weight: 900g. Kittens will start to look and act like mini versions of their adult counterparts.

Further Information

Caring for kittens is not something that should be undertaken lightly, and you should always get in touch with your local shelters and vets if you are inexperienced or unsure of something. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with Brinsea Products for more information on our TLC incubators for neonatal kitten care. You can message us on Facebook or Instagram or call our office at (888) 667-7009. We look forward to hearing from you!