Chapter 2: Caring for Kittens from Birth to Eight Weeks

5 Requirements for Kitten Care:

  1. Keep kittens warm.
  2. Provide kittens with adequate nutrition.
  3. Keep kittens clean.
  4. Provide socialization with people and with cagemates.
  5. Do your best to protect them from infectious disease.

Body Warmth

Since kittens under four weeks of age do not have the ability to thermoregulate, we must help them maintain body warmth. One method is to place a warmed Snuggle Safe disk at the opening of the cage or crate. This disk then provides the needed warmth for 8 hours. Instructions for how long to heat the Snuggle Safe disk depending on the wattage of the microwave are printed on each disk. If you are unsure what wattage the microwave is, heat the disk for 5 minutes, then check the temperature with your hands. Make sure it does not feel too hot before placing it in the cage or crate. Cover the heating disk with a soft folded towel or blanket so the kitten cannot directly contact the disk. If no heating disk is available, place a heating pad on the low setting under the crate or on the bottom of the cage, then place a soft folded towel or blanket between the kitten and the heating pad. Check the heat source frequently to ensure it is not too hot or too cold. Make sure some area of the cage does not contain a disk or have a heating pad under it so kittens can move away from the heat source if too hot. Kittens also like a nice nest in their cage or crate so bundle them in a nice fleece that they can crawl into and out of.

We cannot overemphasize the need for a heat source in orphaned kittens. The queen would have provided a nice 100 - 103oF (38 – 39oC) environment for them. Continue to provide a heat source for orphaned kittens until four to six weeks of age. Although kittens over four weeks old may start avoiding the warmed bed, if the room is cool, even older kittens will seek out a warm spot. For this reason, as well as for socialization, consider appropriately pairing new single kittens of the same age so they can share body heat and be less likely to experience hypothermia.

Providing a good environment for kittens, means providing a warm, non-drafty room. A good practice is to make sure a towel covers the entire bottom of the cage and a bed made from a small litterbox or food carton is available so kittens do not sleep in their litterboxes. A towel covering the crate or front of the cage prevents drafts and keeps kittens under 4 weeks of age nice and warm. Ideally, kitten rooms should be kept around 85oF or 29oC but we recognize that it isn’t always practical. A kitten over 6 weeks of age only needs the availability of a warm, cozy spot. 

Kitten Feeding

Daily weight gain is an indication that the diet is meeting the kittens’ nutritional needs. Weigh kittens at the same time daily, not only to ensure adequate weight gain but also to calculate the amount they should be eating with each feeding. Kittens should gain about ½ ounce (14 grams) per day or 4 ounces (113 grams) per week. Keep in mind that the younger the kittens are, the more accustomed they are to staying latched onto their mom’s nipple all the time and nursing small amounts periodically. Frequency is essential for digestion and allows the kitten’s digestive system to handle small amounts at any one time.  Additionally, the act of nursing stimulates digestion. If you notice a kitten not eating enough in one feeding, increase the frequency of feedings or go back to that kitten after the others finish eating to give it another chance to take more food.

Guidelines for bottle feeding kittens:

  • Kittens must be warm, they cannot digest properly if their body temperature is low.
  • Combine 1 part powdered KMR formula to 2 parts water. (NEVER give them cow’s milk and keep them on the same formula.)
  • Kittens should eat 2 tablespoons or 30 ccs of formula per 4 ounces of body weight within a 24 hour period.
  • Feed kittens less than 2 weeks of age at least every 2 hours.
  • Kittens 2 to 4 weeks of age should eat every 3-4 hours. If they are sleeping for longer periods during the night, do not wake them to feed.
  • Feed weak kittens or ones not eating enough more frequently.
  • Some individual variations in frequency and amounts for each kitten may occur.

Click here for a video from Maddie's Institute on Orphaned Kitten Care and bottle feeding

General Feeding Guidelines

Test the temperature of the formula before feeding, it should be warm (around 100oF or 38oC), but not hot. Warm the bottle by placing it in hot water for a few minutes or by putting it in the microwave until it reaches the correct temperature. If you use the microwave be sure to mix the formula well before testing because hot spots may develop in the heating process.

Always properly position a kitten for feeding. NEVER recline a kitten on its back while feeding. This can cause it to aspirate, which means the kitten inhales the formula into their respiratory tract rather than swallowing. Aspiration can lead to a reactive pneumonia and be fatal. Kittens must be leaning forward or flat on their belly while feeding. They are most comfortable when positioned as they would be if nursing from their mom. To achieve this position, place the kitten on its stomach on a towel or cloth so the kitten can cling to the material and knead instinctually. If the kitten is acting frantic while nursing, try wrapping the kitten in a towel while feeding it. When bottle feeding, gently open the kitten’s mouth with the tip of your finger and slip in the nipple. Once the kitten learns what is coming, it will search out the nipple enthusiastically. You will feel a vacuum effect when the kitten gets into suckle mode. Watch for bubbles in the bottle during suckling and ears wiggling. These movements mean the kitten is suckling successfully. To keep air from getting into its stomach, hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle, keeping a slight pull on the bottle. Allow kittens to suck at their own pace. If a kitten refuses to take the nipple or will not suckle, try rubbing it vigorously on the forehead or stroking its back much as its mom would. Using a toothbrush to stroke the kitten can simulate the feeling that it would get from the queen’s tongue. If you still cannot get it to nurse from the bottle, syringe feed the kitten to make sure it gets adequate nutrition. If a kitten requires syringe feeding, have a plan in place for who foster parents should contact.

If feeding multiple kittens, it will be easier to get them all fed the required amount if you feed each one multiple times during the session. To accomplish this, feed the first kitten until it stops nursing, then feed the second, and so on. After each has had one turn at the bottle, go back to the first and repeat the process. Usually after two or three nursing turns, a kitten has had enough for one feeding. When a kitten has had enough formula, it will usually get some bubbles around its mouth and its abdomen will be very rounded, almost pear-shaped.

Kittens that seem too weak to nurse may be hypothermic or have an underlying medical issue. A kitten refusing to nurse beyond the first few "getting the hang of it" times may indicate illness and it needs to be examined by a veterinarian. Have a plan in place to for who foster parents should contact.

After each feeding session, give each kitten a full-body once over with a barely damp, warm washcloth. Use short strokes like its mom would use. This activity keeps the kitten’s fur clean, teaches it how to groom and gives it needed socialization. Make sure the kitten is completely dry before placing it back in its cage.

Kittens naturally suckle on each other and on fingers, even after eating. Kittens suckling on each other excessively may be a sign that the frequency of feedings need increased. If littermate suckling becomes problematic, especially around the genital area, separate the kittens. Check each kitten’s genitals to ensure sucking activity is not causing problems (redness, irritation, penis hanging out, etc.). Suckling on genitals can lead to the urethra swelling shut and having to be surgically reopened. If any of this occurs, have a plan in place for who foster parents should contact.

Weaning

A kitten is ready for the weaning process when it bites the nipple often and forcefully, and is able to lick formula from fingers. Continue bottle feeding through the weaning process to ensure kittens get adequate nutrition and are not overly stressed. The first step of the weaning process is to get the kitten to lap up formula from your finger and then a spoon. Once it masters this skill, put formula in a flat dish. Introduce the kitten to solid food by mixing warm canned kitten food and prepared kitten formula into a thin gruel. Gradually reduce the amount of formula mixed with canned food until the kitten is eating just the food.

Place the food in a shallow dish. Some kittens begin lapping right away; others prefer to lick the gruel from your fingers. Allow them to do so and slowly lower your finger to the dish. The kittens may bite the edge of the dish or walk in the food. Sometimes it takes two or more meals before they catch on. If a kitten does not seem interested in the gruel, try gently opening the kitten’s mouth and rubbing a little of the food on its tongue or teeth. Be patient, the weaning process takes time. As the kittens catch on, thicken the gruel. When kittens are eating thicker gruel, they should always have fresh water available in a low spill-resistant bowl. 

Kittens often walk through their food. Make sure the kittens are clean and DRY before putting them in their cages. Most weaning kittens are messy eaters so you may not be able to leave gruel or water in their cages at first. Wet kittens can rapidly lose body temperature.

Click here for a video from Maddie's Institute on weaning orphaned kittens onto solid foods.

Stimulation for Urination and Defecation

Mother cats groom their kittens to stimulate urination and defecation on a regular basis. If you are acting as their foster parent, you get this important duty. Very young orphan kittens will not be able to urinate and defecate without your help, so this is a crucial part of neonatal kitten care. Before and after each feeding, gently rub the kitten on its lower abdomen, as well as the genitals and rectum with a cotton ball/pad dipped in warm water or a fragrance free baby wipe. Make sure to rub only enough to get the kitten to eliminate because overstimulation will irritate the area. Keep an eye out for chafing and lingering dirt and do not let the kitten get chilled. Kittens should (and almost always will) urinate during each stimulation. They should defecate at least once daily.

General guidelines are:

  • Kittens need to be stimulated until about 3 weeks of age.
  • Kittens should be stimulated before and after each feeding.
  • Kitten should urinate every time and defecate at least once daily.

When kittens get to be 3 – 4 weeks old, they no longer need help eliminating body wastes. Place a litter box in the crate or cage and fill with non-clumping litter or shredded newspaper. Clumping litter can create litter clumps in their stomachs and respiratory passages and should not be used with young kittens.

At the same time as introducing a litterbox, you may need to start providing some dry kitten food so the kittens can chew on the food and not the litter. When teaching a kitten to use a litterbox, placing their feces in the box so they smell it in there often helps. If you have a kitten that defecates on its towel instead of in the box, move the feces to the box instead of completely cleaning it out of the cage.

Click here for a video from Maddie's Institute on how to stimulate a kitten to urinate and defecate.

Kitten Weight Gain and Developmental Milestones

Kittens should gain about ½ ounce (14 grams) every day or 4 ounces (113 grams) per week.  Weigh them at the same time every day with a kitchen or small postal scale. Lack of weight gain in a 24 hour period is cause for concern. Begin syringe feeding the kitten and have a plan in place for who foster parents should contact. To syringe feed the kitten, mix up the KMR as usual and then draw it up in a syringe. Put a nipple on the end of the syringe and place the kitten in the proper feeding position. Try to get the kitten nursing by slowly pushing KMR out of the syringe and through the nipple into its mouth. Make sure it swallows the formula before you push more into its mouth.

Kitten Developmental Milestones

Age

Weight

Milestones

Birth

3–3.7 ounces

90–100 grams

Eyes and ears are closed.

Sleep 90% of the time.

Minimal handling.

2 – 3 days

 

Umbilical cord falls off.

4 days

 

Begins to purr.

10 – 14 days

8 ounces

227 grams

Eyes and ears should be open.

Healthy kittens will be round and warm with pink skin and will rarely cry.

2 – 3 weeks

12 ounces

340 grams

Deciduous incisors erupt, can begin to eliminate without help.

Will start crawling, standing, and playing with littermates.

Begin regular handling.

Ready for deworming.

4 weeks

1 pound

454 grams

Deciduous canines erupt, beginning to walk but do not have great balance, will start to groom themselves, able to thermoregulate.

Continue daily handling.

Ready for their 1st vaccine.

Ready for gruel and may be ready for introduction of dry kitten food.

6 weeks

1.5 pounds

680 grams

Deciduous premolars erupt.

Running, playing, using the litterbox, grooming themselves.

Should be eating dry kitten food, supplemented with canned.

Ready for surgery and adoption (if you are able to place them at this age).

8 weeks

2 pounds

907 grams

Ready for surgery and adoption (if you are unable to place them at 6 to 7 weeks of age).

0 - 1 Week of Age

Feeding: If the kittens are orphaned, they need to be bottlefed every 2 hours. If the queen is with the kittens, they should nurse vigorously and compete for nipples. Newborns can nurse up to 45 minutes at a time. Be sure to watch kittens nursing at least once a day, if the queen will permit it. Check to make sure that each kitten is settled and nursing. A great deal of activity and crying could indicate a problem with milk flow, quality or availability. When the queen reenters the box, there should be some fussing for only a few minutes before everyone has settled down to serious nursing.

Environment: The temperature of the nest box should be nice and warm: 85-90oF. Hypothermia is the number one danger to newborn kittens.

Development: At one week of age, the kittens should weigh around 4 ounces and should be handled minimally. Kittens will sleep 90% of the time and eat the other 10%.

1 - 2 Weeks of Age

Feeding: Continue bottle feeding orphans every 2 - 3 hours until kittens are full but not bloated.

Environment: Floor temperature of the nest box should be nice and warm: 80-85oF.

Development: Kittens at 2 weeks of age will weigh around 8 ounces. Ear canals open between 5 and 8 days. Eyes will open between 8 and 14 days. They open gradually, usually starting to open from the nose outward. All kittens are born with blue eyes, and initially no pupils can be distinguished from the irises - the eyes will appear solid dark blue.

Healthy kittens will be round and warm, with pink skin. If you pinch them gently, their skin should spring back. When you pick a kitten up, it should wiggle energetically and when you put it down near the mom it should crawl back to her. Healthy kittens seldom cry.

To determine the sex of the kittens, hold a kitten on its back in your hand. In females, the vulva is a vertical slit above the anus; they are very close together. In males, the penile opening is above the anus, but they are separated by a raised scrotal sac and thus seem far apart. It is easiest to see the differences between the sexes if you examine all the kittens and compare the differences.

2 - 3 Weeks of Age

Feeding: Continue bottle feeding orphans every 2 - 3 hours until kittens are full but not bloated.

Environment: Floor temperature of the nest box should be nice and warm: 75-80oF.

Development: If there is a queen, she will begin to spend larger periods of time out of the nest, though she will not go far from it. Kittens will weigh around 10 - 12 ounces. Their ears will become erect. Kittens begin to crawl around day 18 and can stand by day 21. Kittens will begin to play with each other, biting ears, tails, and paws, even before their teeth have come in. Kittens learn to sit and touch objects with their paws.

Kittens begin their socialization phase - they will be strongly influenced by the behavior of their mother for the next six weeks. To further socialize kittens, increase the amount of handling, and get them accustomed to human contact. It is important not to expose them to anything frightening; children may seem intimidating and should be supervised closely while visiting to ensure gentle handling.

3 - 4 Weeks of Age

Feeding: Continue bottle feeding orphaned kittens every 3 – 4 hours and begin the weaning process. At this stage kittens may start lapping from a bowl.

Environment: Floor temperature of the nest box should be 70 – 75oF from this point onward.

Development: Kittens will weigh around 13 to 16 ounces. Adult eye color will begin to appear, but may not reach final shade for another 9 to 12 weeks. Kittens begin to see well and their eyes begin to look and function like adult cats' eyes. Kittens will start cleaning themselves, though their mother will continue to do most of the serious cleaning.

4 - 5 Weeks of Age

Feeding: They can usually drink and eat gruel from a shallow dish by 4 weeks. Weaning should be done gradually and bottle feeding should be continued every 4 hours while they are learning to eat solid foods. Introduce dry food and water.

Development: Begin litter training at four weeks. Use a low box with one inch of non-clumping litter or shredded newspaper. Do not expose the kittens to the clumping variety of litter, as it is harmful if ingested. After each feeding, place the kitten in the box, take his paw, and gently scratch the litter. Be patient! The kitten may not remember to do this every time, or may forget where to find the litter box, but will learn quickly. Be sure to give the kittens lots of praise when they first start using their boxes. Most will use it from the start, but like other babies, might make an occasional mistake. It is a good idea to confine the kittens to a relatively small space, because the larger the area the kittens have to play in, the more likely they will forget where the litter box is. Keep the litter box clean and away from their food.

5 - 6 Weeks of Age

Feeding: Feed gruel 4 times a day and thicken the gruel gradually.  Dry food and water should be available at all times. If you are fostering a litter with their mother, continue weaning. Some kittens will not like canned food. For reluctant eaters, try mixing any meat-flavored human baby food with a little water. The meat flavor is often more appealing to the picky eaters. Be sure the brand you get does not contain onion powder as this ingredient can be hazardous to kittens.

Development: At about five weeks, kittens can start to roam around the room, under supervision. They will weigh 1 pound and the testicles of male kittens will become visible. The strongest, most curious kitten will figure out how to get out of the nest. The others will quickly follow.

Play with your kittens daily! It is a good idea to wear long sleeves and pants, as they can play roughly and their claws are sharp. If you sit on the floor they will play "King of the Mountain," using your knees and shoulders as vantage points. This game is lots of fun and good exercise for them. Some kittens may be fearful at first; do not force yourself upon them. You can get them used to your presence by sitting in the middle of the room making phone calls; this way they hear your voice but do not feel threatened. Make them an important part of your household activities; accustom them to the sounds of the TV, vacuum cleaner, and other household sounds.

6 - 7 Weeks of Age

Feeding: Kittens should be eating canned and dry food well. Feed the kittens at least three meals daily. If one kitten appears food-possessive, use a second dish and leave plenty of food out so that everyone is eating. Bear in mind that a kitten at this age has a stomach roughly the size of an acorn, so, although they may not eat much at a single sitting, they like to eat at frequent intervals throughout the day.

Development: By this time, you have "mini-cats." They will wash themselves, use scratching posts, play games with each other, their toys, and you, and many will come when you call them. Be sure to reintroduce them to their litter box after meals, during play sessions, and after naps. These are the usual times that kittens need to use the litter box.

Adoption: It is safe for healthy, robust 6 week old kittens to be spayed/neutered and made available for adoption if you are able to place them at that age in your community. Check your state and local animal ordinances to find out if this is possible for your facility.

7 - 8 Weeks of Age

Feeding: Offer wet food 2-3 times a day (each kitten will be eating a little over one can of food per day). Leave down a bowl of dry kibble and water for them to eat and drink at will. If you have a litter with a mom cat, she should only be allowing brief nursing sessions, if any.

Development: By the end of the 8th week, kittens should weigh 2 pounds each and are now miniature cats.

Adoption: It is time for their spay/neuter surgery and adoption!

Socialization and Bathing

Beginning around 3 weeks of age, kittens need exercise to promote muscular and circulatory development and to learn social skills. They will begin to play with their littermates and learning from their mom if they are not orphaned. It is good to begin regular daily handling of kittens to get them used to contact with people. Play is the best method to help them physically and socially develop. 

If kittens are orphaned and do not have a mom to regularly groom then, it is important to teach them to groom and keep them clean. After each feeding session, give kittens a full-body once over with a barely damp washcloth. Use short strokes like a queen would use. Kittens often get dirty between cleanings and it is okay to wash a kitten with warm water under a sink faucet but focus only on the areas needing cleaned. A simple "butt bath" will usually do the trick. After bathing, wrap the kitten in towels/blankets and a heating pad set on low. Your body heat is not sufficient to warm up a cold kitten. Make sure you do not leave a kitten until it is completely dry.

Socialization

  • It’s a hard job, but someone has to play with kittens to ensure they are well socialized and people friendly by adoption time.
  • Kittens will naturally socialize with their mom and littermates if they have them. Socialization is another reason to pair single, same-age kittens on intake.
  • The key socialization period in kittens is 4 to 12 weeks of age.
  • Kittens start to play and explore at about 4 weeks of age.1  Make sure they have toys and stimulation in their cage. Pipe cleaners, cardboard rolls from toilet paper and paper towels are great play items in addition to traditional kitten toys.
  • In a foster home, the foster parent should spend some time each day sitting in the foster room with the kittens and having play time. In a kitten nursery, make sure the kittens get some hands on in-cage socialization time with nursery caregivers.
  • Introducing new fosters to the foster parents’ resident pets during the first two weeks is not recommended. Let the kittens get acquainted with their new home before exposing them to other animals. After this time, introducing foster kittens to adult cats and dogs in the home can be great for the socialization of the kittens but should definitely be done with care and only under supervision.

Steps to Bathe an Underage Kitten

  1. Get a small sink or a basin ready with some warm water. If the kitten is really dirty, a small amount of Dawn or baby shampoo can be used in the water. Make the water a nice warm temperature like you were taking a bath.
  2. To keep the kitten from getting chilled, have towels ready to immediately dry it off. If possible, warm the towels in the dryer beforehand. 
  3. You may want to wear long sleeves and gloves. Kittens may panic and start to scratch. Gently hold the kitten by the scruff and support its body with your other hand. This may help calm and control the kitten.
  4. Give the kitten a quick but thorough bath to get any food and feces off them. If only its butt is dirty, then only immerse the butt, not the whole kitten.
  5. Rinse the kitten off with warm water and immediately wrap it in a towel. 
  6. Rub vigorously to get the kitten dry. If the first towel becomes wet, switch to a clean, dry towel.
  7. Keep the kitten with you and do not put it back until completely dry. If needed, wrap a heating pad around the outside of the towel while the kitten is drying.

Click here for a video from Maddie's Institute on bathing orphaned kittens.