What to Do When You Find Orphaned Kittens

Summer is upon us.  This means that very soon stray and feral female cats that are not spayed will be and may already be having kittens. We frequently receive calls from clients reporting that they have found a litter of kittens and asking us what they should do. 

First, it is important to be sure they are actually abandoned.

The mother cat may just be moving them to a safer spot. Quite often, if the mother feels that the nest has been compromised, she will move the kittens.  Once she finds a safe spot, she will move the kittens one by one. This can take some time depending on the distance to the new home. Keep an eye on the kittens to see if the mother is actually moving them. Please to not handle the kittens and keep a safe distance away as the mother may not return to the nest if you are too close to it. Also, do not feed the kittens since there is a chance the smell of the food will attract predators.

Unfortunately, there are times when a mother cat will not come back, usually because of an accident. In this case you would need to make a decision as to what to do. Should you try to take care of the kittens yourself, or should you take them to a shelter?  Some shelters may have volunteers that will take on the task, but quite often there are more litters of kittens then volunteers to go around.  There are veterinary clinics that may have a staff member that may be able to take the kittens, but please call them to check first before bringing them in.

If you decide to bring them into your home, it is very important to keep them separated from your own pets. Stray, undomesticated cats can carry contagious and sometimes incurable diseases like Feline Leukemia and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. It is also very common for them to have intestinal parasites like roundworms and tapeworms, or external parasites like ear mites and fleas. Wash your hands well after handling the kitten and before petting your own pets.

Looking after young kittens requires round the clock care. Similar to newborn human babies, they need frequent feedings, and they need to be kept warm. Kittens also need to be stimulated to eliminate as the mother cat does this for them.

Do not give the kittens cow milk.

They cannot properly digest it, it can make them ill, and it does not contain the necessary nutrients required for a growing kitten.  Kitten milk replacers are available at pet shops and veterinary clinics. It can be purchased as a liquid or a powder that you add water to. The powders are more affordable and last longer.

Bottles (they look like small doll bottle) are used for feeding kittens. Again, similar to human infants, the bottles and any other utensils for making the formula need to be clean and sterile.  If using powder formula, make enough for the feeding that you are doing. You can also make up a batch for night feedings and keep it in the fridge. Make sure to warm the bottle of milk before feeding and when feeding, to hold the kitten upright, not on its back. (There are many you tube videos that will show how to do this.) If you need to put a hole in the bottle yourself, ensure that the liquid comes out in slow drops, not a stream. If the milk is coming out too fast, it can be fatal to the kitten during feeding as it can go down the wrong tube and possibly into the lungs.

Follow the directions on the milk replacer container to determine how much to feed the kittens. It is usually based on their weight. Feeding too much or too little can make them sick. If the formula is too thick (too much powder in it) a kitten can become constipated.

Kittens need to be burped after a feeding so they do not accumulate gas in their bellies. It can be very painful for them if burping is not done. To do this, place the kitten on your chest and rub its back until you hear a little burp.  (Have a cloth under the kitten in case it vomits.)

You will need to feed kittens on average at least every two hours for the first two weeks and this includes night time feedings! This is why it is important to decide in advance if looking after young orphan kittens is something you can do. If you already have young children, or if you work, you might find that it is difficult to keep up with the night time feedings.  Also, unless you are able to take the kittens to work with you, it likely isn’t a good idea to take on the task either.

At about two to three weeks, start putting a little bit of the milk replacer on a plate to see if the kittens will lap it up. (But continue to bottle feed.) Then over a few days, you can add a little bit of canned, good quality kitten food, (making a gruel) for them to eat as well. Slowly increase the amount of canned food. At about four weeks you can substitute water instead of the milk replacer and then gradually over time decrease the amount of water. By six to seven weeks they can also eat dry kibble. Please ensure the kittens are eating good quality KITTEN food. Adult cat foods will not contain the necessary vitamins and minerals that a growing kitten needs. Always supply fresh water. Keep in mind that kittens are messy. They will walk through the food and play with their water, so keep the feeding area separate and in an area that you can easily clean.

After (not before) feeding your kittens, they need to be stimulated to eliminate. Use a large moist cotton ball and rub their bottom area in a circular motion.  This simulates what the mother does with her tongue. Clean them up afterwards to keep the kittens clean. (There are you tube videos on how to do this as well.) This is probably the least nice part of looking after kittens but it is actually easier than it sounds. At about four weeks, you can put out shallow litter box that is low enough that they can get in and out of it. They will instinctively know what the litter is for although they may not use it right. Clean the box frequently because they will walk through everything.

Kittens need to be kept warm. If they are very young, they are not able to regulate their own body temperature.  I kept my kittens in a storage bin high enough so they could not crawl out and have enough space to move from one side to another. I used a hot water bottle which I covered with a towel and placed it on one side of the bin. This way they would stay warm and if they required more warmth they could crawl on top of it.

If you notice that a kitten is not eating, has diarrhea, is lethargic or any other abnormal things going on, call a veterinarian immediately.  Kittens are small and can become dehydrated very quickly. Unfortunately, a kitten may not do well and despite your best efforts, it may not survive.  Please do not blame yourself. It is possible that there was already something else going on with the kitten to begin with and it is not uncommon for this to happen.

As they get older the kittens will become fun to watch and play with.  This is a time when they learn how to interact with each other and learn valuable “cat” lessons, for example that it is not okay to bite. Please do not use your hands to play with them. Kittens like to bite at things and you will notice that they chew and bite each other. As they play, they learn that “it hurts” and that the behavior is not acceptable.  If a person does this, the kitten will think this is “okay” and start to do it whenever any hand comes towards them. This will lead to biting behavior issues when they are older.

Looking after kittens is a rewarding experience and it will be difficult when the time comes to send them off to their new homes.  I started asking around when the kittens were five weeks old so that when they were old enough to go at eight weeks it wouldn’t be a rush to find someone to take them. For me, it was a little easier to find homes because I worked in an animal hospital.  Some of our clients adopted the kittens, and my mother in law adopted two of them so I knew they were going to a home where they would receive good care. Do not be afraid to ask for a reference from their veterinary clinic and to interview the person to find out how much experience they have with pets. It is easy to get a feel on what kind of pet owner a person is going to be by speaking to them.

Things to Remember:

  • Orphan kittens need round the clock care
  • Separate the kittens from your own pets
  • They are very messy
  • There will be some hardships
  • Call a veterinarian if there are any concerns
  • It will be hard to let go

All the best to you if you decide to take on this wonderful task!