Caring for Abandoned Kittens
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The care a mother provides for her young is instinctual and comprehensive. They do everything for them, from keeping them warm to cleaning up after them. As a human assuming this role, we don't have the same instinct. We need to meet all of these needs, but we also need to do in the circumstances of the trauma newborn kittens removed from their mother will experience. Whether the mother has died, the litter has been abandoned or whatever reason the kittens are orphaned, we need to give them the best start in life.
AnimalWised explains all you need to know about orphaned cats by explaining how to care for abandoned kittens. We help you to understand both their physical and emotional needs to best ensure they live a long and happy life.
How to tell if a mother has abandoned her kittens
The very first thing we need to do when we find a kitten or a litter of newborn kittens alone is determine if they are indeed abandoned. Although there are animal welfare organizations offering trap-neuter-release programs, many stray and feral cats will become pregnant. The likelihood the cat will abandon her kittens is slim as it goes against her instincts.
For this reason, it is possible a mother cat has only left her kittens temporarily so she can find food for them. We shouldn't immediately assume they are abandoned. To tell if the mother is around we should:
- Check their hygiene: if a mother is still with her kittens, she will groom them and remove their waste. If the kittens look clean and healthy, it means they have been recently attended to.
- Monitor them: if a mother cat sees humans around her nest of kittens, she may not approach out of fear. We need to stay well back and wait for an hour or two and see if the mother returns. An attentive mother will not be away from her kittens for too long.
- Single kitten: although it is possible a cat will only have one kitten, it is unlikely. If we see a kitten on their own, it is likely they have been abandoned or have become lost from the nest. The only time when a kitten will be left on their own by their mother is if she is moving the nest and this kitten is the last to be taken away.
It is possible a mother cat has been injured, predated upon by another animal or has been incapacitated for another reason. However, there are reasons why a mother will reject her kittens, but we need to remember these will be the minority of cases.
If we are sure the kittens have been abandoned, we should next ask if we are the best person for the job. Animal shelters and wildlife rehabilitators should have the knowledge, tools and experience to best look after a kitten. However, some do not have the resources to care for neonatal kittens and will either not accept them or choose to have them destroyed.
When it is not possible to bring them to a wildlife facility or one cannot accommodate them, we can take the responsibility on ourselves.
Find a warm place to nest
After 4 weeks, a kitten will start to have been weaned by their mother. After 8 weeks, they will start the process of leaving the litter. The situation is much different if we find newborn abandoned kittens. They will need to be cared for in a much more intensive way. Although we need to wait to see if their mother is around, once we are sure, we need to start caring for them immediately.
The first thing we need to do is find them somewhere comfortable and warm. If we find them outside, then it is best to move them inside somewhere more protected. A box, basket, old suitcase or, if available, a cat bed are ideal places. You should store your chosen nest somewhere which is away from the traffic of those, loud noises and drafts.
Mother cats provide their newborn kittens with essential body heat to keep them warm. This is because kittens cannot self-regulate their body temperature. In lieu of the mother being there, we recommend you keep blankets in the nest, but also find ways to keep them warm. These include:
- A heating pad for pets, which you must wrap in a fleece fabric to avoid burning.
- Hot water bottle with a temperature of 98.6 ºF/37 ºC. Also wrap it in a cloth and place next to the kittens.
- Your own body heat can also comfort them, but you won't be able to be there all the time. Also, kittens warm each other by the way they sleep, close together, so make sure you don't separate them into separate beds or baskets.
Feeding abandoned kittens
The stage of development is also an important factor when we consider what to feed abandoned kittens. As with human babies, newborn kittens need their mother's breast milk. However, since the mother is not present, we need to find a suitable alternative.
After a kitten is born, they will almost immediately start suckling on their mother's breast. This should take around half an hour, but it can be even shorter. The first milk a kitten receives is known as colostrum. This is an antibody-rich type of milk which is extremely important in the first few hours of a kitten's life.
Kittens have poor immune response when they are born, but in the first 8 hours of life, their body absorbs the colostrum and more than 90% of their passive immunity comes from this first feeding. It is very unlikely the kittens will have been removed from their mother before they can have this first feeding. If they have, then we need to purchase artificial colostrum formula to boost their immunity.
After the colostrum, we need to buy regular kitten formula. We can create homemade versions in an emergency, but we need to buy artificial kitten milk as soon as possible. This has been specially formulated to meet the nutritional needs of newborn kittens, something which can be very difficult to replicate at home. It is best to be safe with proven formula.
You can purchase artificial kitten milk from veterinary clinics, pet stores and some pharmacies, but consult your veterinarian for the best options available to you. Never feed them cow's milk or other diary products marketed to humans. They can cause diarrhea and, given the kittens' vulnerability, can dehydrate them to a fatal level.
If you have just picked up the kittens and have nothing to give them, offer them some warm water with a dropper, to prevent them from becoming dehydrated while you acquire the formula.
When you have the milk in your hands, prepare it according to the instructions on the package. Offer it warm to the kittens, but ensure it is not too hot. The correct way to feed them is using a bottle, placing the teat as if it were their mother's nipple. The kittens and the bottle need to be in a horizontal position so they can suckle properly. Never feed them as you would a human baby as they can drown if too much milk is introduced.
Kittens knead their mother's breast to stimulate milk production. For this reason, we should set the kitten and bottle on a folded blanket which the kitten can knead as a replacement. When you notice that they no longer suckle or they have fallen asleep, you can remove the bottle.
When they are finished, place them next to your shoulder and pat them on the back to burp them. During the first two weeks they should eat every two hours, even at night. Then the feeding can be spaced four hours apart and then less as they begin the weaning process.
Discover all you need to know about feeding baby kittens in our newborn kitten feeding guide.
Hygiene for abandoned kittens
Newborn kittens are so reliant on their mother, they cannot even defecate and urinate properly. The mother will lick their sphincters to help facilitate these motions and we need to do the same, even if it seems unpleasant. Moisten a clean washcloth with warm water and gently rub the kitten's genitals, always in the same direction. It is best to place them on a clean sheet you don't mind getting dirty to help clean any mess.
You should rub their genitals until the kitten stops defecating or urinating. This way you can ensure everything has been expelled. This routine needs to be repeated everyday after each feeding.
The excretions of the kitten should not have a strong odor. If they do, it implies they have a health problem. This is similar if the kitten has diarrhea. Consult a veterinarian if you observe anything out of the ordinary.
You may also wonder whether you should bathe a newborn kitten. Generally, you shouldn't bathe a kitten until they are a minimum of 6 months of age. However, a mother cat will lick her kittens to groom them when they are dirty. We will need to replicate this process by again using a damp clean washcloth. Stroke the fur in the same direction and ensure they are completely dry afterwards, otherwise we promote infection.
Maintaining the health of abandoned kittens
Due to the kittens' vulnerability during their first weeks of life, we need to take various precautions to ensure they remain healthy. These precautions will help prevent them from catching diseases or infections. One of the most important factors is touching them. Ideally, we will only hold them when strictly necessary. Although they will be adorable, we can harm them if we manipulate them too much. If we do have to pick them up, we should:
- Wash our hands and arms before touching the kittens.
- Keep other pets and children away from the kittens, at least during the first two to three weeks. Both can spread bacteria and promote ill health, even if it is unintentional.
- Do not share accessories which the kittens use with anyone else and wash them between uses.
We need to maintain hygiene in the area we have set up for the kitten's nest. Once they are able to defecate and urinate on their own, we will need to wash their blankets and replace them with clean ones. This can be tricky with a larger litter, but it is necessary.
Should you take abandoned kittens to the veterinarian?
The answer to this question is a firm yes. Once we have taken care of their emergency needs, these newborn kittens will have the same needs as any young cat. Especially if we don't know the history of the mother and the circumstances of the kittens' birth, we need to ave them examined. The veterinarian can check for any parasites, birth malformations or other health problems.
Immunizations for felines will begin at around 6 weeks of age, so the veterinarian will help to establish their vaccination schedule. The same will happen for deworming.
Once the kittens are healthy and start to develop properly, we will need to maintain their care. After about 3 to 4 weeks of age, the kittens will need to start being weaned. This is when the milk is slowly phased out and solid food phased in. Our guide to weaning kittens will help you know what to do next.
We will also need to do follow up on our rescue of abandoned kittens. The area will need to be checked for stray cats and a trap-neuter-release program should be implemented. This will help to prevent more litters being born which cannot be sufficiently cared for.
Whether you want to keep the kittens or find them new homes is up to you. If you choose to keep them, you will need to know more about caring for kittens, so check out our video below:
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