raising orphaned kittens


Kitten season is upon us, and it’s very common to see stray cats with kittens outside. While many pet lovers want to help, please keep in mind that newborn kittens have the best chance of survival if they stay with their moms until they’re weaned. During the first couple of days of life, the mom passes antibodies to her kittens that jump-start the immune system through a special type of milk called colostrum. If the babies appear to be clean, fed, and sleeping quietly, the mom is likely still around and is just temporarily away. Abandoned kittens will look dirty and often be crying continuously for food. 

If you do decide to take in a kitten that needs help, it’s best to take it to the vet right away for a full checkup. The vet will check for dehydration and can also help to determine the kitten’s age, as well as deworm and vaccinate at the appropriate times. Orphaned kittens are quite fragile and a huge time commitment, so if you’ve never cared for kittens, you might consider finding a rescue organization in your area that raises them. They might even have a nursing mom that will accept the additional kitten(s), giving them a much better chance of survival. 

As you consider whether or not to foster or adopt small kittens, we thought it’d be helpful to offer some general ideas of what to expect when raising an orphaned kitten. You can also contact the Freely Nutrition Center by chat, phone, or email if you would like more detailed information.

Where can I keep my kitten?

As a new pet parent to an orphaned kitten, you’ll want to create a clean, comfortable environment where it can maintain its body temperature without overheating. Since a kitten cannot regulate its own body temperature for about the first month, it will require a space, like a pet carrier, that is designed to provide a range of temperatures. Heating pads can easily cause burns and should be used with great care. Never place them in an area where they could have direct contact with the animal. 

What and how do I feed my kitten?

It is best to use a milk replacer specifically made for kittens (such as KMR by PetAg or Just Born Milk Replacer for Kittens by Farnam Pet Products) since cow’s milk does not provide all the nutrients they require. Cow’s milk may also cause diarrhea, which can be very dangerous to such a small animal. The container of milk replacer will provide feeding recommendations based on the age and weight of the kitten. Never feed the kitten if its body temperature is too low (below 95˚F). If the kitten is too cold, warm it slowly before mealtime.

Like with feeding human babies, it can be a bit tricky to get the temperature of the milk just right. The milk replacer should be heated by placing the bottle in warm water. Heating in a microwave can heat the milk replacer unevenly and cause some spots to be scalding. The replacer is ready for the kitten to drink when it has reached a comfortable temperature (not too warm or too cold) when dropped on your wrist. Getting the kittens to accept a bottle can also be challenging as many have unique preferences. It’s important to feed a kitten from a bottle with a nipple that the kitten attaches to well. You may need to try various nipples to see what your kitten prefers. Feeding sets can be found in the pet aisle with the milk replacer and should be cleaned with soapy water and rinsed well after each feeding. It’s also important to only feed your kitten on its belly and let it nurse at its own pace - never squeeze the bottle. This is critical as it helps lessen the chance that the fluid will mistakenly go into their airways, which can be very dangerous.

What else should I know about caring for my kitten?

orphaned-kitten-is-ready-to-eatSince kittens are not able to urinate or defecate on their own for the first few weeks of life, their mom stimulates them to produce urine or feces by licking them. You will need to imitate this by wiping a warm, wet cotton ball or cloth over their urinary and rectal openings in a circular motion either before or after every feeding. You should see urine every time you stimulate them and should see stool at least once a day. You can also help them thrive by gently grooming them with a warm washcloth or a clean toothbrush. Keep a detailed log of feedings, weight, urination, defecation, and developmental milestones (such as standing by day 14, uncoordinated walking by day 21, and coordinated walking by day 28). This journal will help you to detect any problems quickly. If you notice any weight loss or failure to gain weight, or if the kitten is not eating, urinating, or defecating appropriately, be sure to contact your veterinarian right away.

As with many animals, kittens gradually transition towards eating solid food and taking over their own hygiene needs. Their caloric needs will change rapidly as they grow and become more active, and the amount, type, and method of food intake will need to be revisited frequently. Because this is a challenging process and very young kittens are particularly fragile, we strongly encourage you to create a support system of care that includes a veterinarian and several caregivers to help with the kitten when needed.

As you welcome a young orphaned kitten into your home, you’ll want to be mindful of its health and behavior. If you notice any of the following signs, we recommend you reach out to your favorite local veterinarian right away:

  • Diarrhea (normal consistency should be no softer than toothpaste and no firmer than Play-Doh®)
  • Blood or mucus in the stools
  • Failure to gain weight (Weigh using a small kitchen or postage scale. Kittens should gain 50 to 100 grams (1.8 to 3.5 ounces) per week).
  • Excessive crying
  • Poor suckle reflex
  • Discharge from eyes or nose
  • Sneezing 
  • Coughing
  • Not eating
  • Cold body temperature
  • Lethargy or decrease in activity
  • Milk coming out of their nose during or after feeding


Need more info?

Raising an orphaned kitten is hard work, but your dedication will help save a life! While checking with your vet is the best course of action for any health concerns, the Freely Nutrition Center experts are here to help with questions about nutrition and care! Give us a call, send us an email, or connect with us through LiveChat. We can’t wait to hear about your kitten!