The basics of kitten care

Raising kittens can be an extremely rewarding experience, if you are properly prepared. Here's a guide to everything you need to know to raise healthy kittens.

The Basics

A Healthy Momcat - if you have an unspayed female who is, or who may be pregnant, it is wise to avoid giving any vaccinations. Some vaccines are generally accepted as safe for a pregnant momcat (known as a queen), but all vaccinations carry some risk of reaction, and the unborn kittens are particularly at risk for health complications from vaccines given to their mothers. It is critical to avoid giving a pregnant queen any vaccinations during the last 2-3 weeks of gestation, and to absolutely avoid Rabies vaccination while she is pregnant or nursing. While rabies vaccination is legally required in some states, there is also usually a provision for an animal to be deferred from vaccination when a veterinarian determines that such a vaccination is not in the best interests of the animal's health at that time.

Momcats need a high grade of nutrition to ensure proper development of the kittens (see food below). They also should be examined and treated for parasites, such as fleas, ticks, and intestinal worms. NEVER use an over-the-counter flea or worming treatment without being advised to do so by a veterinarian. Some of these products are extremely toxic and may harm not only the momcat, but her kittens, as well. It is also critical NEVER to use a product intended for dogs on a cat; not even a single drop. This can cause acute poisoning, liver failure and death.

Fleas and other parasites - Fleas cause blood loss, anemia, and possibly death when there is a large infestation on kittens. They also lead to the development of tape worms. Kittens are too fragile to withstand treatment with most flea products. If your kittens have fleas, they should be combed gently and frequently with a flea comb (a comb with very fine teeth, made specifically for the purpose of removing fleas). Momcats can usually be treated with Advantage or Revolution topical drops with the advice of a veterinarian. Intestinal parasites are also a concern, as they can sap a kitten or momcat's strength by taking the nutritional value of food away from them, and even piercing the wall of the intestine, leading to blood loss and death. Your veterinarian can help you with a safe treatment.

The Nest - Momcats like a quiet, cozy place to bear and care for their kittens. This is why they will sometimes go into a closet or cabinet to have their kittens. You can prepare a nest using a cardboard box about 10 inches deep, and 12 x 18 "  or so. Try to avoid boxes much larger than this. The deep sides will keep the kittens from falling out of the nest, and will protect them from drafts. Line the nest with newspaper, one or 2 average sections from your newspaper, and place a towel, bathmat (the type without the rubber backing) or other absorbent fabric on top. We have had the best success with old flannel or fleece shirts, which help the kittens to stay warm. The fabric should be changed whenever it is soiled, and immediately after the mother has her litter. It is also a good idea to make a tent or some sort of cover over part of the nest. This helps to keep the kittens warm and gives the mother a sense of security. The ideal place for a nest is in a room where the mother will not be disturbed, such as a guest room or sewing room. If this is not possible, place the nest in the quietest place possible, such as in a closet, in the bathroom, or perhaps behind a cabinet in a corner. Make sure that a litter pan, food and water are available close by for the mother. Purrfect Companions recommends using a non-deodorizing plain clay litter for the mother, to reduce the amount of litter tracking into the nest.

Birthing - Momcats typically are able to handle birthing without assistance. They will clean each kitten, cut the umbilical cord, and they consume the sac which surrounded the kitten. This is necessary to help her milk start to flow. It is not usually necessary to help the mother. Once the mother cat goes into labor, other cats in the household should be prevented from having access to the nest and the mother. This is particularly true of the father cat. Father cats have the unfortunate propensity to kill kittens. Momcats can breed with multiple males, and produce kittens from multiple fathers in a single litter. Male cats generally try to assure perpetuation of their own bloodline by killing kittens fathered by other males. This behavior is instinctive and cannot be curtailed by training or discipline. Kitten killing by male cats is heartbreaking to the momcat and humans in the household, particularly children, and should be avoided at all cost.

Warmth - Keeping the kittens warm is the single most important task for both mommy cat and humans. NEVER use a human heating pad for this purpose; it is too hot and has too powerful an electrical force field. Warming bed pads and Snuggle Safe microwaveable heating disks are available from most pet supply stores and through pet supply catalogs. If kittens are not warm, they will not eat, and they will quickly sicken and die. The nest should be located in the warmest, least drafty place possible. A bathroom often is the best choice.

Food - kittens exclusively nurse for at least 4-5 weeks after birth. This means the mother is the sole source of nutrition. It is critical to feed the mother a high quality, high calorie food in unlimited quantities. Purrfect Companions strongly recommends feeding a kitten formula food, and one of the non-store brands. We have had the most success with Science Diet, Eukanuba and Royal Canin brand kitten formulas. By feeding the kitten formula to the mother, she will pass vitamins and other nutrients to the kittens, will maintain her health, and it will not be necessary to change the food when the kittens begin to eat on their own. We also recommend, if the mother cat likes canned food, feeding Friskies, Whiskas, Fancy Feast or 9 Lives canned food, in the non-fish flavors. Humans are advised not to eat fish more than 3 times a week due to mercury in fish; cats are even smaller than humans, and most pet foods are made from the fish products left over from human food processing. Many cats like the Friskies Prime Fillet, Fancy Feast Grilled and Whiskas Bits type foods. Momcats may also benefit from being offered a small amount of one of the specially formulated milk products for cats, a small amount of evaporated milk, a couple of tablespoons of plain cottage cheese, or a couple of teaspoons of plain yogurt. Remember, most cats are lactose intolerant, and milk can bring on diarrhea. This reaction occurs less frequently when using the above dairy products. Kittens should NEVER be given cow's milk or human baby formulas; they do not have the proper nutritional elements for kittens, and some may even be toxic to kittens because of their ingredients, including high dosages of iron and other minerals.

Ailing kittens - Kittens nurse most of the time, and tend to sleep in a kitten clump, piled on top of one another. This is not a cause for you to be concerned, as this is how they conserve their body heat. Kittens do not generally cry a lot. If they are crying, you should investigate to make sure that they are warm, and that the mother is producing milk. If the mother is in the nest with the kittens, and they are nursing, she is most likely producing milk, but occasionally this is not the case, and a human must step in to help her by feeding the kittens (see kitten rejection below). Often, if the mother is not producing enough milk and you are helping with the feeding, she will continue to provide warmth, comfort, and other care to the kittens, so you will be able to feed and return the kitten to the nest for her to clean it. If a kitten appears limp or lethargic, has running nose or eyes or nose or eyes which are crusted closed, eyes or nose with any colored material running out of them, this IS a cause of extreme concern; you should immediately call a veterinarian for advice and assistance.

Kitten Rejection - Mother cats have a keen sense of their kittens' health. If a mother cat rejects a kitten, removing it from the nest or refusing to care for it, this kitten is unlikely to survive. The kitten should not be put back into the nest, as the mother may then stop caring for the other kittens. You can try feeding this kitten KMR (a formula especially for kittens, available in most pet food stores), using a dropper. However, you need to be prepared for failure, as there is a reason the mother cat has rejected the kitten. It must be kept warm, fed at 3-4 hour intervals, rubbed gently with a dry washcloth over its head, back, and belly, then, using a cotton ball moistened with warm water, encouraged to eliminate. This is done by taking the cotton ball and gently rubbing it back and forth over the kitten's genitals and anus for about 10 seconds.

Momcat Behavior - the most loving, affectionate mother cat can become a complete terror in defense of her kittens. Purrfect Companions strongly recommends that for at the least the first 1-2 weeks, the kittens be disturbed as little as possible, preferably only when the nest material is being changed. To do this, pick up the corners of the soiled nest material, gathering up all of the kittens. Quickly place the new material into the nest, then gently roll the kittens off the soiled material back into the nest. Be prepared - some mother cats will be aggressive and can bite, believing their kittens to be in danger. Never allow children into the nest area alone.

Orphaned Kittens - occasionally, one or more kittens are found outdoors without a mother cat, or a mother cat is unable to care for her litter. In those cases, the kittens are completely helpless and rely entirely upon a human or foster mother for their survival. If a nursing mother is available, she may or may not be willing to accept the orphans. Usually, a mother cat will only accept kittens who are not her own when she has none of her own kittens to care for. A momcat identifies her kittens by their odor, and to be successful in getting her to care for the orphans requires some ingenuity and a great deal of luck.

In order to make an orphan smell like the mother cat, take a warm, damp (not wet) cloth (preferably one with some texture, like a washcloth), and beginning above the momcat's eyes, gently wipe above her eyes, then along her cheeks, under her chin, and on her footpads. Then without rinsing the cloth, wipe the same cloth gently over the kitten, beginning at the top of the head, going down its back to the tip of the tail, then along its belly. This is called scent transference. When the mother is lying in a relaxed position, gently place the kitten against her belly, near one of her nipples. You must stay close by and observe to make sure that she does not bite or harm the kitten.

If the momcat accepts the kitten and it begins to nurse, you can relax somewhat. If this does not happen, then the kitten will need to be handfed. This means using body temperature KMR (see the food section, above) and feeding the kitten every 4 hours or so if it is under 3 weeks old. The kitten should be gently wrapped in warm cloth like flannel or fleece, and held lying as close to flat on its stomach or upright as possible. Unlike human babies, kittens do not do well nursing when lying on their backs. Some people have success with the commercial nursing bottle sold at pet stores, while others do better with a dropper. You can usually find droppers in the pharmacy section of most stores. It is critical NOT to drown the kitten. This happens when you force too much formula out of the dropper and it goes into the kitten's lungs instead of its stomach. Concentrate on dropping one drop at a time, and often the kitten will take the tip of the dropper into its mouth and actually suck on it. For the smallest kittens, 1ml is about all they will eat at a time.

When the kitten is finished being fed, it needs to be gently massaged with your fingertips down its spine and sides. This imitates a mother cat's grooming motions, which also stimulate the kitten to digest its food. You might even be rewarded with a small burp! After massaging the kitten for a few minutes, take a cotton ball or cotton pad, dip it in warm (not hot) water, and gently rub back and forth under the kitten's tail. This will help the kitten to eliminate. Kittens have no control over their bowel and bladder sphincters and need help in order to eliminate. The mother cat usually does this, but in the absence of a mother cat, the kitten needs your help to survive. After the kitten has eliminated, gently wrap it in clean fleece or flannel. You can hold it against your chest (where it can be soothed by listening to your heartbeat) for a few minutes, then return it to a warm enclosed space to sleep. For more information, see our article Orphaned Kitten Care.

Kittens are born blind - that is, their eyes are sealed shut. Their eyes begin to open in 7-14 days. If the eyes are not opening on this schedule, appear to have goo sealing them shut, or are bulging behind the lids, you should consult with a veterinarian. They may have a mild infection which, untreated, can result in scarring of the retina, blindness, or even loss of the eye.

Weaning the Kittens - When the kittens are about 3-4 weeks old, the nest should be modified to provide a way for the kittens to get in and out of the nest. This involves cutting down one side of the nest to a depth of about 3-4inches so that the kittens can wander in and out of the nest. At this point, it is a good idea to place a second litter pan in the room, one of the small, shallow ones, so that the kittens can get into it. Purrfect Companions recommend using FELINE PINE litter, which the kittens cannot swallow, and which does not produce dust. It is also highly effective in controlling odors. At this age, a small amount of ground canned food (like turkey and giblets), mixed with KMR and/or water to form a gruel can be put on a flat plate, to encourage the kittens to transition from nursing to eating food. It is also acceptable to begin the weaning process by making a gruel of meat baby food mixed with KMR.

Kittens initially have poor table manners and they WILL walk through their food and generally make a mess, but this is part of the learning process. The mother cat will bathe her kittens and help to keep them clean, no matter how piggy their manners may be.

This is also the time to introduce toys to the kittens. The mother cat is teaching the kittens their social skills during the period 4-8 weeks, and the most critical period is the 6-8 week period. At this time, the mother cat teaches the kittens to use the litter pan, how to lap (as opposed to sucking), and how to play (which is a variation of hunting behaviors). Bearing this in mind, select toys which are like small furry mice, and balls to chase. Small sparkly balls, like the ones available in the craft section at Wal-Mart (20 in a pack for $1.96) are a good selection, as they are small, easily picked up by the kittens, and attract attention because they sparkle. Most kittens do NOT react to catnip until they are at least 6 months old. Toys on a string or elastic cord should NEVER be left for a kitten to play with without human supervision. A string or elastic cord can easily become looped around the kitten's leg or neck, with serious and possibly fatal consequences.

Finding homes for your kittens - Kittens are generally, though not always, ready to be adopted into homes at the age of 8-9 weeks. Purrfect Companions practices early spay/neuter, when the kittens reach the age of 8 weeks and 2 pounds body weight. Early spay/neuter has been practiced in the United States since the early 20th century for farm animals, and for over 35 years for small domestic animals. This practice is endorsed by the Human Society of the United States, the American Association of Feline Practitioners, and other recognized professional veterinary groups. The practice is safe and effective. For more information about Early Spay/Neuter, please see articles at The Winn Foundation website.

Friends and neighbors are not always anxious to adopt a kitten. While it is not unusual to see signs along roads or newspaper ads for free kittens this method of finding homes can lead to tragic situations. The ASPCA and other animal welfare organizations have documented that there are organized groups of individuals who collect kittens (and adult cats, too) for use as bait to train fighting dogs, to feed large reptiles, and for use as laboratory specimens. They often use young children as a ruse to mask their intentions. The safest way to find homes for kittens is to work with a local animal welfare or rescue group. These groups usually provide basic veterinary services to the kittens prior to offering them for adoption, and they have the ability to screen potential adopters and to follow up on the kitten's welfare after the adoption.

The mother cat be spayed as soon as the kittens are separated from her. Mother cats who repeatedly breed and are not spayed are at increased risk for mammary cancer, pyometria (an infection of the uterus), produce more sickly kittens with a higher mortality rate, and generally are not as long lived as spayed cats.