Newborn Kitten Care can be both one of the most exciting experiences you've ever had and one of the most devastating. Throughout my life and my career as a feline veterinarian, I've been involved in raising kittens many times. When things go well, it is very rewarding. However, when a kitten doesn't survive, it is so very sad.
What is so Difficult About Newborn Kitten Care?
If you think you'll be a pro when caring for a newborn kitten just because you've lived with cats all your life, you're in for a surprise. Caring for a newborn kitten is not at all the same as caring for a grown cat. Newborn kitten care involves taking care of a much more delicate creature for the following reasons:
- They are more susceptible to disease than older kittens.
- Crowded by siblings
- After birth, kittens are completely unable to care for themselves in any way. They cannot survive without care.
- Kittens cannot see or hear when they are born. They are almost 2 weeks old before their eyes are open and they can hear.
- Newborn kittens cannot urinate or defecate by themselves.
- A Newborn kitten can’t run or walk.
- kittens are prone to injury if handled roughly
- newborn kittens are prone to hypothermia
Due to their fragility, some kittens do not do well and do not live long. Mother cats are generally very attentive to their litter of kittens. However, in spite of that maternal loving care, it is estimated that 1/4 of newborn kittens die within the first weeks of life.
Newborn Kitten Care: About the Mother Cat
The most critical time in a kitten's life is during the initial 3-5 weeks. Physical growth and also developmental changes occur quickly. Within 4 to 6 weeks, kittens go from being totally dependent on their Mom to being self-sufficient.
Similar to human babies, providing newborn kitten care involves making sure that their primary needs are met: food, warmth, learning social skills and also how to urinate and defecate on their own. Most of the time, human intervention is not needed. The mother cat is quite good at providing for and teaching her offspring.
Of course, you need to make sure the mom is in good health if she is to fulfill her responsibilities. Adequate newborn kitten care often involves caring more for Mom than for the kittens. This includes taking her to the veterinarian right away, making sure all the kittens are nursing, and most importantly, keeping her really well-fed.
A mother cat’s milk provides everything a kitten needs during the first four weeks of life. Therefore, you need to keep mom in tip-top shape.
Cats have 8 mammary glands. Each one should be checked at least once a day for excessive redness, hardness, or discharge. The mom can develope mastitis which is infection of the mammary glands. If that occurs, you need to take the mom to the vet right away. If caught early, this condition is very treatable. Your vet will show you how to express milk from the infected gland and how to apply hot compresses. The vet may also prescribe antibiotics. When weaning kittens, this same condition can occur. It is important for both kittens and Mom that the weaning process be done gradually.
Newborn kitten care does involve some effort on your part. Trimming the kittens' nails weekly will help prevent scratches on mom's mammary glands which can also lead to infection. Likewise, kittens can begin to get their "baby teeth" as early as 11 days after birth so check Mom's mammary glands daily for bites.
A bloody discharge from the mother cat's vulva is normal, so don't panic if you see that. It should lessen in amount, become darker, and be gone within 2-3 weeks.Providing adequate food to the nursing mom during this period is critical to her health and the health of the kittens. She must have access at all times to clean, FRESH water which must be placed in a way that the kittens cannot get into the water and drown or get wet and too cold. The best food to feed to the mom is actually kitten food. I prefer leaving fresh dry kitten food with mom at all times, but also supplementing her with canned kitten food 2-3 times daily. DO NOT give her milk.
Newborn Kitten Care: The Importance of Monitoring
Newborn kitten care means letting the kittens spend their first days either sleeping or eating. Little twitching movements while sleeping are normal. If you see your little kitten twitching during sleep, don't worry. You can read more about this under KITTEN DEVELOPMENT.
When you are responsible for newborn kitten care, you need to observe the kittens several times daily. Healthy baby kittens have warm skin and round little bellies. They also respond to their siblings and their Mom. Strong kittens have strong suckle reflexes. An amazing little fact about kittens is that they always nurse from the same teat. That's because it has been marked with their scent.
Healthy kittens move around even though they cannot walk yet. If a kitten is barely moving and is crying frequently, it is sick and needs immediate vet attention.
If kittens are healthy, they tend to nurse from the mom once every hour or two. Kittens' bellies will appear rounded if they are nursing frequently enough. They will also be sleeping normally instead of crying.
If, on the other hand, the kittens spend a lot of time crying and not sleeping, they are not getting enough to eat. Their abdomen may still appear rounded, but that could be from swallowing air when they are crying.
If they are neither moving around nor crying, they should be taken to the veterinarian at once. They are likely too weak move or cry or eat. A kitten such as this will be close to death. This is a medical emergency that needs to be addressed at once.
During the first 2 to 3 weeks of life, kittens do not urinate or defecate on their own. The mother cat will make the kittens urinate and defecate by licking their genitals and stomach.
One of the most important parts of newborn kitten care is making sure the kittens are warm enough. Left to their own devices, newborn kittens cannot keep themselves warmer than around 95 degrees. Their mom has to keep them warm and make sure their body temperature does not fall below normal. Hypothermia (low body temperature) can be life threatening. Taking care of kittens includes making sure that the room where the Mom and kittens stay is kept close to 80 degrees for the first week of life. Then it can be gradually dropped to about 70°F.
Heating pads can be dangerous. It is much safer to keep the room warm and let the kittens use Mom as a heat source. They will also lay side by side or piled on top of each other to stay warm and for the contact.
Another really important part of raising newborn kittens is to make sure they gain weight normally. The kittens will not develop correctly if they are not growing and gaining steadily. As they accumulate more body fat, they will gradually become able to keep their own temperature in a normal range.
By the time a kitten is 2 weeks old, the kitten should weigh double his weight at birth. A large percentage of kittens that die suffer from lack of weight gain. They are often referred to as having a "failure to thrive" syndrome.
Mom cats seem to sense if a kitten in the litter is not progressing properly. As cruel as it may sound, the mother cat may slowly begin to ignore the kitten that is weak and focus her efforts on the healthy kittens.
Newborn kitten care means making sure the kittens are growing properly. The average kitten weighs around 3 1/2 ounces when born. Each day they should gain close to 1/2 of an ounce.
It is SO important to weigh kittens frequently during the 2 weeks following their birth. Daily is best or at least every other day. If the kitten is not gaining weight, you want to know right away when there may be time to save the kitten. They should continue to be weighed over the next few weeks at least twice weekly. The first sign you often get that a kitten is sick is a lack of weight gain. That is why weighing is so important.
If you are involved in raising kittens, it is well worth the money to purchase a scale made for infants so you can weigh kittens daily. You need to be able to know that they are gaining weight.
Before you know it, those little helpless kittens will be moving all over the place. Socialization with humans and with other kittens is very important for them.
They also become playful at a very early age. Safe, appropriate toys are important for their development. My friend and fellow website owner has 2 cats that would like to show you their top picks for the best cat toys. You will find toys there that cats really use and there's a special section just for kittens!
To determine the age of a kitten whose birth date is unknown, see Kitten Development.
Taking care of kittens can be quite overwhelming, but know that you are not alone. There are many out there that have had similar questions to yours, and a variety of these topics are discussed on this page.