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Warmth, food and pottying keys to neonatal kitten care

by Andee Bingham

Kitten season is almost here which means it won’t be long before newborns are being found outside by folks in our community -- maybe even you! Knowing what to do if you find a litter of newborn kittens may very well be the difference between life and death for them.

First let’s talk about how to tell whether or not kittens have truly been abandoned by their mom. Many people think kittens have been abandoned just because they are found alone, but the fact is that they may have a very good mom even if she isn’t there when you find them. Mamas gotta eat and she can’t take a litter of newborns with her to hunt, right?

Luckily, there are usually some telltale signs that kittens have truly been orphaned or that their mom isn’t capable of taking good care of them. If you come across a litter of kittens who appear to be motherless, take a good look at them (it’s okay to handle them; mama won’t reject them if she smells you). Do they appear to be sick or injured? Are they very vocal and screaming for food? Do you see maggots or an excessive amount of fleas? Are their gums pale? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, it’s a safe bet that the kittens do need your help.

So now what? Whether you want to raise the kittens on your own or if you just need to care for them for a few hours until a trained rescuer can take them, it’s critical that the kittens receive everything they need to stay as safe and healthy as possible.

The most basic care they’ll need can be summed up in three words: warmth, food, and potting.

  • Warmth: The first priority is getting the kittens dry and warm. Until kittens are a few weeks old they can’t keep themselves warm so they’ll need some help. To provide steady warmth you can use an electric heating pad set on a low temperature, a hot water bottle, or you can fill a sock with uncooked rice and microwave it until warm. Always put a layer or two of bedding between the kitten and the heat source.

  • Food: Even if the kittens seem hungry, always make sure they are warm BEFORE you feed them since newborns won’t be able to properly digest food if they’re cold. You’ll be able to find kitten-specific formula at most pet stores. In a pinch you can use goat’s milk, but never feed a kitten cow’s milk as it will cause dangerous diarrhea. Make sure to grab a kit with a bottle and nipples too (and don’t forget to cut a hole in the nipple!) Never feed kittens on their backs as it can cause the formula to go into their lungs instead of their bellies. Instead, feed them belly-down like they’d nurse from mom.

  • Pottying: Until they’re a few weeks old, kittens will need some help using the bathroom. Before every meal, lightly rub the kitten’s butt/genital area with a clean tissue. They should pee every time you do this, but will usually poop only once per day.

Caring for newborn kittens isn’t easy, but it’s so rewarding to know they’re safe because of you. We’re always here to help mentor kitten caretakers or to take newborns into our care when necessary, so don’t hesitate to reach out! Find us on Facebook or visit to learn more.

Andee Bingham is Founder and Executive Director of Esther Neonatal Kitten Care.


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