Hand reared kittens need round the clock care. Talk to your vet if you think you need to hand rear your kittens.
Kittens usually get all the help they need from their mother, but if the queen dies, rejects the kittens or is too ill to care for them, you may need to help. If you think your kittens need hand rearing, ask your vet for advice.
It can be very risky to rear orphaned kittens using another lactating queen. The queen may not accept the kittens, may neglect or attack them and there is a risk of spreading infectious diseases - some of which are fatal.
Hand reared kittens need:
If a queen is only temporarily ill, kittens may only need to be hand fed for a few days, while in other situations kittens will need to fed by hand until they are weaned.
If a litter is too large for the queen to support and as long as the kittens are gaining some milk from their mother, they may only need supplementary feeding. If possible, kittens should remain with their queen and litter mates because orphaned kittens may develop behavioural issues.
Use substitute kitten milk, formulated specifically for kittens. Ask your vet for advice on which milk to provide, as well as advice on hand rearing. Never give cow or goat's milk as kittens find this difficult to digest.
Follow the manufacturer's instructions on dilution, frequency and quantity to feed - overfeeding can be as dangerous as underfeeding. The milk should be warmed to approximately 35°c. Test it carefully by allowing a drop of milk to fall on the inside on your wrist. You will not feel it when it is the right temperature. Make sure the milk is not too hot or cold.
Feed kittens carefully as they can inhale milk and develop pneumonia which can be fatal. You can buy feeding bottles and teats from your vet - or online.
Hypoglycaemia, or low blood sugar, can result from inadequate or infrequent feeding. It can cause severe depression, muscle twitching and occasionally lead to convulsions. If a kitten refuses to feed, speak to your vet urgently. Kittens have no energy reserves and will deteriorate very rapidly.
Kittens are unable to pass urine or faeces without assistance for the first few weeks of their lives.
You will need to stimulate the ano-genital region, the area around the bottom and the urinary opening, with a damp piece of cotton wool before and after each feed to encourage toileting. The mother would normally do this by licking the kitten's rear end before, during and after each feed.
Try to do this in the litter tray so that kittens associate the feeling of litter under their feet with going to the toilet. From about four weeks of age, placing the kitten in the litter tray should encourage them to pass urine and faeces on their own. Ensure the litter tray has shallow sides so the kittens can easily access it - and provide a litter with a sandy texture.
Constipation can be a problem for hand reared kittens. Normal faeces has the consistency of toothpaste. If the faeces becomes very hard, making the kitten strain excessively, or if a kitten does not pass any faeces for a day, speak to your vet.
Diarrhoea can be caused by overfeeding, by giving an overly-concentrated milk replacer, or by an infection. Because a kitten's condition can deteriorate rapidly, talk to your vet if your kitten is suffering from diarrhoea.
Hand reared kittens are very prone to infection so you will need to take great care to keep everything clean. Kittens that have received no colostrum from the queen will have little or no immunity to disease. It is vital that these kittens are protected from exposure to disease, including other cats and their faeces. Some feline diseases can be fatal, or cause lifelong health problems.
Make sure you have clean hands and sterilised utensils and bottles for preparing and delivering the feed. Ask your vet for advice.
See also: Cat health
Kittens find it difficult to regulate their body temperature without mum's help. You can help keep the kittens warm by:
If the kittens can't stay with their queen for any reason, then you will need to help the kittens learn normal behaviour, such as how to deal with frustration - something the kittens would normally learn from their mum.
As the kittens start weaning, slightly delay giving the feed, and slightly delay giving attention, including eye contact, instead of instantly meeting the kitten's demands. However, it is equally important to ensure the kittens are well fed.
Never encourage kittens to bite or attack hands, fingers or toes, as these behaviours can become painful as the kitten grows into an adult.
Normal kitten development: