Hand feeding kittens is something every cat breeder will have to do at one time or another. Follow this comprehensive guide and learn how to hand feed kittens.
When I first started breeding, I had an idea that I would occasionally have to hand feed kittens and I had cosy images of orphaned kittens in front of the Aga and milk bottles being warmed up. However the realities of being responsible for tiny lives soon hit home when I was suddenly left with seven newborn kittens to hand feed and my rose tinted glasses were firmly dislodged at my first 2am feed.
I wrote this article to share my experiences of hand feeding kittens as when I started breeding it was a steep learning curve. I trawled through the internet reading everything I could and then learned quickly through a great deal of trial and error. Everyone has their own favourite methods and tips however this is the method that works best for me.
There are a variety of problems with the queen or kittens that prevents the kittens from feeding. The list below covers some of the common situations for breeders.
As a breeder, you will need to keep a careful eye on your kittens’ health and well being. The first sign that something is wrong is usually when a kitten fails to gain weight or begins to lose weight. The best way to keep a close eye on this is through weighing your kittens once or twice a day. As general rule or thumb and depending on the breed, you can expect around a ten gram weight gain each day, however all kittens are different. This does not mean you should panic if your kitten only gains nine grams or even if they only gain four or five grams. Ideally you should look at the overall pattern; is the kitten gaining some weight most days? Is she content between feeds? Does she look like she is gaining weight? Is she well hydrated and is she toileting? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you should consider hand feeding although it may be best to ask your vet or another experienced breeder’s advice first. Remember, hand feeding is a lifeline to those kittens that need it but it is not something to be undertaken lightly.
Ideally a kitten should stay with their mother when they are being hand fed unless the situation means they really must be separated, for instance if the mother is too unwell or on medication that could pass to the kittens through her milk. In that case you must keep the kittens in a warm box with a heat pad as the kittens will be unable to regulate their own temperature for the first few weeks. A queen really does know best when rearing kittens and you will need to take the place of mother as best you can, giving the kittens care and love, cleaning them and toileting them as well as hand feeding. This is a full time job that takes a lot of care and patience!
Kittens need a specific balance of fat, carbohydrate and vitamins that can’t be found in cow’s milk so it is important you use a specific kitten milk. This will give them all the energy and nutrients they need to grow and prevent it upsetting their stomachs. There are several commercial milk powders available on the internet or from your vets, or alternatively you can make your own kitten gloop.
There are several choices of equipment and different breeders will have their favourites that work for them. Below is a brief overview of their advantages and disadvantages;
All have their advantages however I am going to focus on syringe feeding I have found this more successful that bottle feeding in newborns. I would warn against using teats on the end of syringes as these can easily be swallowed by kittens with disastrous consequences.
When kittens are being hand fed, they will not be receiving antibodies from their mother that helps build up their resistance to bugs and infection. This leaves the kittens very vulnerable to infection, particularly that caused by poorly washed equipment. Syringes are hard to get completely clean and for that reason, I like to sterilise all my equipment before use. It is simple to sterilise equipment using a cheap microwave steam steriliser available from any baby shop.
If you are expecting a litter of kittens, it may be useful to have a few kitten hand feeding essentials to hand.
There are other items that aren’t essential but will make your life easier if you are hand feeding kittens regularly or for a long time.
Commercial milk powders are very easy to prepare and it is best to follow the instructions carefully. Take care to use boiled water that has cooled to blood temperature as this will mix best with the powder. If you make up enough for a day (follow the guidelines on the side to work out how much each kitten needs) you can store the milk in the fridge for up to twenty-four hours.[divider_flat]
Kitten milk packaging will give you a guide of how much to feed your kittens but generally a newborn kitten will need 2ml of milk every two hours day and night. This means you will need to set your alarm through the night and you may also need to take time off from work to feed your kittens through the day so you will need an understanding boss! It can be exhausting work, especially if you are feeding a whole litter of kittens. When feeding a litter of seven or eight, often by the time you have fed the last kitten, it is time to start over again!
As the kittens grow older, the gaps between feeds will be longer and you may actually get some sleep at night. Then finally by four weeks, the end is in sight as the kittens begin to wean and you can look forward to a well deserved rest.
When you are feeding kittens, you must be very careful that the milk doesn’t go down the kitten’s nose or lungs as this can cause aspiration pneumonia; this is potentially fatal for kittens. A sign that the kitten may have inhaled milk will be a milky bubble or milk coming out the kitten’s nose. In that case, fast action is essential; turn the kitten upside down and rub and pat her chest to clear her lungs or use a baby nasal aspirator to suck out the milk. If you are confident doing so, turn the kitten upside down, support her head between your index and middle finger, and swing her upside down, wiping her nose after each swing to clear the milk.
If you suspect your kitten has aspirated milk, she should be taken immediately to your vet as she will most likely need a course of antibiotics. This will prevent the milk becoming infected causing aspiration pneumonia.
Kittens are unable to toilet themselves so their mother will lick their stomach and bottom to stimulate their bowels and bladder to empty. If you are hand feeding you will need to do the job of mother by gently rubbing her bottom with some warm damp cotton wool or towelling and this will stimulate her to toilet.
The best time to toilet a kitten is before and after her feed. She may also need to be toileted if she appears uncomfortable or reluctant to feed.
Hopefully you will have a litter of kittens and they will have lovely fat bellies, suckle from mum contentedly and gain weight steadily. However, in breeding, there will be times you need to make the decision to hand feed a kitten or a litter. By preparing yourself beforehand, you will be informed to make the decision to intervene through hand feeding and be confident that you can do this successfully.
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Joanne Law is a UK breeder and exhibitor of Siamese cats and kittens under the prefix of Riobelle. She manages her own Siamese website as well as being a regular contributor of articles to Siamese Cat Breeder.