Newborn Kittens: how to care for them?

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A newborn kitten is totally dependent upon its mother!

If no mother is available, it is up to the caregiver to provide fully for its needs. These needs include warmth, food (milk), and elimination (pooping and peeing).

A very young buff orange kitten looks soulfully into the camera at close range.
“I need help with EVERYTHING!” – all newborn kittens

Yes, tiny kittens can’t poo or pee on their own! If you are fostering kittens, you will eventually come across newborns, with or without a mama cat, that need care.

Why are newborn kittens so needy?

Newborn kittens require so much care because they are fragile and have limited physical abilities at birth. Kittens this young cannot see or hear. They can’t walk. Their eyes stay closed and their ears are folded down. They can touch and smell, and this is how they navigate around their mothers so they can nurse.

Kittens with a mother

If you are providing care for newborn kittens with a mother, your primary responsibility is to ensure that the mother is well taken care of, and quietly observe to be sure that none of the kittens need extra attention. A mom cat will need a quiet space where she can rest with her babies, and plenty of food and water.

Taking care of a nursing mom cat

Mother cats are usually fed kitten food because they need extra calories to make milk for their babies. Wet food and dry food are both appropriate. Choose the highest quality food you can find, and do not limit access.

The mother cat will also need access to a litter box. Be sure to use non-clumping litter, in case the kittens accidentally ingest any. Clumping litter is very dangerous for kittens, newborn or not. There are many non-clumping litter types available at local pet stores and online. With all of her needs met, a mother cat will be able to fully provide for her kits, and you will simply enjoy watching the babies grow up and start to become more independent.

Mama cat Blanche nurses two young kittens Elmer and Tumbleweed in their foster home.

Kittens without a mother

Baby kittens without a mother require around the clock care. They are extremely fragile, and in order to keep them alive you must fulfill all of the duties that a mother cat normally would provide: constant warmth, and food, and elimination every few hours.

Kittens grow quickly and after 3-5 weeks they will be much more stable. The first few weeks of effort is not easy but it doesn’t last forever! Especially if you can find friends or family to share the workload with, it will be very manageable to provide all the care that orphaned young kittens need.

Orphaned kittens need warmth

Newborn kittens are so small, about 3 1/2 oz. Due to their size, they have trouble staying warm and normally remain near their mother for warmth until they are bigger.

If you are caring for an orphaned kitten or kittens, a heating pad is a good tool to provide warmth. The kittens need to be able to move farther away or closer to the heat source so they don’t overheat. A a hot water bottle will also work well.

Newborn kittens need food

Kittens will usually be ready to start weaning onto solid kitten food after they are 4 or so weeks old. Until then, they will need extra special care and attention for their food intake.

A young white and gray kitten is held by a caregiver.
“Make sure I’m warm, fed, toileted, and bathed!”

How to feed newborn kittens

Feeding very young kittens is a lot different than feeding older kittens. Feed newborn kittens every 2-3 hours around the clock (yes, even in the middle of the night) using a bottle designed for small animals. The nipples do not come with holes in them, so be sure to follow the instructions and poke a small hole. When you hold the bottle upside down, milk should drip out slowly one drop at at time.

What to feed newborn kittens

Newborn kittens with a mother eat kitten milk replacement formula, just like human babies who do not drink their mothers’ milk eat a human milk replacer formula.

Cats cannot digest store-bought milk or milk alternatives, and it will likely give them diarrhea, which is dangerous in tiny kittens. Kitten formula can come in powdered or premixed liquid form. BestFriends.org also has a homemade kitten formula that is another option, for those interested in making it.

To feed a kitten, place the kitten belly-down on a towel on your lap. Be sure the kitten is warm before beginning to feed him or her. Gently place the bottle nipple in the kitten’s mouth, and the newborn kitten should begin to eat. If the kitten doesn’t eat, check to make sure the bottle’s nipple is not clogged.

A caregiver bottle feeds a newborn kitten
Bottle feeding a newborn kitten

Newborn kittens need help eliminating waste

For about 3-4 weeks after birth, kittens are not able to poop or pee on their own. During the course of bathing their kittens with their tongue, mother cats clean the kittens’ butts. This action stimulates the kittens reflexes and they eliminate waste. You will need to replicate this activity using a soft cotton ball or tissue paper soaked in warm water.

After the kittens have eaten, gently wipe the newborn kittens’ bottoms a few times with a damp cotton ball, and they will pee or poo in response. This ensures that their systems stay healthy and functioning while they grow more independent.

Brand new baby kittens without a mother take a lot of extra special care for the first few weeks. They are incredibly cute and it is so rewarding to watch them grow! If you are up to the task of fostering very young kittens, be sure not to miss out on this amazing experience.


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