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Kitten Foster Basics

Mar 16, 2021 | Foster Resources

Thank you for opening your home and heart to shelter animals in need of a little extra care and nurturing. We hope you will find your experience as a foster parent rewarding. You are an essential link in providing these animals with permanent, loving homes.

Five Main To-Dos When Fostering Kittens

  1. Keep kittens warm
  2. Provide kittens with adequate nutrition
  3. Keep kittens clean
  4. Do your best to protect them from infectious disease
  5. Provide socialization with people and littermates

Keeping kittens warm

Since they do not have the ability to regulate and control their body temperature, we must help maintain kittens’ body warmth for them. A sock filled with rice can be microwaved to provide an inexpensive heat source for kittens. Heat 1 rice sock in the microwave for 1-1.5 minutes. Be sure to move the rice around within the sock following heating to distribute the heat appropriately. If the rice sock is too warm to touch your skin, it is too warm for the kitten!

Place a warmed rice sock with the kitten(s) and cover the rice sock with a soft folded towel or blanket so that the kitten cannot lay on it directly. If there is not a rice sock available, place a heating pad on the low setting with a blanket between the kitten and the heating pad. Check on the heating pad frequently to ensure that it is not too hot or too cold. Rice socks should retain their heat for several hours and may need to be reheated at each feeding time. Once kittens are about 3-4 weeks old they should no longer need a supplied heat source, however they still may enjoy curling up next to a warm rice sock if it’s available!

Kittens should be able to get away from the heat source if they are too hot so make sure that there is space for them to go that isn’t heated. Kittens also like to have a nice nest, so bundle them in a nice blanket that they can crawl in and out of. When kittens are very young and not yet walking around, it is helpful to keep them in a carrier, crate, or box with high sides to keep them contained to a small area.

If a kitten feels cold, warm it immediately but gently by wrapping it in a towel with a heating pad on low wrapped around the towel or place it wrapped in a towel on a heated rice sock. After you start warming the kitten, contact WCAS.  

Properly setting up a kitten to keep it toasty

1. For kittens under 3 to 4 weeks of age set up a cage or crate with a heating pad or rice sock on the bottom ensuring that half of their house has a heated floor and half of it does not.

2. Place a nicely folded towel over the heat source completely covering the bottom of the cage or crate.

3. Give them a nest in a small box (a canned food carton works nicely) with a soft blanket.

4. Cover the cage front or entire crate with a towel to keep the house draft-free and cozy.

5. Find a nice warm and quiet room in your home such as a bathroom. If possible keep that room warmer than you would like it to be. 80 to 85 degrees is a good room temperature for housing kittens up to 6-8 weeks.

Kitten Feeding

Cow’s milk is not nutritious enough for kittens and it causes diarrhea which is dangerous for kittens. Kittens should be fed kitten formula which is specially formulated to be completely nutritious and balanced for kittens as they grow.

  • Kitten formula should be mixed and fed according to the instructions on the product label.
  • Kittens should eat about 2 tablespoons, or 10mL of appropriately mixed formula per 4 ounces of body weight in a 24 hour period.
  • Kittens less than 2 weeks of age should eat at least every 2 hours and may need to be woken up during the night for feeding. Because their stomachs are so small, it is important that they are fed small frequent meals around the clock to maintain the energy and nutrition that they need to grow and stay healthy.
  • Kittens 2 to 4 weeks of age should eat at least every 3-4 hours. They do not have to be woken up at night to feed if they are sleeping at this point.
  • Kittens that are weak or are not eating enough should be fed more frequently.
  • There will be individual variations in frequency and amounts for each kitten.
  • Any prepared kitten formula (such as KMR) or gruel (mixture of formula and canned food) must be refrigerated if not used immediately and must be discarded after 24 hours.

General feeding instructions

Test the temperature of the formula before feeding, it should be warm but not hot, around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. You can warm the bottle by placing it in hot water for a few minutes or putting it in the microwave until it reaches 100 degrees Fahrenheit. If you use the microwave be sure to mix the formula well before testing because hot spots may develop in the heating process.

Positioning for feeding is very important. Reclining a kitten on its back while feeding can cause them to aspirate, which can lead to aspiration, which means that the kitten breathes the formula into their respiratory tract rather than swallowing. This can lead to a reactive pneumonia which may be fatal for the kitten. They must be leaning forward or flat on their belly while feeding. Kittens are most comfortable in a position similar to the position they would be in if they were nursing from their mom. You can place the kitten on its stomach on a towel or cloth, which the kitten will cling to it and knead its paws on instinct. If the kitten is acting frantic while nursing, you may want to wrap the kitten in a towel while feeding it.

When bottle feeding, open the mouth gently with the tip of your finger and slip the nipple in. Once your kitten gets the hang of it, they will search out the nipple enthusiastically. You will feel a vacuum effect when they get into suckle mode. Watch for bubbles in the bottle during suckling and ears wiggling, this means they are suckling successfully. To keep air from getting into their stomach, hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle, keeping a slight pull on the bottle. They should be allowed to suck at their own pace. If they refuse to take the nipple or will not suckle, try rubbing the kitten vigorously on its forehead or stroking its back much like their mom would. If you still cannot get them to nurse from the bottle, it is time to syringe feed them to make sure they are getting what they need.

If you’re feeding multiple kittens, you’ll have better luck with them eating the required amount if you feed them each several times, taking turns. Feed the first kitten until it stops nursing, feed the second, etc. Then go back to the first and repeat this process. Usually after 2 or 3 nursing turns, a kitten has had enough for one feeding.

Kittens that seem too weak to nurse may be too cold or have an underlying medical issue. If a kitten refuses to nurse, and this happens beyond the first few “getting the hang of it” times, it may indicate illness. Please contact WCAS.

When a kitten has had enough formula, it will usually get some bubbles around its mouth and its tummy will be very rounded, almost pear-shaped.

Grooming after feeding

After each feeding session, you should give each kitten a full-body once over with a barely damp warm washcloth, using short strokes like mom would use. This activity keeps the kittens’ fur clean, teaches them how to groom and gives them the socialization they need. Remember to make sure the kitten is completely dry before it is placed back in its cage.

It is natural for kittens to suckle on each other or on your fingers, even after they’re finished eating. If kittens are suckling on each other excessively, that may be a sign that you need to increase the frequency of feedings. If littermate suckling becomes problematic, especially around the genital area, you may need to separate the kittens. It is a good idea to check each kitten’s genitals to ensure that the sucking activity is not causing problems (redness, irritation, penis hanging out, etc…). Suckling on genitals can lead to the urethra swelling shut and having to be surgically reopened. If any of this occurs, please contact WCAS immediately.

Weaning

You will know that a kitten is ready for the weaning process when it is biting its nipple often and forcefully and is able to lick formula from your finger. Most kittens will be ready to start weaning by 3-4 weeks of age. It is usually necessary to continue bottle feeding through the weaning process to ensure kittens get adequate nutrition and are not overly stressed.

The first step of the weaning process is to get the kitten to lap up formula from your finger and then a spoon. Once they have mastered that, try putting it in a flat dish. Introduce the kittens to solid food by offering warm canned food mixed into a thin gruel with prepared kitten formula. Some kittens will begin lapping right away, while others will prefer to lick the gruel from your fingers. Allow them to do so and slowly lower your finger to the dish. The kittens may bite the edge of the dish or walk in the food. Sometimes it takes two to three meals or more before they really catch on.

Eventually, you can gradually reduce the amount of formula you are mixing with canned food until they are eating just the food.

If a kitten does not seem interested in the gruel at all, try gently opening the kitten’s mouth and rubbing a little of the food on her tongue or teeth. Be patient as the weaning process takes time. As the kittens catch on, begin to thicken the gruel. Remember that as you thicken the gruel, the kittens should always have access to fresh water in a low spill-resistant bowl.

Kittens usually walk through their food. Make sure they are cleaned and dry before putting them in their cage. Most weaning kittens are messy eaters; do not leave gruel or water in their cage because being wet rapidly causes body temperature to drop.

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