Found a Litter of Kittens Outside?
If you have determined there is a litter of kittens that need your intervention and you are unable to reach out to a shelter for assistance, please follow these steps:
If all of the kittens appear to be stable and in healthy condition:
- Warm them up, especially if they appear to be cold to the touch. You do NOT want to feed cold kittens.
- Once warm, feed them an appropriate diet according to their age. To determine kitten age, click here. For information about bottle feeding kittens, click here. Smaller and more frequent meals are advised to start for the first 12 hours.
- Stimulate kittens under 3 weeks of age to go to the bathroom, following these guidelines. If the kittens are older, place them in a litter box.
- Place them in a carrier or crate, making sure the area around them is very warm with a heat source. For information on how to make the kittens cozy, click here.
In most cases, kittens receive all the nutritional support they need from their mother. However, if the mother cat abandons or rejects her young, becomes too ill to care for them, or dies, young kittens will need assistance in order to survive. Caring for young kittens is no easy task and requires a lot of time and energy. Mother cats know best, so hand raising kittens should only be undertaken if absolutely necessary. If you find a litter of kittens in your yard, before bringing them indoors for care, first make certain the mother cat is not coming back; give her some time, she might be out in search of food and will return shortly. Refer back to our flowchart here to determine if intervention is needed.
Please visit the Kitten Lady page here for an in-depth assessment of kitten health.
If a litter of kittens needs to be hand raised, here are a few important items to keep in mind. Newborn kittens require:
- A caretaker who can support them around the clock, day and night
- By providing a consistent feeding schedule, every 2-3 hours
- By stimulating bowel movements before and after feedings
- A clean, warm and quiet environment, with a safe and constant heat source
- A strict hygiene routine to prevent disease
- A positive and enriching environment where they can learn normal kitten behavior that they would learn from a mother cat
Items you will need to properly foster kittens:
- Kitten Milk Replacer (KMR), Breeders Edge (find at pet supply stores, from a vet, grocery store, or online)
- Kitten/Puppy baby bottle kit (can find at pet or grocery stores), eye dropper, syringe
- Canned kitten food
- Heating pad, hot water bottle, or rice sock.
- Soft, fleece blankets
- Soft washcloths
- Paper towels, tissues
- Mild, liquid dish soap
- Carrier or wire/plastic kennel; a box without lid will work for kittens 1-2 weeks old
- Shallow litter pan (cardboard trays canned cat food comes in work great)
- Litter (non-clumping)
- Stuffed toys
Creating A Warm, Quiet Environment (Temperature is Key)
Prepare a quiet space for the kittens, preferably a spare room with a door that closes to keep them quarantined from other animals, noise, and getting into trouble. If you find a litter of kittens older than 5 weeks, make sure they cannot climb up a curtain, pull down a lamp, fall into a toilet, eat a toxic plant or other hazard in a trash can, etc. Keep them in a carrier, kennel, or other structure for their safety.
Kittens under 5 weeks of age cannot regulate their body temperature that well, so you will need to create a cozy “nest” for them by placing a heating pad or hot water bottle under a soft blanket; make sure it’s not too hot that the kittens will get burned. For kittens 2 weeks of age and younger, maintain a temperature of around 85-90ºF; kittens around 3 weeks old, decrease the temperature to 80ºF. Keep the kittens warm but allow them to move off of the heating pad if they become too warm. Place a stuffed animal in with the kittens to give them something to snuggle with.
How to return kittens
If you find very small kittens under 5 weeks old, keep checking back where you found them since mom could return to find them. If you find that mom has returned, leave the kittens in a safe place outside in the kennel so mom can reunite with her babies. Once the whole family is old enough, it is important to spay her and her babies to stop the cycle of kittens being born on the street. Please contact RVHS for resources on how to do this!
If kittens are under 5 weeks of age and unable to eat solid food on their own, you will need to bottle-feed them kitten formula (KMR, Breeders Edge). Do NOT feed kittens cow’s milk, it is very dangerous; only use formula specifically for kittens. If the kitten does not latch onto the bottle or is too weak, you may have to syringe feed the formula. Learn how to do that here.
Follow the instructions on the formula container for proper mixing; it’s best to use powdered formula and mix a new batch with every feeding. Make sure the formula is warm but not hot; test on the inside of your wrist and you should barely feel warmth. Follow Kitten Lady’s handy feeding chart here. Please note, overfeeding is just as dangerous as underfeeding, so please exercise caution.
If your kitten is at an age where it needs to wean from formula to wet food, check out Kitten Lady’s article on weaning kittens here.
Kittens start to go to the bathroom on their own at 3 to 4 weeks old. Younger kittens are stimulated by the mother to pee and poop. The caretaker of orphaned kittens must take over this role, by stimulating each kitten before and after every feeding. To learn how to stimulate a kitten, watch this video.
Weighing your kitten
We recommend weighing your kitten in grams before feeding and after feeding/elimination using a postal or kitchen scale. Knowing your kitten’s weight can let you know immediately if they start to decline and need further intervention. Healthy kittens will gain weight, around 10-15 grams, after every feeding.
Litter Box Training
Around the 3- to 4-week mark, as you continue to bottle fed and stimulate the kittens, begin to place each one in the center of a shallow litter box and gently use her front paws to dig in the litter. Most kittens know instinctually to use a litter box, though you should also encourage this behavior since there is no mother cat present to lead by example. Use a non-clumping litter to prevent litter from caking to their fur and to avoid accidental ingestion.
Because kittens have weakened immune systems, proper hygiene is of the utmost importance. After every stimulation, each kitten should be cleaned with a warm, wet tissue or cloth. Gently wash the kitten’s bottom to prevent urine and feces from drying on delicate skin and fur. Also clean the kitten’s face, just like her mother would do, to prevent formula from sticking to her fur.
If a kitten becomes particularly dirty, you can give her a bath but use caution; again keeping kittens warm and dry is vital. Under warm running water, only wash the area that is dirty; do NOT immerse the entire kitten in water. Use an unscented baby shampoo and make sure to rinse thoroughly. Gently dry the kitten with a soft towel and immediately place her on a heating pad.
In addition to keeping the kittens clean, it is important to keep their sleeping area clean by changing soiled blankets and making sure to regularly clean and disinfect all bowls, bottles, syringes, etc. Kittens have weakened immune systems, therefore maintaining a strict hygiene protocol is essential.
Emergency problems with your kitten
Active bleeding, severe trauma, or pain
Vomiting: more than once in a 24 hour period
Temperature over 104º
Not Eating: A kitten is hypoglycemic when she has low blood sugar. This occurs from inadequate or infrequent feedings or from severe upper respiratory infections where they can’t smell food. Low blood sugar can result in severe depression, muscle twitching, and convulsions. They can deteriorate very rapidly and require immediate attention.
Dehydration: concentrated urine, no urine after each feeding, tacky gums
Poop: No feces within 72 hours (constipation) or multiple episodes of watery/bloody/mucousy stool (diarrhea)
Weight loss: severe drop in weight (10-15 grams) accompanied with a decreased appetite and urine/stool production more than two feedings in a row
Fading Kitten Syndrome: this refers to a list of problems and conditions that can cause death in young kittens, usually in the first two weeks of life, due to underlying conditions, infections, or birth defects. Fading kitten syndrome can occur within hours, so it is vitally important that you monitor your kitten closely on a daily basis. Symptoms include lethargy, trouble breathing/low respiratory rate, low body temperature, pale gums, failure to nurse
If a kitten is experiencing any of the above problems, take her to your normal vet immediately, or SOVSC if after hours.
For more information on caring for kittens, please check out Kitten Lady’s website for more resources.
RVHS is a proud partner to the Orphan Kitten Club. Check out the good work they do here!