How to Care for Neonatal Kittens

Part of Ireland's TNR Manual

How to Help Community Cats

Adapted for Ireland from Alley Cat Allies.

Previous Step: Kitten and Mum Scenarios and How to Trap

Here are some important tips to keep in mind if you do end up having to care for a neonatal kitten (one- to four-weeks old). Be aware that sometimes, no matter what you do, some neonatal kittens do not survive and can fade very fast. You can only try to be the best surrogate guardian possible, and hope for the best.

For comprehensive information read:

  • Bloomfield, Betty (1994), Nursing & Hand Rearing Newborn Kittens – now out of print but you might find a 2nd hand copy
  • Darrow, Sharron (updated 2013), Bottlekatz by Sharron Darrow 

Ask for Help

Contact local veterinary clinics and no-kill shelters to ask if they have a nursing mother cat or experienced volunteers available to bottle-feed the kittens. Use your local animal welfare networks on FB (eg. Feral Cats Ireland, Irish Animal Shelters). People have had a lot of success having mother cats 'adopt' more kittens - and the kittens have a better chance of survival with a feline mum.

Best Practice

The bottom line is - for the kittens best hope of survival, get them to a nursing mum, or an experienced human bottlefeeder unless you are experienced yourself. If you absolutely have to bottlefeed yourself, get as much advice and read as much as you can about bottlefeeding and have them regularly checked by a vet. Don't think it's easy!

Heat and Bedding

Kittens can easily become chilled and can actually die from chilling within a short time frame. Be sure that from the moment you find them, the kittens are kept constantly warm. Continually keep an eye out for signs of chilling (ie. kittens are listless and feel cool to the touch). If you have nothing else on hand, use your own body heat to warm up a cold kitten, and rub gently to aid circulation. It is important to note that kittens cannot control their own body temperature until they are at least three weeks old. Do not bottle feed until kittens have warmed up completely.

At home, provide kittens with a soft nest (like a box or kitty bed) with a heating pad or other warming device. Completely cover it with a blanket or towel, and make sure that kittens can move away from the heat if they want. Change the bedding daily or as needed when accidents occur.

Chilling can occur after a kitten becomes wet. Never submerge kittens in water. If you need to wash them, wash only certain parts or use a moist wash cloth. Be sure to always fully dry them with a hair dryer (on low) and towel.


Never feed kittens cow’s milk - this causes diarrhoea. Feed only kitten formula, such as Cimicat, which can be purchased at most pet supply stores and vets. Use kitten bottles to feed, as they are designed specifically with a kitten in mind. If you have an option for nipples, the elongated nipples are easier to use. Follow the directions of the bottle manufacturer for bottle preparation. You may have to make your own holes in the nipple with a sterilized pin or razor; be sure you do this correctly so that the kitten replacement milk drips out slowly when the bottle is turned upside down. Sterilise the bottles before using. Wash your hands before and after each feeding.

If you find yourself with a kitten and no store is open, this emergency kitten formula can be made at home. It should only be used in emergencies, and should not replace kitten formula.

  • 8 oz. can evaporated milk
  • 1 beaten egg yolk
  • 2 TB Karo syrup

Mix all ingredients well and strain. Warm before serving. Keep refrigerated.

From Feline Neonatal Care DVD from the Loudoun SPCA.


Hold or place kittens on their stomachs and arch the bottle so less air gets in (do not feed kittens on their backs). Always warm the kitten replacement milk and test it on your wrist to be sure it is warm but not hot. Remember, do not feed chilled kittens.

  • For kittens 10 days old or younger, feeding should occur every 2 hours around the clock.
  • From age 11 days to 2½ weeks reduce feeding to every 3–4 hours.
  • From 2½ to 4 weeks, feed every 5–6 hours.
  • For kittens 4 weeks and older, feed 2–3 times daily with a wet food/formula mixture.

Follow the guidelines on the formula label for how much to feed. Kittens will usually stop nursing when full. Weaning occurs around four to five weeks of age. Mix formula with wet food so kittens can begin to lap it up, or put the mixture in a bottle. Then mix with dry food and begin providing water.

If you are having trouble getting a kitten to 'latch' onto the bottle, try pulling on the nipple when they start to suck, this will encourage her to suck harder and latch on. You can also try moving the nipple back and forth in the kitten’s mouth. If your kitten is too ill to suck on a bottle, you may have to use other methods such as tube feeding. Consult a veterinarian before attempting this yourself.

After Feeding

As long as kittens are eating formula, you must burp them. Put them on your shoulder or on their stomachs and pat them gently until you feel them burp. Kitten formula is sticky, so be sure to clean kittens after feeding with a warm, damp washcloth.


Kittens under four weeks must be stimulated in order to go to the bathroom after each feeding. Usually a mother cat would lick her kittens, but you can use a warm, moist cotton ball to gently rub the kittens’ anal area to stimulate urination and defecation. Completely solid faeces usually will not form while kittens are drinking formula.

Start litter training at four weeks. Kittens may start looking for a place to go as young as 2½ weeks of age. You may supply them with a small, shallow litter pan with non-clumping litter. Do not use paper or fabric; while this is soft, it can teach bad habits they may carry into adulthood! Show kittens the litter box and put in a used cotton ball, and this should do the trick.

Health Concerns

Best Practice

Weighing your kittens regularly often means you can catch health concerns early, before other symptoms appear, by spotting lack of weigh gain. Weigh them twice daily, around the same time, and keep in mind their weight will naturally fluctuate due to feeding and eliminating. Kittens are usually around 100g when born and should put on about 100g a week, eg. a two-week-old kitten should weigh around 300g. Log the weights as you go (you'll never remember without a written log!) and track weight changes. If any kitten is not an appropriate weight for their age, or does not put on weight appropriately get in touch with your vet immediately.

Kittens can go downhill very quickly and this is an excellent way of early disease prevention and control.

Upper Respiratory Infection (URI)

Though this is common in kittens, you should not ignore it. If heavy yellow discharge develops or the kitten has trouble breathing or eating, see a veterinarian immediately. A mild URI can be cleared up by simply wiping away discharge with a warm, wet cloth and keeping kittens in a warm, damp environment.


Fleas on a very small kitten can cause anaemia. First, pick fleas off with a flea comb. For a bad infestation, you can bathe the kitten in warm water to get rid of fleas. You can also use a very small amount of gentle, liquid dish soaps such as Dawn, to bathe kittens. Avoid the eye area - use a washcloth around the face - and rinse them thoroughly. Do not use flea shampoo or topical flea treatments on kittens 6 weeks or younger. Remember, never submerge kittens fully in water. If giving a bath be careful of chilling - dry kittens thoroughly with a warm towel or hair dryer on low, then place on a heating pad.


Any drastic change in stool consistency can mean trouble. Parasites can often cause diarrhoea, strange looking stools and dehydration. Kittens can begin a deworming treatment schedule as young as 10 days old; see a veterinarian for this. If you notice any unusual signs, your kittens should be seen by a veterinarian.


Next Step: Socialising Feral Kittens

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Part of Ireland's TNR Manual

How to Help Community Cats