7 min read

How Do I Care for Newborn Kittens?

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By Leslie Ingraham

Published: 01/03/2022, edited: 01/03/2022

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So your Mama cat has just given birth to a litter of kittens. If you don’t have experience with kittens, especially tiny newborns, you might have questions. We hope to answer some of them for you.

Newborn kittens can be fragile for the first couple weeks of life. They have few needs, which their mom mostly provides, but she and they are fortunate to have a human watching over them to be sure they thrive and grow. Read on to find out what you can do to ensure your new felines stay safe and healthy.


Mother’s care

mother cat and kitten - caring for newborn kittens

With their eyes and ears closed, each tiny bundle huddles against their mom to keep warm and nurse. They wiggle around on their bellies, but spend 90 percent of their time sleeping.

The mother cat or “queen” will provide for the kittens’ basic needs: food, warmth, and hygiene. She will nurse them, keep them warm and clean, and lick them to stimulate production of urine and feces after meals. 

As long as their mother is caring for them, there isn’t much you need to do except keep watch to be sure all is well, and provide a warm, quiet, and comfortable place for the new family to live. Sometimes, though, kittens can still experience problems, and may need your help. Be watchful for:

  • Newborn kittens will cry when they’re hungry, but if you notice them crying while nursing or right after, they may not be getting enough milk. Check the queen’s nipples by squeezing them gently to be sure they’re producing milk. 

  • If the kittens seem to avoid nursing, check to see if mom has a fever or mastitis, an infection of the mammary glands. Symptoms include red, swollen breasts that feel hard and hot to the touch. Kittens will not drink infected milk. While antibiotics from the vet will help, you may need to feed the newborns until the mother can resume. Have some store-bought kitten milk replacement (KMR) on hand.
  • Watch to see that the kittens nurse immediately after birth and for the next couple of days. This is when the mother produces colostrum, or “first milk,” which contains antibodies against cat diseases. If this doesn’t happen, the kittens may need to be vaccinated earlier than usual, at two to three weeks. Check with your vet.

  • Be sure the mother remains healthy by feeding nutrient-rich kitten food while she’s pregnant, vaccinating her before she gets pregnant if possible, and providing a quiet, stress-free space for the nursery.


Other common questions that many new kitty parents may have include:

Can I touch the kittens after birth? 

Some veterinarians advise against touching newborn kittens until their eyes are open, but others agree it’s okay if you have concerns about whether they’re nursing or if they appear to be in distress. Be sensitive to their mother’s reaction when you come near. If mom is really stressed about you touching her babies, she may move them away from the warm, comfortable nest you’ve provided to somewhere more secluded. If you do touch, do so infrequently for the first couple of weeks.

Can you hold a newborn kitten?

As with touching, holding a newborn kitten may cause anxiety for their mom. A few good reasons to hold a kitten include checking to be sure there is no obstruction in the kitten’s mouth such as birth membrane, monitoring weight as they grow, investigating signs of distress, or stroking them and keeping them warm when they appear cold.

What temperature does the nursery area need to be?

During the first four days, the temperature in the nursery should be from 89 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit. It can be decreased to 80 degrees by the seventh to tenth day, and to 75 degrees by the end of the fourth week.

Can I let other humans see the kittens?

During the first four weeks, it’s best to limit the kittens’ contact with friends and relatives until they’re moving around outside the box and are weaned. This will prevent unnecessary stress on the mother cat, and reduce the chance of problems for the kittens.

What do I do if the mother cat is absent or can’t give care?

Whether the mother cat is absent, or is unable to care for her kittens, you may have to step in and take care of the newborns. Read on to discover what this entails.


Tips for caring for newborn kittens without a mother

newborns without a mother - caring for newborn kittens

Bedding and Heat

Until they’re at least three weeks old, newborn kittens are unable to control their body temperature. A chill can be life-threatening for a small kitten, so it’s important to take steps to keep them warm and dry. 

  • Build a nest using a blanket over a pet bed or a blanket or two in the bottom of a cardboard box. Enclosed spaces stay warmer.
  • Wrap a heating pad set to “low” in a thick towel and place it in a corner of the nest for warmth, leaving enough unheated area so the kittens can move there if they get too hot. 
  • Hang a heating lamp about two feet above the nursery to provide warmth.
  • Change the nursery bedding daily and when it’s wet so they always have a fresh, dry bed. 
  • If a kitten shows signs of being chilled, warm them with your own body while stroking them gently to improve their circulation. Once they feel less cool, they can be put back in the warm nest. Signs of chill include listlessness and feeling cool to the touch.

Hygiene

Mama cats lick their kittens almost constantly, to clean them and give them comfort. Mom also licks their bottoms to stimulate them to eliminate and to clean them afterward. Kittens still need cleaning if mom is absent or can’t do it. Here are a few hygiene tips:

  • Never immerse a newborn kitten in water
  • Wash their faces and bodies gently with a warm, moist washcloth. 
  • Gently rub their bottoms to stimulate them to pee and poop. A cotton ball moistened with warm water works, too. 
  • After washing, dry them with a hair dryer set to a low setting, and wrap them in some soft towels.
  • Placing a used cotton ball in their litter box at about four weeks old will encourage them to use the box for elimination. Pick them up after feeding and put them in, softly scrabbling the litter with your fingers to show them what to do. Most kittens pass litter box training early and with flying colors!

Feeding

  • Newborn kittens need to eat about every two hours around the clock for up to ten days after they’re born. This is a daunting schedule, so enlisting other family members, roommates, or friends to help is a good idea. 
  • Check with your local shelter to see if they have any nursing mothers in residence that can foster the kittens. The shelter may also know of volunteers willing to help you with feeding. 
  • If you don’t have any commercial kitten formula available, emergency homemade milk can be made with eight ounces of evaporated milk, two tablespoons of Karo syrup and a beaten egg yolk. Strain and warm the mixture before feeding it, and keep leftovers in the refrigerator. This solution should only be used for about 24 hours, at which time you should switch to KMR obtained at a pet store or the veterinary clinic.
  • Feed the kittens with an eyedropper or a specially-made kitten bottle with a tiny nipple. Feed until they pull away on their own. If a kitten seems to not know what to do with the nipple, try pulling back a little on the bottle or moving the nipple back and forth in their mouths until they grab onto it more firmly by sucking.

  • As the kittens get older, the feeding schedule will loosen up a bit. At 11 days to 21/2 weeks, feed every 3-4 hours. From 21/2 weeks to 4 weeks, feed every 5-6 hours. After 4 weeks, feed 2-3 times a day.

  • At about four weeks, you can start weaning the kittens by mixing warm formula with some wet kitten food to make a thick liquid, and feeding it in a saucer. The kittens should naturally start to lap up the combo, but they can be encouraged by dipping your finger in the food and luring them to the dish. 

  • Kittens need to be burped after eating just like human babies. You can do this by holding them on your shoulder and rubbing or gently tapping their backs until you hear them burp. They can also be burped lying on their stomachs.

Health 

Newborn kittens are vulnerable to a few health concerns that you’ll need to watch out for including:

  • Mild upper respiratory infections, evidenced by clear nasal discharge. Wipe away the discharge and keep the kitten warm. Reach out to your vet if the infection doesn’t clear on its own.
  • More severe respiratory infections, evidenced by thicker, greenish discharge. Consult with your veterinarian immediately.
  • Fleas can cause anemia in kittens. Pick them off with a flea comb and put a drop of Dawn liquid detergent on a moist cloth to wash them all over. Do not use flea shampoo or treatment solutions on newborns. Be sure to rinse and dry them thoroughly.
  • Parasites are common in kittens, and may include a variety of worms or coccidia. Diarrhea is an early symptom. These parasites can be treated with deworming or antibiotics as early as ten days old.


How to tell if newborn kittens are healthy

caring for newborn kittens - book wellness visits to the veterinarian

Kittens grow and develop rapidly during their 4-week newborn period. Here’s what to expect:

  • Kittens’ eyes open at about 14 days. If this doesn’t happen normally, the veterinarian can open them manually. 
  • Kittens also become more mobile during the first month of life. At two weeks, they’ll try to stand and will rapidly advance to climbing out of their nest at about three weeks. At four weeks, they’re running and playing with their nursery-mates. It’ll be time to introduce them to a few simple but irresistible toys like string and small stuffed animals.
  • Solid food can be offered (at first mixed with formula during weaning) at about 31/2 to 41/2 weeks. The kittens should naturally go for the mixture and graduate to only solid food after a week.

  • Wellness visits to the veterinarian begin at six to twelve weeks. The kittens will receive their first vaccines and have a thorough checkup to ensure they’re healthy.


Caring for a pregnant or breeding cat can be expensive. Most accident and illness policies don’t cover costs related to pregnancy. But some providers, like Trupanion, offer add-ons that reimburse vet care costs. Start comparing pet insurance plans today to find the right fit for your fur-baby.


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