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How to Care for a Premature Kitten


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Caring for a premature kitten is very difficult and time-consuming — and the earlier they're born, the more attention they'll need. No matter how attentive you are to them, there's also no guarantee that their bodies will be strong enough to survive outside of the womb.

If you think your pregnant cat is in preterm labor or if she's already given birth to underweight kittens, read on. We'll detail how to care for premature kittens, from regulating their body temperature to bottle-feeding. We'll also discuss the causes of preterm birth and signs that a kitten is premature, should you find one abandoned.

Causes of preterm birth in cats

The average feline gestation period is between 61 and 69 days, but some cats don't make it that long. Vets consider kittens born at less than 61 days into the gestation period to be premature.

There are many causes of early labor in cats, but they usually fall into four groups: sickness, injury, stress, and hormonal or nutritional deficiencies. Below are some of the most common reasons cats go into labor before it's time.

person holding newborn kitten

How to tell if a kitten is premature

Whether your cat is pregnant or not, you should be familiar with the signs of prematurity in kittens. Knowing what to look for may help you save a life if you ever encounter an abandoned premie. If you find a kitten experiencing one or more of the below symptoms, there's a high likelihood that they're premature.

A kitten might be premature if they:

  • weigh less than 3.1 ounces (or 87 grams)

  • are unable to support their head or move

  • have trouble nursing or are unable to nurse

  • have a thin coat or no hair at all

  • have an abnormally tiny body

  • have wrinkly skin 

What is the survival rate of premature kittens?

If you've recently become the caregiver for a litter of premature kittens, you're probably wondering, "Will premature kittens survive?" The answer depends on many factors, including how early the kittens were born, if they're able to nurse, and how much surfactant is present in their lungs.

Being born 10 days early might not be a big deal for human babies, but it can be detrimental to a kitten's health. For one, felines this premature may not be strong enough to nurse and may fade quickly due to dehydration and loss of electrolytes

Cats at this age likely don't have enough moisture inside their lungs either and may have trouble breathing and low oxygen levels. Premature kittens with underdeveloped lungs will need immediate veterinary treatment and corticosteroid therapy for them to have any chance at survival. 

According to the Veterinary Centers of America, the survival rate of premature kittens is low. Still, it is possible to nurse them back to health with lots of diligence and round-the-clock care. But the sad truth of the matter is, even if you're a professional following textbook protocol, there's still no guarantee that your premature kitten will survive more than a few days.

How to care for premature kittens

Caring for a premature kitten is a big undertaking, and you'll need to take great care to ensure they stay warm and get enough to eat. Here are some things you'll need to do to give your premie the best chance of survival.

Make a nesting box for the mother and her litter

First, you'll want to create a safe space for mama cat and her babies. A large cooler with the lid removed is optimal for this purpose, but a cardboard box can work just as well if properly insulated. Line the nesting box with towels or blankets to make the space warm and cozy. You'll need to regularly launder and replace the cat's bedding to keep the kitten's area free of germs and excrement.

Use warming techniques during the first few weeks

Newborn kittens can't regulate their body temperature, and this becomes even more difficult when the kitten is born prematurely. You'll need to offer additional support to keep your premie warm during their first few weeks of life.

Wrap a blanket around a hot water bottle or heating pad and place it into the nesting box to help keep the kitten's body temp up. Make sure the bottle or pad is securely placed so that your kitten won't make direct contact with it.

Your kitten's ideal body temperature range will vary depending on their age:

  • Newborn to 1 week old: 95–99 degrees Fahrenheit
  • 2 to 3 weeks old: 97–100 degrees Fahrenheit
  • 4 weeks: 100–102 degrees Fahrenheit

To help your kitten maintain a proper body temperature, you'll need to keep the nesting box at 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week. If your kitten isn't orphaned or is part of a large litter, this can be adjusted since the mother cat and kittens provide warmth. As the kitten grows, you can gradually reduce the temperature of the nesting box.

person bottle-feeding a premature kitten

Help with feeding

Premature kittens are rarely strong enough to nurse when they're first born, so you may need to bottle-feed them for a while. You'll want to choose a milk replacer and bottle made for kittens. If you can find it, bovine colostrum can help boost a kitten's immune system. Colostrum is nutrient-dense and rich in germ-fighting antibodies and vitamins.

You'll want to stick to a strict feeding schedule if you're bottle-feeding full time. For the first week, premies should be eating every hour or two, around the clock. As the kitten gets older, their stomach will grow, and they will eat more at feedings and go longer between bottles.

Be careful positioning the kitten when bottle-feeding since improper bottle-feeding techniques can lead to aspiration pneumonia. Never feed a kitten who's lying on their back or apply pressure to the bottle to make the milk come out faster since these techniques can cause milk to get in the kitten's lungs. Instead, feed your kitten belly down and allow them to drink as they would naturally. Read this handy guide on weaning kittens so you know what to do when the time comes to transition your kitten to solids.

Stimulate them to use the bathroom

All newborn kittens need help going to the bathroom when they're first born. Typically, the mother will stimulate bathroom habits in her young, but if the mother refuses her litter or is unable to, you may have to take over. Dampen a soft washcloth with warm water and gently wipe it across the kitten's genital area to encourage elimination. You'll need to do this a few times every day until the kitten becomes more independent.

Take notes

We recommend recording your kitten's weight and how much (and how often) they're eating every day. You may also want to document your kitten's daily bathroom habits. This information will allow your vet to see your kitten's progress and may be helpful for diagnosis should the kitten begin to decline.

Know when to visit the vet

Your preemie kitten should see a vet within the first two weeks of life to make sure they are developing properly. However, transporting a fragile premie can be tricky since you have to keep them warm and well-fed while you travel. Prepare a cardboard box with warm blankets and a hot water bottle to keep your furbaby at the correct temperature during the ride. Make some formula bottles to take with you and set an alarm on your phone to ensure you don't miss their normal feeding time during their visit.

Do not delay seeking veterinary care if your premie is acting unusually or is displaying signs of a medical emergency. Go straight to the animal hospital if your premature kitten:

  • is having trouble breathing 

  • isn't going to the bathroom

  • appears lethargic or limp

  • is refusing to bottle-feed

  • isn't gaining weight

Prepare for the unexpected

If you're planning on breeding your feline, you need to prepare for the unexpected. Preterm labor, birth complications, and emergency c-sections are always a possibility, even if a cat has had healthy births in the past.

Getting pet insurance can ensure your cat gets the vet care they deserve and will protect your wallet at the same time. Although basic pet insurance plans don't usually cover pregnancy costs, some companies (like Trupanion) offer add-ons that do. Start comparing pet insurance plans today to find the right plan for your fur-baby and your budget.

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© 2024 Wag Labs, Inc. All rights reserved.