Spring and early summer are what animal shelter employees refer to as “kitten season” because more cats and kittens are born in these months than any other time of the year. Kittens are delightful and bring so much joy to those of us who love all things feline. However, people may not realize how much hard work is required to raise a newborn into a healthy cat.
Cats reproduce prolifically (which is why it’s important to spay or neuter your cat), but in spite of their superior ability to produce offspring, kittens often have a hard time surviving after birth — especially if they are orphaned.
At less than a week of age, kittens weigh about 4 ounces. Their eyes are shut, their ears are closed, and all they can do is nurse. Very young kittens cannot even urinate or defecate on their own, and require their mother to stimulate them to do so. Orphaned kittens are especially difficult because their human caretakers (referred to as foster parents) must feed and stimulate the babies constantly — even overnight — until they are weaned and potty trained. As they get a little older their feedings can be spread out a little, but they still require some overnight care until they are fully weaned.
After about 4 weeks, weaning can be started — but it’s not easy! Orphaned kittens must be presented with gruel (milk-replacer formula mixed with wet cat food) that they can lap from a bowl. Because all kittens are different, some learn quickly while others require more prompting, like putting the gruel on their lips and showing them where the food is located multiple times. Those that lag behind must continue to be bottle fed until they are weaned.
While the kittens are learning how to eat, they commonly run through the gruel — and frequently play in it. It’s cute, but it’s also messy. The mama cat is usually the one to keep the kittens clean, but if the kittens are orphaned, the foster parents spend a lot of time keeping the kittens clean and dry so they do not develop skin infections or become hypothermic (cold).
Kittens also have to be taught how to use the litter box. After they develop the ability to go to the bathroom on their own, their urine and feces must be transferred to a litter box that the kittens can get into and out of easily. They should be placed in the box repeatedly whenever they are found going outside of the box until they get the idea.
Finally, kittens are very susceptible to illnesses, including intestinal parasites, viral infections and a variety of other ailments which present a challenge to diagnose and treat. These problems often cause kittens to have difficulty gaining weight; therefore, it is best to weigh kittens daily to make sure they are gaining at least 10 grams per day.
Overall, caring for kittens can be a challenge for caretakers. Please remember how much work these animals require to keep healthy before allowing your cat to have kittens. Better yet, make sure your cats are spayed and neutered and join our efforts to reduce pet overpopulation.
Interested in helping orphaned kittens?
Sign up to be a foster parent for the Lawrence Humane Society! Visit lawrencehumane.org/get-involved for more information and to apply.
— Jennifer Stone is the medical director and staff veterinarian at the Lawrence Humane Society. She has been a shelter veterinarian for more than a decade.