Hand Raising Orphaned Kittens: The Love Kuching Project

Kittens. Everyone’s and their mother’s favourite thing on the Internet, am I right?

Unfortunately, the truth is that not every kitten has a mother. Kittens below eight weeks of age are extremely vulnerable as they have neither received immunity-boosting mother’s milk nor learnt how to feed, care, and fend for themselves. Other reasons a kitten may need to be hand raised included sick or dying mums, or the mothers have rejected and abandoned the kitten.

If you find yourself in a position where you need to care for a young orphaned kitten, you want to make sure you know what to do to optimise the tiny furball’s chances of survival. Luckily, our cat expert friends at Love Kuching told us how:

First Things First

hand raising kittens

A young kitten must be kept warm at all times. Warmth is especially important in the first two weeks of a kitten’s life because it has yet to develop the ability to regulate their body temperature. When you first find an orphaned kitten, place it on you for body warmth – the neck, chest or arm works. If it’s a litter of kittens, get a box and line it with a towel (your jacket or shawl will do too) and place the kittens in it while you transport them home. Next, round up some basic supplies. You’ll need:

  • A tin of Kitten Milk Replacer (KMR) formula powder
  • A kitten nursing bottle
  • A 3ml syringe if you have to feed infant or really weak kittens
  • A microwaveable heat pack or hot water bottle
  • Blankets, towels, old t-shirts and a box

Optional but also recommended:

  • A small food scale to keep track of the kitten’s growth
  • A spare oral-rectal thermometer and KY Jelly

Setting Up Home Base

hand raising kittens

Once you are home, find a box or container that’s big enough for the kitten to turn around in, and line the box with two layers of soft, clean blankets, towels, or old t-shirts. Place the kitten nest in a warm, draft-free spot, isolated from other pets. A bathtub or enclosed shower area works well to keep the kitten from climbing out and getting lost in your home.

Kittens younger than two weeks should be kept in temperatures between 31 to 33°C while those two to four weeks old are able to live with temperatures between 27 to 30°C. Once they reach five weeks, they should be able to regulate their body temperatures without assistance.

If your home is constantly cooled by air-conditioning, place a hot water bottle or heating pad (set on the lowest setting) under one side of the top layer. With only one side heated, the kitten will be able to crawl away from the heat source if it gets too warm. Overheated kittens become sluggish and eventually fade.

Even in Singapore’s tropical weather, tiny kittens can become hypothermic without the warmth of their littermates and mother’s body. If you see them shivering, swap the heat source out more often and cuddle the kitten to your body when you can.

Insert the tip of the thermometer coated with KY Jelly up the kitten’s bum (one knuckle deep should do the trick). The kitten’s temperature should be 38-39°C. Past 40°C, the kitten has a fever and you should get it to a vet, fanning it to cool it down along the way. A temperature below 37°C warrants hourly check-ins, cuddling, and more folded-over snuggling spots near the heat source. If the kitten is too hot or too cold, don’t give it a bath until its temperature has stabilized.

hand raising kittens

The 24-Hour Milk Bar

Now that kitty is warmed up, it’s time to feed it. The feeding schedule is no different from that of a human baby; meaning, round the clock feedings. Before that, you need to estimate how old the little furball is. Here’s a general guide:

Age Less than 1 week Week 1-2 Week 2-3 Week 3-4 Week 5
Development signs Eyes are tightly shut and ears folded over and closed Eyes partially or fully open Eyes fully open and moving around unsteadily Ears become erect and open Moving around steadily, incisors developing
Amount of formula per feed 0.2oz 0.3oz 0.5-0.6oz 0.9-1.1oz 1.5oz
No. of feeds per day 8 6 4 3 3


Prepping KMR formula: Follow the instructions on the packaging for mixing and storage. For the first few feedings, mix the formula at half strength with boiled water and then gradually bring it up to full strength over the next 24 hours. Mix well so that there are no lumps and let it cool to slightly above room temperature. Reconstituted formula can keep for 24 hours in the fridge.

At Love Kuching, severely ill kittens receive added colostrum and vitamins on top of those already on the KMR. Specifically, L-arginine, vitamin C-complex and vitamin B-complex can help boost immunity and can be continued until kitty is an adolescent. A small pinch or half a capsule mixed into each bottle of milk or serving of food is enough.

Bottle-feeding 101

hand raising kittensPosition the kitten with its stomach down for feeding; never feed it upright as you would a human baby.

Squeeze the bottle to wet the outside of the nipple with some formula and insert it between the kitten’s jaws gently with a prying motion. Squeeze bottle again to release a drop or two of milk and the kitten should be able to suck on its own from there. To prevent air from entering the kitten’s stomach, hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle.
If milk bubbles out of the kitten’s nose, it could mean the flow is too rapid, you are holding the kitten wrong, or it’s too weak to suck normally. If the kitten inhales and chokes from the formula, hold it upside down immediately until choking subsides. Do not let the formula get into its lungs as this can lead to pneumonia, which is fatal.

When kitty has enough to drink, bubbles will form around its mouth and its tummy will be rounded. Hold it upright with its tummy against your shoulder and pat its back lightly until it burps.

For newborn or weaker kittens that find suckling difficult, fosterers find it better to feed using a 3ml syringe (needle removed, of course), and trickling the milk slowly from the side of the kitten’s mouth.

Once past the four-week mark, or when kitty starts to grow incisors, slowly wean it from the bottle by feeding formula from a shallow dish. Once it gets the hang of eating off the dish, gradually introduce solids by offering wet food or kibble moistened with formula. Keep a fresh supply but not too much each time. Don’t expect kitty to be weaned overnight, but as it eats more often from the dish, you can reduce the bottle feedings. Leave out some fresh water too.

Pic 5

Stimulate To Eliminate

In the natural world, mama cat licks the kitten’s stomach and bottom to stimulate poop and pee and cleans up the resulting mess. As its surrogate mom, you should rub its stomach and bottom with a damp cotton pad or rag after each feeding to stimulate elimination. Normal kitten stools look yellowish brown with a jam-like consistency.

Remember to wipe its bottom clean with another damp cotton pad once it is done peeing and/or pooping. You should also clean its fur with short strokes (mimicking a cat’s tongue) using a damp cotton ball. This teaches them to clean their fur, and gives them a feeling of wellbeing. Be real gentle when doing all this and watch for chafing, which may indicate that you are rubbing too hard.

By the time your kitten is around three weeks old, it should be able to eliminate without help and you can introduce it to the litter box. Place a small amount of litter in a low-sided box and place your kitten into the box after each meal. You may have to take its paw and show it how to scratch in the litter. It’ll usually catch on quickly.

Keeping Them Healthy

Pic 7Health is part of the list of basic kitten needs together with warmth and food. When you first bring a kitten home, give it a good flea bath to clean them and get rid of any fleas.

A visit to the vet the following day, or as soon as you can, is advisable, to determine its health status and to treat any problems (skin lesions, crusty eyelids, dehydration, worms, etc).

Kittens should be weighed frequently to ensure that they are growing properly. At birth, a kitten should weigh between 60 to 100 grams and its weight should double in the first one to two weeks. As an average, a kitten adds 10 grams of body weight per day but note that growth can also come in spurts. Rule of thumb: seek the vet’s advice if your kitten does not double its weight in the stipulated time frame.

Because an orphaned kitten does not receive its mother’s milk, it’s more susceptible to infections and parasites and should be kept isolated from other pets and children in the home until it’s dewormed and vaccinated. The first vaccination can be given at 6 weeks and it takes around a week to become fully effective.

If you have a tiny, healthy kitten, it should be dewormed at weeks four, six, and eight, or at similar intervals if the first dose is delayed by illness. Do not skip this step! Many kittens are lost to worms when they are fragile and tiny. Diarrhea and flu symptoms are normal after deworming and vaccination, but should be monitored carefully.

hand raising kittens

Love Kuching manages diarrhea by feeding kittens powdered probiotics mixed into food, boiled or reconstituted pumpkin, or activated charcoal. In more severe cases, a prescription for metronizadole or kaolin suspension is recommended. Powdered glucose to boost kitty’s sugar levels can be fed in milk or food if the kitten looks weak after deworming, which takes a lot out of a kitten. Add a pinch of curcumin to food to help with bleeding caused by diarrhea.

Orphaned kittens are vulnerable, so be extra watchful for any signs of abnormal behaviour or bathroom habits, loss of appetite, decrease in energy levels, or any other symptoms. Do a skin pinch test to check if the kitten is dehydrated from diarrhea; if loose skin pinched near the scruff bounces back very slowly, give it extra fluids. Take the kitten to the vet as soon as you notice something is wrong. The earlier the problem is detected, the better the chance of recovery.

And finally, hand-raising an orphaned or abandoned kitten that didn’t receive its mother’s milk is not the easiest task and even the most conscientious fosterer can lose the little one. Don’t blame yourself if this happens but take heart that you gave it a second chance. If you’re keen on becoming a fosterer, email Ami at [email protected]

hand raising kittens
Jake (L) and Bud (R) when they were tiny

Love Kuching is currently fostering two kittens, Jake and Bud. Keep up with the cats at Love Kuching by following them on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Once Jake and Bud are up for adoption, their photos will be up on Love Kuching Project’s blog.

This article was contributed by Love Kuching Project.

Chief Editor

Emily heads the editorial team on City Nomads by being a stickler for details, a grammar Nazi, and a really picky eater. Born and bred in Singapore, she loves cats, the written word, and exploring new places. Can be bribed with quality booze across the board.

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