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How to hold newborn kittens

This article was co-authored by Brian Bourquin, DVM. Brian Bourquin, better known as “Dr. B” to his clients, is a Veterinarian and the Owner of Boston Veterinary Clinic, a pet health care and veterinary clinic with three locations, South End/Bay Village, the Seaport, and Brookline, Massachusetts. Boston Veterinary Clinic specializes in primary veterinary care, including wellness and preventative care, sick and emergency care, soft-tissue surgery, dentistry. The clinic also provides specialty services in behavior, nutrition, and alternative pain management therapies using acupuncture, and therapeutic laser treatments. Boston Veterinary Clinic is an AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) accredited hospital and Boston’s first Fear Free Certified Clinic. Brian has over 19 years of veterinary experience and earned his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Cornell University.

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Do you have newborn kittens and want to hold them without upsetting their mother? Or perhaps you’ve found abandoned or feral newborn kittens and want to take them to a veterinarian for a check-up? Newborn kittens are fragile, but with proper guidance, you can carefully and comfortably hold and transport them.

Kittens under 4 weeks of age cannot eat solid food, whether it’s dry or canned. They can drink their mother’s milk to get the nutrients they need. The kitten will rely on you to survive if their mother isn’t around.

You can feed your newborn kitten a nutritional substitute that’s called kitten milk replacer. It’s essential that you avoid feeding a kitten the same milk that humans consume. Typical cow’s milk can make cats very sick. If you’re unsure of which kitten milk replacer to choose, talk to a veterinarian. They can help you select the right one.

For many dry milk replacers, refrigeration is not always required. But if extra milk is prepared, it should be stored in the fridge. To feed your kitten, follow these steps:

Prepare the formula. Warm the kitten formula to slightly above room temperature. Test the temperature of the formula right before you feed your kitten. Do this by placing a few drops of the formula on your wrist to ensure it’s not too hot.

Keep things clean. Before and after each feeding, you should wash your hands and the bottle that you used to feed your kitten. It’s also recommended that you use a “kitten gown.” This could be a robe or a shirt that you only wear when you’re handling or feeding your kitten. Using a kitten gown helps reduce the possibility of spreading germs.

Feed them gently. Handle your kitten with care. The kitten should be on their stomach lying next to you. This would be the same way they would nurse from their mom. Try holding your kitten in a warm towel while they sit on your lap. Find a position that feels comfortable for both of you.

Let them take the lead. Hold the bottle of formula to your kitten’s mouth. Let the kitten suckle at their own pace. If the kitten doesn’t eat right away, gently stroke their forehead. The stroking stimulates how their mother would clean them and it encourages the kitten to eat.

Kittens need to eat every 3 hours, no matter what time it is. Many people set an alarm so that they don’t miss a feeding. This is especially helpful overnight. It’s important that you feed your kitten regularly. Skipping feedings or overfeeding can cause your kitten to have diarrhea or develop severe dehydration.

Burp them. Kittens need to be burped the same that way babies do after feeding. Lay your kitten down on their stomach and gently pat their back until you hear a little burp. You may need to do this a few times throughout each feeding.

If for any reason you can’t get your kitten to eat, contact your veterinarian immediately.

What Do Kittens Eat Besides Milk?

Once your kitten is about 3.5 to 4 weeks old, you can start weaning them off of the bottle. This is a gradual process that takes time and practice. The process usually looks something like this:

  • Begin by offering your kitten formula on a spoon.
  • Later, start offering your kitten formula in a saucer.
  • Gradually add canned food to the kitten formula in the saucer.
  • Increase the canned food in the saucer, adding less and less kitten formula.

If your kitten doesn’t take to the spoon or the saucer right away, you can continue to offer the bottle.

As you progress through the weaning process, monitor your kitten and their stool to ensure that they digest everything well. If your kitten is doing well and isn’t experiencing digestive issues (like loose stool or diarrhea), then you can gradually introduce more and more food.

At this stage, it’s also important to offer your kitten a bowl of fresh water to make sure that they’re staying hydrated.

How Often Should a Kitten Eat?

The frequency that your kitten eats normally depends on how old they are:

  • Up to 1 week old: every 2-3 hours
  • 2 weeks old: every 3-4 hours
  • 3 weeks old: every 4-6 hours.
  • 6 weeks old: three or more feedings of canned food spaced out evenly throughout the day
  • 12 weeks old: three feedings of canned food spaced out evenly throughout the day

If you have questions or need additional guidance about how often or what kind of food to give to your kitten, contact your veterinarian for help.

How Do I Keep a Newborn Kitten Warm?

Kittens should be kept in a cat carrier wrapped in a few layers of towels. Using a heating pad or heat disc (often the safer option) for pets alongside a soft fleece blanket can also help keep them warm. Ensure that the carrier is large enough for your kitten to move away from the heater when they want to.

It is very important to keep your cat carrier in a safe, warm room away from other pets. It’s helpful to go and check on your kitten throughout the day. If your kitten feels cold, you need to warm them up as soon as possible.

How Much Should a Newborn Kitten Weigh?

Newborn kittens usually weigh about 3.5 ounces, depending on their breed and the litter’s size. A healthy kitten should gain at least 10 grams per day. If you don’t see growth in their body size, this is often a sign of illness.

It’s essential to track and write down your kitten’s weight and how much they’re eating every day. You can use a gram scale for accuracy in weighing animals this small. If your kitten isn’t eating or growing as expected, contact your veterinarian right away.

Can I Hold the Kitten?

Vets recommend not touching kittens unless you have to while their eyes are still closed. You can check on them to make sure they’re healthy and gaining weight, but try to limit direct physical contact.

The kitten’s mother will also let you know how comfortable she is with you handling her babies. It’s important to take it slow, especially at first. If the mother cat seems anxious or stressed, give her and her babies some space.

How to Teach Your Kitten to Go to the Bathroom

Young kittens can’t go to the bathroom by themselves. Usually, a mother cat will clean her kittens to stimulate urination and a bowel movement. If the mother isn’t present, the kitten will rely on you.

To help your kitten go to the bathroom, use a clean, warm, wet cotton ball and gently rub your kitten’s belly and genital and anal area. Your kitten should go to the bathroom in less than a minute. After your kitten is done, clean them carefully with a soft wet cloth.

Once your kitten is 3 to 4 weeks old, you can introduce them to their litter box. Add a cotton ball to the process in a similar way that you used one on them when they were younger. This will help them to understand what to do.

Gently place your kitten in their litter box and let them get used to it. Keep practicing with them. Ensure that their bathroom is in a safe area away from other people and pets so that they feel comfortable.

Show Sources

Animal Alliance NYC: “What to Do (and NOT Do) If You Find a Newborn Kitten.”
Best Friends: “Bottle Feeding Kittens.”

Contrary to popular belief, you should hold kittens as early as possible. The right time depends on how soon the kittens’ mom will allow you to touch them without getting stressed. Early touch is necessary, because the window for taming kittens closes after the early weeks.

Newborns

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says you can pick up a kitten from birth if the mother doesn’t mind your presence, but it suggests you consult a veterinarian before you do so to kittens under a week old. The ASPCA also noted you don’t want to wait longer than two weeks before starting to handle the kittens.

Pick a kitten up, hold him for a minute or two, gently stroking him, and then return him to his mom. It’s important not to keep young kittens away from their mom for more than a few minutes at a time. Mom provides them nutrition, warmth and security, and must even stimulate them to potty. Only adults should handle young kittens. Young kittens are fragile and tiny, and even the best-behaved child may accidentally cause injury.

If the kitten’s mom is tame, it is likely she won’t mind you holding the kittens for a few minutes at a time. However, even some tame cats don’t like humans handling their very young babies. If handling the kittens seems to cause mom stress, you should wait to begin socializing the kittens until they are a couple weeks old. If mom sees you as a threat, she’s likely to try to move the kittens and hide them from you.

Toddlers

By the time they’re about 2 weeks to 4 weeks old, kittens have opened their eyes and ears, and aren’t quite so dependent on mom. This is the time when handling by humans is critical. Introduce kittens to other people so they don’t become socialized only to you. You should try to introduce them to men and women alike. With supervision, you can introduce them to older children. During this stage, you may introduce them to a gentle cat-friendly dog, car rides and other common experiences. It’s important at this age that kittens not be separated from their mom or siblings for too long at a time.

By 7 to 8 weeks of age, most kittens can think of nothing but playing. It’s important to teach your kittens that human fingers aren’t toys. It may be cute when your kitten grabs your fingers, but it won’t be so much fun when your kitten is a 12-pound cat with very sharp claws and sharp teeth. If your kitten grabs your fingers in play, redirect his attention to a toy. You may have to do this repeatedly during this stage, but it will be worth it when your kitten’s an adult cat that doesn’t attack your hands. Never encourage your kitten to play with your fingers and hands.

Taking care of a brand new fur baby is a great joy and a great responsibility, and one that requires special knowledge of newborn kitten care.

A kitten is considered a newborn from birth until the age of four months, which provides her enough time to be weaned from her mother and learn a few life skills, such as eating and using a litter box. Whether you’re the primary caretaker of newborn kittens or working in harmony with a cat mom, equip yourself with the essentials to keep your new snuggle bundles in tip-top shape.

1. Bedding

Newborn kittens are born blind (they open their eyes at anywhere from seven to fourteen days after birth), and therefore must be kept safe and warm at all times. They will curl up with each other and their mom, if possible. Provide a soft bed of layered materials such as fleece blankets, and consider making a DIY cat bed to fit your cuddle puddle of cats of all ages. Place the bed in a cozy, draft-free corner where the newborns won’t be disturbed by other pets or children.

2. Food

If the cat mom isn’t there to nurse, you will have to bottle-feed the newborns with special formula. Speak with your vet to choose the right one. Never feed a kitten on her back, instructs Best Friends, because she could choke in that position. Instead, lay her on her side (as she would while nursing her mom) or hold her upright. Once she is fully weaned, give your tiny kitty specially formulated kitten food to help her develop strong bones, eyes and muscles.

3. Litter Box Training

An important element of newborn kitten care is litter box training. Cats aren’t born knowing where to go to the bathroom, so if mama cat isn’t there to help, it’s up to you. Let her examine the box to familiarize her with its placement and purpose. In place of cat mom, you may need to stimulate her urine or bowel movement. As Canada’s Pet Information Centre explains, “a good technique is to take a warm washcloth or cotton ball and gently wipe the kitten’s urogenital area until elimination occurs.” Do this on a regular basis, every few hours, until she learns the behavior on her own.

4. Grooming

Brushing her coat and trimming her claws are two important elements of newborn kitten care, and the sooner you start routine cat maintenance, the easier it is for both of you. Regular brushing or combing removes excess hair (thus reducing hairballs) and keeps her coat clean and shiny, while nail clipping lessens her chances of a claw snag.

5. Wellness

Experts recommend that newborn kittens have their first veterinarian appointment as soon as possible, preferably in the first week or two after birth, so that the doctor can conduct an overall wellness check. The Drake Center for Veterinary Care urges pet parents to monitor a kitten’s food intake and take note of any “motor skills and coordination delays or difficulties, [or] lethargy, diarrhea or vomiting.” Newborns are prone to illnesses such as upper respiratory infections, distemper, ear mites and intestinal parasites, so don’t hesitate to contact your vet if you have any concerns.

6. Spaying or Neutering

According to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, most kittens are spayed (females) or neutered (males) at approximately six months of age, but there are instances in which a vet may recommend the procedure at an earlier age. Spaying early is not usually a part of newborn kitten care, but once she’s old enough cat experts highly recommend spaying and neutering for your cat’s health as well as to keep cat overpopulation in check.

7. Preparing for Adoption

Whether or not you intend to put your kittens up for adoption or keep them, you want to socialize the newborns. The Nest suggests gently handling your kittens one at a time starting once they’ve reached their first week of age, letting mama kitty sniff you first if she’s present. Baby kittens love to nip and paw at their humans, but once a cat is grown this behavior could be problematic. Socializing a kitten allows her to be comfortable and secure during interactions with people and other animals, which in turn prepares her to adapt to a new environment when she is adopted. Cats that don’t mind being handled will also have an easier time with necessities like toothbrushing, vet visits and meeting new people.

It’s difficult to imagine anything cuter than a pile of tiny newborn kittens. These fragile yet active little creatures depend upon you, their pet parent, for everything, and investing in the care and well-being of a baby cat will warm your heart.

Your pet cat just gave birth and you’re wondering if you can handle and touch her newborns. Can you touch newborn kittens? Yes, you may touch them for at least a minute or two. However, cat experts advise that you should avoid touching newborn kittens unless there’s a very good reason to do so such as if they’re in distress, not moving or breathing, and not suckling milk within two hours after birth.

Is it okay to touch newborn kittens?

Vets and cat experts agree that there is generally no harm in touching newborn kittens. However, the rule of thumb is to refrain from doing so while their eyes are still closed unless there’s an urgent reason to do. It will also depend on the mother cat’s character. It is considered a normal mama cat behavior to become aggressive if you or other family members go near her and her newborn kittens.

You can generally briefly hold and touch the newborn kittens upon birth to check for a bleeding placenta or birth membranes in the mouth and to check their gender. You may also touch them at least once a day during the following days just to check if they’re gaining weight. However, do not overdo it as the mama cat may feel stressed and anxious. If you notice a change in the mama cat’s demeanor then stop touching the kittens and respect the mama cat’s feelings.

Some mama cats are very protective of their kittens and if she and the kittens are disturbed too often by people or other pets they may move the kittens to a more secluded area. Nevertheless, because you’re the mama cat’s pet parent, she may allow you to hold and touch her kittens because she trusts you and associates you with security and comfort. If your mama cat isn’t aggressive and allows you to touch the newborn kittens then this is a good sign. However, don’t be complacent as a mama cat’s maternal instinct may prevail and she may suddenly attack you if you come near the kittens.

When is there a need to check and touch the newborn kittens?

While cat experts agree that you should avoid touching the newborn kittens in the first few days following their birth, you should check and touch them if the following instances happen:

  • if the mama cat is having difficulty while giving birth then you should hold and touch the newborn kittens as well as the mama cat and bring them to the vet
  • if the kittens’ lives are at risk such as if they don’t move or breathe
  • if a kitten is born in the sac
  • if a kitten doesn’t suckle milk within two hours after birth
  • if a kitten is feeling cold and shivering
  • if the mama cat is not giving any attention to the kittens

You should see to it that your hands are clean after returning the kitten back to the mother after you’ve touched her and try stroking the mother and then the kitten to transfer their scent.

When is it advisable to leave the kittens alone?

You do not usually need to worry and it is usually best to leave the kittens alone with their mama if you the mama cat delivered her newborn kittens in a secured area of your home, is is caring for her young, and the kittens are warm and suckling milk from their mama. Should you see that the nesting place is not suitable for the mama cat and litter, you may transfer them in a clean and safe spot in one go, after a day or two.

However, be very observant of the mama cat’s behavior and be vigilant if she’s manifesting disagreeable or aggressive behavior. If so, then forego the option of transferring them to a new area until such a time when the mama cat is calm and cooperative.

Final thoughts

As any pet parent would be, you can’t wait to check on your pet cat who just gave birth to her litter of fluffy kitties. But, while it’s okay to touch newborn kittens for at least a minute or two, it’s best to leave them in peace especially if the mama cat is attentive, the kittens are healthy and eagerly suckling milk, and they’re in a quiet spot at your home.