Guidelines for bottle-feeding kittens

9th Nov, 2021

Photo credit: Strike a Pose Photography

Written by Lynette Nicholson, founder of Nicholson Rescue

The idea of bottle-feeding a kitten has great appeal and brings out motherly and nurturing feelings, but it’s a difficult task that requires major dedication and a level head. If you decide to take on this task, you need to see it through – those little lives are depending on you. If you’re not able to commit yourself fully, it’s best to seek help from an experienced rescue organisation straight away.

Over the years, Nicholson Rescue has taken in many kittens needing bottle-feeding, and these guidelines are based on our experience, although they may not be academically endorsed.

  1. Judging the age of the kitten

Ageing of the kitten provides a guideline as to how much they should be drinking at a feed. However, this can be difficult as, most times, you’ll not be aware of the birth date of the kitten. Weighing the kitten may give you a good idea.

If a kitten weighs less than 120g, it’s probably only a couple of days old. Anything between about 120 – 300g suggests that the kitten is a few days to about two or three weeks; over 300g indicates a kitten that’s getting on for three weeks and older. This is just a guideline as we’ve had kittens that weigh 500g at three weeks.

A very small kitten may only take a few millilitres at a time, while a kitten of three weeks may drink 20ml or more at a feed.

  1.  Preparing the bottle

The size of the hole in the teat is one of the most important factors to success with bottle-feeding. Most new bottles that come as part of a pack have a teat with a very small hole, which is inadequate even for the smallest kitten. Sizing the hole is a matter of trial and error. You’ll need a small pair of sharp nail scissors to expand the hole but do it little by little and then test how the milk comes out.

When the hole’s too small, kittens get frustrated and bite the teat, and that can often be mistaken for the kitten not being hungry, when in fact it’s starving but cannot get enough out.

Always use a proper kitten milk formula (AVOID cow’s milk at all costs). Follow the on-pack instructions for mixing the formula and ensure it’s not too hot or cold.

Bottles should also be sterilised after each feed. I use boiling water from the kettle to soak the bottles.

  1. Getting a kitten to latch

This can be quite a stressful task, especially if the kitten’s been feeding from a mother cat prior to you getting it. They’d be accustomed to the mother’s nipple and may take a while to get used to a new artificial teat. It just takes patience and perseverance and, eventually, when the kitten’s hungry enough, it should latch.

Very young kittens that haven’t had their mother’s nipple at all or for a very short time tend to latch onto a bottle more easily.

  1.  Positioning the kitten for feeding

NEVER feed a kitten on its back. That’s not the normal position for feeding from a mother cat, and it can cause aspiration (inhaling of the formula into the lungs). When feeding from their moms, kittens lie on their tummies and drink. Try and let them do the same. Let them lie across your lap and feed, or even across a small pillow or fluffy toy.

  1.  Stimulating

Bottle-feeding kittens also involves stimulating them to urinate and defecate – they cannot do this without help, so it’s crucial that you do it for them. In our experience, this is best done before feeding. This empties the bladder and/or bowels and gets rid of any discomfort, and they’re more likely to want to drink.

I use toilet paper to wipe their genital areas, and you can apply quite a bit of pressure. Remember that mom cat would be using her tongue that’s quite rough and raspy.

Mostly, kittens urinate every time you stimulate them, but they may only defecate once a day or, sometimes, once every two days. The faeces of a bottle-fed kitten that’s only having milk will be yellowish in colour and the consistently will probably be like a “soft serve” ice cream or harder. Any watery or very runny bowel movements may require a vet visit to check for any nasties in the intestine.

  1.  How often should you feed

Very young kittens of younger than two weeks should be fed every two to three hours (including at night), but the time between feeds can be extended as they get older.

Some feeders feed on demand (when the kitten cries), while some feed to a specific schedule. I don’t believe that there are any major differences between the two methods, and both have worked for us. At about three to four weeks, most kittens sleep through the night.

  1.  Weight gain

It’s important to monitor the weight of the kittens. Preferably, you need a digital scale so that you can see the increments more clearly. If kittens are very small (a few days old) when you get them, then it’s advisable to weigh them every day. Weigh at the same time, either before or after a feed. For older kittens, you can weight every few days, provided that they’re not sickly. A young kitten should gain a few grams every day, but it we average that on a weekly basis, it should be approximately 50g or more, which will increase as the kitten gets bigger. If they’re not gaining anything or are losing weight, a trip to the vet may be needed.

Some guidelines: a healthy two-week-old kitten should weigh about 250g, and a four-week-old-kitten should weigh 450g or more.

  1.  Where to keep them

We keep very small kittens in baskets or a fairly small area on a heating pad. They don’t move around much at this stage, so this is ideal, and you can take it with you if you go out. As they get older, I find that the best place to keep them is a bath. They’re safe, they can’t get out, and there’s enough room for them to start exercising their leg muscles, which is very important. I make a lovely bed for them at one end of the bath and cover the rest of the bath with a nice blanket, and they can start moving around.

As they outgrow the bath, I move them to a 1m x 1m cage in the lounge where they start getting accustomed to the household noises.

  1.  Always have some glucose on hand

Young kittens are not always able to regulate their blood sugar (glucose) levels, and it’s not uncommon for a kitten to have a hypoglycaemic episode. This is more the exception than the rule, but it does happen. A hypoglycaemic kitten goes into an almost comatose state; they may arch their backs and their eyes roll back or close. These kittens need glucose as soon as possible.

We always have a syringe of glucose on hand (from our vet). If you have no glucose, honey is the next option and works just as well. We would use about half a millimetre of glucose or just a fingertip of honey.

If it is a hypoglycaemic episode, the kitten should recover fairly quickly, but you’d need to keep a close eye on it as these episodes tend to recur until the kitten’s a little older and stronger.

Of course, a visit to the vet is essential just to make sure this is indeed what you’re dealing with and it isn’t something else but giving a bit of glucose is generally fairly safe.

  1. More than one at a time

Bottle-fed kittens have been deprived of a mother, and it’s always better for them to have a kitten mate, even if it’s not from the same litter (but of course, it should be a similar age).

If you can, always try and have more than one kitten to bottle-feed at a time. They’ll have company, they can keep each other warm, and they’ll instinctively learn to do “kitten things” together.

Bottle-feeding is a very rewarding task, but it’s also extremely hard work. Sleep deprivation isn’t great, and it makes such a difference if you have a back-up person who you can call on to take over the bottle-feeding duties for a few nights, if you feel you need it.

Always remember that you’re doing your best in unusual circumstances, and things don’t always go as planned. But there are help groups online that are there to give advice and guidance, so don’t hesitate to contact them if you feel at your wits’ end.

COMING SOON! Part 2 will deal with: Weaning of bottle-fed kittens.

About Nicholson’s Rescue

Since 2013, Nicholson Rescue has been helping cats in need in the Johannesburg area. The privately funded organisation takes in kittens and cats and places them in foster care while looking for loving homes for them. They also advocate for sterilisation in order to reduce the number of cats in need. Follow Lynette Nicholson on Facebook for more information about the many gorgeous felines available for adoption, and the Lynette Nicholson’s Kitty Rescue Support Shop, which raises funds for their work.

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