Fostering kittens: what you need to know

Fostering kittens might sound like the best job in the world but it can be tougher than you think. If you’d like to foster, here are a few important tips to take into consideration before bringing home that bundle of fluff.

Kittens raised by their own mother is obviously healthiest for the kitten. In the first 24 hours after the start of lactation the queen produces colostrum that is enriched with antibodies. These are essential to protect kittens from disease until their own immune system is mature enough to ward off infections.

But sometimes kittens are abandoned or orphaned, or the queen does not have enough milk, or mom or baby have a medical condition that necessitates hand rearing.

Before you bring that kitten home, make sure you have everything on this checklist:

Fostering kittens: the checklist

Kitten formula

Feeding bottles and cleaning kit

Carrier/box

Warm bedding

Safe heat source – bean bag, warm water bottle, heating pad.

Cotton wool

Wet and dry kitten food

Toys

Litter tray, litter and scoop

Notebook to log food intake, weight etc

When hand rearing kittens it is important to provide a warm, dry, safe environment for them. The correct nutrition at the correct times is crucial and proper overall care and health care is also important.

The three most common problems encountered is in newborn kittens are hypothermia, dehydration, and starvation. New-born kittens cannot react to cold by shivering and cannot control their own body heat. Wet kittens lose heat very quickly so it’s important to keep them dry as well. This is very important in the first two weeks of their life.

Fostering kittens: how to care for them

• Place the heat source on one side of their box so they can move away if it gets too hot. Be careful when using a hot water bottle or heated bean bag that they don’t come into direct contact with it and burn. Newspaper retains heat and can be thrown away when soiled. Bedding should always be kept clean and dry.

• When feeding, use a bottle and teat that is designed for kittens. Log the amount taken in at each feeding. Use a commercial formula for kittens like KittyMilk or Royal Canin Babycat milk. It is very important to use the correct dilution or the kittens can develop diarrhoea or become constipated.

• Gently insert the nipple into the mouth while the kitten is on its stomach, slowly pull up and forward on the bottle so that the kitten’s head is slightly elevated and extended. Do not lie the kitten on its back like a baby. It can aspirate the milk into its lungs and may die.

• The kitten will spit out the nipple when they had enough. If milk comes out of the the mouth or nose it is being delivered too fast, the hole in the nipple is too big, or you are squeezing too hard on the bottle. Don’t force the milk, let the kitten suckle otherwise they will aspirate the milk which will lead to aspiration pneumonia. A properly fed kitten will sleep through to the next feeding.

• Weigh the kittens every day for the first two weeks, and every two weeks thereafter. They should be gaining about 10g per day.  Kittens should never be losing weight, if so, seek veterinary attention.

General feeding schedule

0-2 weeks        10 feeds per 24 hours      every 2 to 2.5 hours

2-4 weeks         7 feeds per 24 hours       every 2.5—3.5 hours

4-5 weeks         5 feeds per 24 hours        every 3.5—5 hours

The milk should be 35—38 degrees C- the same temperature as the skin on your forearm.

Urination and defecation

Fostering  kittens means you will need to stimulate the kitten to urinate and defecate until he or she is about 10 days old. This must be done before and after each feeding. Gently stimulate the anus and genital area with a cotton ball moistened with warm water. Do this in a patting rather than a wiping motion. The first will help prevent urine scalding and the development of moist dermatitis as the skin is quite delicate.

Do this until the kitten has urinated or passed stool. Kittens will pass a couple of stools per day which are firm, yellow/brown   with the consistency of toothpaste. Do not worry if they don’t pass stool at every feeding.

Loose yellow or green stools are usually due to over-feeding or poor hygiene. Stool that looks like cottage cheese might mean that the formula is too strong or there is a bacterial infection. Feed the kitten an electrolyte solution for one feeding, then diluted formula and gradually increase the strength of the formula until back to normal. If the kitten is straining or passing hard stools, feed smaller amounts more frequently. They might need an enema if the constipation does not resolve.

Feeding solids

Solid food can be introduced from three weeks of age. By five weeks of age they have all of their teeth and should be weaned off the bottle. Start by putting formula on your finger and let the kitten lick it off. If they don’t want to lick, gently smear it around the mouth. If they get the idea of licking the food, wet kitten food can be added to the formula to form a gruel. Gradually decrease the amount of formula. When the kitten has mastered the gruel, wet and dry kitten kibble can be introduced.

Health care

A kitten’s eyes will open at around 1-2 weeks of age.  If the eyelids are pussy, swollen and do not open, gently clean with a soft cotton wool ball and luke warm water. If the eye does not clear up, take the kitten to your vet as he/she may be suffering an eye infection which can be contagious.

• Deworming: from 4 weeks of age, every two weeks until 3 months of age. Then monthly until 6 months of age.

• Vaccination: First vaccination at 6-8 weeks, then monthly until 16 weeks.

• Treat for ticks and fleas with kitten-appropriate products monthly. Never, ever use adult parasite control on a kitten.

• Single reared kittens can develop behavioural problems if they are not in contact with other cats during their developmental period (4-12 weeks). Nervousness, aggression, and the reduced ability to cope with strange surroundings, people or other cats can occur. Allow supervised contact with other vaccinated cats. This will also help them to learn self-grooming behaviour.

Fostering kittens is hugely rewarding but it must be done properly to ensure the cat will go on to live a long and healthy adult life. – article by Dr Esmaré van der Walt, EberVet Pet Clinic