Raising Orphaned Kittens

While our first instinct is to want to help, taking in kittens born outside to hand-rear is not a decision to be made lightly. It’s crucial to know whether they’re truly orphans, or if their mother simply is away for a few hours to feed herself. Mother’s milk provides kittens with immune system protection that can’t be replaced by formula. Taking unweaned kittens away from their mother may mean the difference between life and death for an individual kitten. In cases where very young kittens do need human care, bottle-feeding to the weaning stage takes a lot of time, dedication, and energy, and it can be devastating to the caretaker if kittens don’t make it.

Prepare yourself and avoid tragic mistakes by reading our guidelines on how to tell whether kittens found outside are truly orphans in need of your help, and how to give orphaned kittens the best chance to thrive.

Kitten Care & Bottle Feeding

First Steps
  1. Prepare for bottle-feeding and proper care before you take the kittens off the street.
  2. If you feel you must take the kittens in, wrap the carrier or container you will transport them in in a towel for warmth, but make sure you leave air holes uncovered so the kittens won’t suffocate.
  3. Check to see if the kittens are warm. This is more important than feeding. Never feed a cold kitten! If the kittens are cold, you will need to warm them up slowly. You can tell a kitten is cold if the pads of his feet and/or ears feel cool or cold. Put your finger in the kitten’s mouth. If it feels cold, then the kitten’s temperature is too low. This is life-threatening and must be dealt with immediately. Warm up the kitten slowly over 20 minutes by wrapping him in a towel or a baby blanket, holding him close to your body, and continually rubbing him with your warm hands.
  4. Determine the age of the kittens by comparing them to the photos and descriptions on the How Old Is That Kitten? Kitten Progression: At-a-Glance page on the Alley Cat Allies website, or the Determining a Kitten’s Age page on the Kitten Lady website.
Feeding & Elimination

Neonatal kittens (under four weeks of age) cannot eat solid food (not canned, not dry) and cannot urinate or defecate on their own, so you must bottle-feed them around-the-clock and stimulate their genitals after every feeding so they can eliminate. For example, if you have kittens less than one week old, they will need to be fed and stimulated every three hours. That means you will be caring for them eight times a day — for example, at midnight, 3:00 a.m, 6:00 a.m, etc. If the kittens are unusually small or sickly, they might need to be fed every two hours.

Skipping feedings or overfeeding can cause diarrhea, which results in dehydration, a condition that can be fatal for small kittens (not to mention a hassle for you to clean up after). Diarrhea requires a visit to the veterinarian.

As the kittens age, the number of feedings they need per day goes down. You can start weaning at four weeks of age.

Milk Replacement Formulas

Powdered kitten milk replacement formula is better for kittens than the canned liquid formula. We recommend that you use only powdered kitten milk replacement formula from the start — or as soon as possible — to prevent diarrhea. Two major brands of formula are available: PetAg KMR® Powder and Breeder’s Edge® Foster Care Feline Milk Replacer. Both brands can be purchased at pet food stores, veterinarians’ offices, or online.

Make sure that the powdered formula you are using is fresh by opening the pop-top and smelling it. It should smell slightly sweet, like powdered milk. If it has a sharp smell like bad cooking oil, cheese, or chemicals, it is rancid, and dangerous to give to the kittens. Do not use any type of formula past the expiration date.

Once opened, kitten milk replacement formula (canned or powdered) must be refrigerated promptly and stored in the refrigerator. You cannot keep opened kitten milk replacement formula out of the refrigerator for very long before it spoils. Think of it as fresh milk.

Bottle-Feeding Guidance for Beginners

  • Take our Bottle-Feeding & Care of Orphaned Kittens workshop or webinar for detailed information on bottle-feeding orphaned newborn kittens, or
  • Start a support ticket through Bideawee’s FCI Help Desk and describe what instructions/information you need.


Socializing Kittens

Kittens born to community cats need to be socialized (tamed) by humans in order to be suitable for adoption

Webinar: Caring for Orphan Kittens

Learn more and register.