5 Things to Know About Caring for Bottle-Baby Kittens

Learn the ins and outs of this rewarding experience.

Kittens need help regulating their body temperature. By: Vanessa Zhang/Petful

One of the most rewarding yet challenging ways to help out your local shelter is by fostering bottle-baby kittens.

These adorable infant kittens tend to flood shelters in the spring, often brought in as orphans or presumably abandoned.

While the best place for a baby animal is usually with the mother, sometimes it’s necessary for humans to raise these vulnerable animals. To set up your bottle baby for success at life, follow these steps.

1. Developmental Milestones

Kittens are born blind, deaf and dependent on their mothers for everything from eating to eliminating. At 7–10 days, their eyes start opening; at 20 days, the eyes are usually completely open. At 3–4 weeks old, kittens can eat solid food and start using the litter box on their own.

Once kittens weigh 2 pounds, they are usually big enough to be safely spayed or neutered by a veterinarian and then adopted.

2. Kitten Habitat Setup

A safe, secure habitat for your bottle babies is essential.

My favorite way to set up a kitten habitat starts with a medium-sized dog crate. I line the bottom with a towel, then place a heating pad, set on low, in a pillowcase. I fold the pillowcase around the heating pad to ensure that the kittens cannot wiggle their way to directly touch the heating pad. Then, I place the pillowcase containing the heating pad in the crate so that it takes up only half the area.

The crate’s other half should have no heating pad so the kittens can move away from the heat source. This is important because young kittens cannot regulate their body temperature.

I finish off the crate by laying one more blanket or towel inside it, covering both the heating pad and the area without a heating pad.

Whenever you aren’t feeding the kittens or cleaning their crate, they should be locked in their crate to ensure their safety. Clean the crate out daily.

Kittens benefit from early socialization. By: Kirsten Peek/Petful

3. Bottle Feeding

Bottle feeding can be challenging, but with patience and persistence, it’s one of the most heartwarming parts of fostering kittens.

Kittens under 1 week old should be fed every 2–3 hours. At 2 weeks old, they can be fed every 4 hours, and so on.

You can find kitten powder formula and bottles at pet and grocery stores, but never feed kittens cow milk. The box of formula will have instructions regarding how to prepare the formula. To warm the formula between feedings, fill a mug with hot water and place the bottle upright in the mug for 2 minutes before the feeding. Test the formula on your own skin to make sure it is above room temperature but not hot.

When you’re ready to begin the feeding, hold the kitten, stomach down, on your lap. Kittens should never be on their backs during a feeding.

Tilt the bottle at a 45-degree angle and gently nudge the kitten’s lips. Once kittens have successfully latched on, their ears will usually wiggle as they suckle and spit the nipple out once they’re done. If you’re caring for multiple kittens, move on to the next furball and repeat the cycle until the whole litter has been offered the bottle 2–3 times. Burp the kittens by tapping gently on their backs.

Watch this kitten’s ears wiggle while he enjoys some breakfast:

4. Keeping Clean

Clean kittens are happy kittens. Always wash your hands before handling them. Check their bedding every day, and wash and replace any soiled or messy bedding.

You’re essentially filling in for Momma Cat, so you also get the very important job of helping the kittens eliminate. After each feeding, take a warm cotton ball and gently stimulating the kittens’ lower belly and genitals.

They should urinate after each feeding and have a bowel movement at least once a day. If a kitten has missed multiple eliminations, call a vet or your shelter for advice and potential care.

If the kittens have fleas, don’t use chemical flea medications. Instead, try a gentler, non-toxic dish soap for baths (I use Dawn), and call your shelter to confirm its preferred way to handle fleas on kittens.

5. Showing the Kittens Some Love

Physical contact is important for developing kittens. Cuddling and gentle petting teaches them to be comfortable around humans and grow up feeling safe and loved. Once the kittens can walk, offering toys and playtime can help their motor skills and socialization.

Bottle-baby kittens require round-the-clock care during their first several weeks of life. They are one of the most challenging types of foster pets to take on, but there are few experiences more rewarding than watching your bottle babies successfully hit each milestone, develop their unique personalities and then eventually find their forever homes.

Kirsten Peek

View posts by Kirsten Peek
Kirsten Peek lives in Austin and works for a nonprofit organization and as a freelance writer. She previously worked as an adoption counselor at a no-kill animal shelter throughout college as she earned her journalism degree. In her spare time, she fosters for local shelters and spends time with her adopted dog, Flea, and 2 adopted cats, Sarabi and Mufasa.

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