Dervish, our orange-and-white kitten, was doing push-paws on the metal examination table.
“Look at that,” the veterinarian said. “See him kneading the table? That means he left his mother too early.”
My husband, Tim, and I glanced at the kitten, then at each other.
We had no idea how old Derv really was — we’d gotten him from someone who, we suspected, wasn’t exactly on speaking terms with the truth. But our vet’s comment stuck with us.
As it turned out, the kitten did have a biting problem, which Tim cured him of. Derv grew into a large, easygoing cat who lived long and prospered.
The Mom-Cat Factor
These days, it’s generally agreed that a kitten shouldn’t leave his mother until he’s 12–13 weeks old.
Yes, the queen begins weaning her offspring around week 4, and the kittens can survive on their own at 6 weeks. But the weaning process isn’t completed until week 12. Cutting it short could, says writer Jennifer Cline, leads to wool-sucking.
The mother–kitten bond is important in many other ways. Mom will train the kitten how to use the litter box and how to socialize. “Spending time with their mother cat and their sibling kittens will help your new kitten, especially if your kitten will be living with other felines,” Cline explains.
A kitten figures out how to deal with people and other animals by watching and copying her mom. This is also the time for her to bond with her siblings.
“By playing with her litter mates, a kitten begins her journey in understanding social cues,” says Pamela Miller.
“If this important window of time is missed and she is taken from her mother and litter mates too soon, a timid and fearful personality may result.”
In rescue work, you frequently come across kittens without mothers.
The queen has died or gotten spooked. Sometimes she has even abandoned her babies. This is when you break out the eye dropper and special nursing formula and become their surrogate mom.
Hand-reared kittens don’t always have the best reputation: They are clingy and have this annoying habit of trying to nurse on their humans. They play rough and bite, as Derv did.
John Bradshaw, author of Cat Sense, says, “Hand-raised kittens are either excessively bonded to their human owners” or are “so aggressive that other kittens actively avoid them.”
Kittens who are “hand-raised on their own behave abnormally toward other cats, and kittens hand-raised alongside a littermate less so — nevertheless, all display a bizarre combination of fascination and fear on encountering another cat.”
Frankly, this seems to be putting it a little strongly. And from talking with people who have hand-reared kittens, I don’t think this is always the case.
Check out these helpful tips on feeding kittens using a bottle:
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Take Rocky, for instance. The 1-day-old kitten was found with his 2 litter mates behind a hot tub lid leaning against a wall. The mother was nowhere in sight.
After waiting a reasonable amount of time to see if she’d come back, veteran cat rescuer Karen Waldron brought the kittens home and began dropper-feeding them every 2 hours.
The other kittens died, but Rocky hung in there. “Rocky was the fighter,” Waldron says. “I mean, he had a will to live ever since the first day I picked him up.” Under her vigilant care, he thrived.
She did worry about his socialization, though, “and tried to make a bunch of kitten ‘play dates,’ but they always fell through.”
So she made sure that the kitten was “exposed to my other cats right away.” Angus, her young black cat, bonded with the newcomer.
As Rocky grew, Waldron put him in a child’s Pack ’n Play bassinet and covered it with netting so he could see the other cats. “Papa Angus,” not wanting to be separated from his ward, would stretch out under the bassinet.
In time, the other felines “adopted” the kitten, too. So Rocky’s new cat family supplied all the socialization that his mother and litter mates never had a chance to.
Raising Them Right
Kittens who are orphaned or separated from their moms too early can develop behavioral quirks and not have all their social signals straight.
But the good news? This can be turned around.
As the Humane Society points out, “a cat’s mind remains receptive to new experiences and lessons well beyond kittenhood. Most are still kittens in mind and body, through the first 2 years of life.”
4 Things to Know About Caring for Bottle-Baby Kittens
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. Kitten Habitat Setup
A safe, secure habitat for your bottle babies is essential.
One way to set up a kitten habitat starts with a medium-sized dog crate:
- Line the bottom with a towel, then place a heating pad, set on low, in a pillowcase.
- Fold the pillowcase around the heating pad to ensure that the kittens cannot wiggle their way to directly touch the heating pad.
- Then, 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.
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.
2. 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:
3. 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 (such as Dawn), and call your shelter to confirm its preferred way to handle fleas on kittens.
4. 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.
Bottle-Baby Kittens: From Fosters to Forever Homes
A lot of people wonder if they can handle the work and emotions behind fostering young kittens.
If you’ve ever seen newborn kittens, you know they don’t do much. They can’t see or hear, and they can’t really crawl.
You need to get up every 2–3 hours to feed them, potty them and make sure they’re warm, but you don’t get much else out of them. The first few days aren’t very gratifying and can even be oddly isolating.
There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes with taking good care of an animal who is completely dependent on you. Infant kittens cannot produce their own body heat, clean themselves, eliminate on their own or eat without you.
So, fostering them is terrifying but amazing:
- Each time you accomplish any of those tasks without hurting them, you celebrate a little on the inside.
- Each time you fail to get them to latch on or eliminate, you feel like their life is suddenly in jeopardy.
When It’s Time to Say Goodbye
Then, after all that work, one day you may find yourself crying when its time for the kittens to start a new life with a new family, and you won’t get to watch them grow up.
But just because you’re sad about a foster animal getting adopted, it doesn’t mean you need to “foster fail” and keep the animal instead.
All any foster person can ask for is the knowledge that their foster pets have found a happy and safe place to call their forever home.
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Kirsten Peek contributed to this article.