How to Rescue Orphaned Kittens

Sometimes mother cats die or are killed, leaving a litter behind. Maybe you have found a young kitten but cannot find a mother. A lot of well-intentioned people have made bad mistakes when trying to save kittens – don’t be one of those people.

If the orphan kittens are the offspring of your pet who has died, or refused to care for them, you need to determine if they were able to able to nurse from mom in the first few days. This is critical, the mothers first milk is called “colostrum” it contains antibodies. Without these first antibodies survival is poor. If your little ones did not get this you need to contact a veterinarian immediately, ask if they have a lactating cat who lost her litter and you can try to see if she will accept them. It is very unlikely they will have frozen colostrum from a cat, but you can ask.

If the kittens are ones you found you need to take them to a veterinarian to determine age, and you need to decide if you can care for them or if they are better left in the care of the vet. You also need to report your find to your local shelter in case the owner of the mother is trying to reunite her cat to its litter. Note that kittens open their eyes around one to two weeks of age, if their eyes are not yet open they will be a lot more work and their chances will not be as good, they may be better off in the hands of somebody who has done this before.

With either you need to be aware that this will be hard work and an expensive labor of love. Unless they are pedigreed kittens, you will be well out of pocket by the time they are ready to have new homes. To be brutally honest there are millions of kittens euthanized yearly because of lack of homes, do not go any further unless you are fully prepared to deal with the dilemma of finding them homes when so many other kittens are equally looking for homes. I am not trying to talk you out of helping them, I have helped many litters myself while volunteering for a shelter, but just offering some perspective of a reality that sadly exists and is out of your control.

If you are not prepared financially and time wise to care for a litter, then you need to sign them over to a shelter or veterinarian or put them down humanely. Otherwise they may suffer as you tire of the work involved.

Okay, let’s help those kittens!

Feeding Young Kittens

In an emergency situation, such as late at night, you can feed them canned evaporated milk, but this should only be until you can get to a store to purchase the right thing. The right thing is a product called KMR (Kitten Milk Replacer) which is specially made for situations like this. It comes in liquid form or powder. The powder KMR is less expensive, but neither are cheap. There might be other names for this product depending what country you live in, but do not be misled into buying a cheap cat milk replacement treat, which have no nutritional value. KMR is not cheap, it can be purchased from a veterinarian, or at a pet store, but I find buying at livestock feed stores is generally the most economical. Do not feed them cows milk.

File:Feeding a Kitten.jpg

By User:Soroush83 [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

For very young kittens you will need to feed them from a syringe or eye dropper, being careful not to force any milk into their lungs. Syringes can also be used (without a needle) when you do not have a bottle, however you would be better off to get a bottle. 

Feed the kitten slowly. If they are a week old or more (as the kitten in the photo is older than 1 week), they will be able to be fed out of a kitten bottle. Make sure you mix the formula carefully and follow the guidelines. It is best to use warm water rather than using cold and microwaving it, either way it is important the water is only slightly above room temperature, and not burning hot. At first a small kitten will only want less than a teaspoon of milk per feeding, but will need to be fed every two hours. Gradually you can increase the time between feedings. At night the feedings can be further apart.

At about three weeks of age they will be able to drink out of a saucer. Make sure they know this is their milk by tipping their noses into it gently, making sure they drink at this time.

Around three weeks of age you can also offer them a small amount of canned food, chicken and rice mush is best, not chunks. Even with the mush, I suggest adding warm water to it, mushing it up with a fork, and then give it to them on a saucer. You can teach them that this is yummy by putting a bit on your small finger and rubbing it on the underside of their upper jaw. Offer it on your finger again, and if they lick it off, put your finger near the saucer. At first offer this once or twice a day, then increase so they are having it four times a day, thus enabling you to reduce their milk. They will not need more than a teaspoon of canned per kitten per feeding.

At about 4 weeks of age you can put a bowl of dry kitten food out for them and allow them to try to eat this too, as well they can now have a dish of water, gradually discontinue feeding milk so that by six weeks they won’t need it anymore.

Helping Young Kittens go Bathroom

Young kittens need your help to go to the bathroom. After feeding hold them gently on their back and take a warm wet cotton ball or cloth and wipe their bottoms, to simulate a mother licking them. This will stimulate them to urinate and defecate. Be gentle and don’t use so much water they are soaking. You will need to do this every time until they are moving about freely and showing an interest in the litter box. Once they reach this stage (about 3 weeks old) you should add a shallow litter box with clay, not clumping, litter. You can purchase rabbit litter boxes for this or simply cut down a small cardboard box for them to use. You can put them in the box and they will usually figure out what it is for.


Your kittens need to be kept in a quiet room, ideally a large cage. They should have a warm bed with edges so they are kept together for warmth. You can add a warm water bottle wrapped in a towel for extra warmth, however make sure you keep it warm as when it cools off it will draw warmth away from the kittens. You will need plenty of towels and can change them regularly as needed. A box or big litter box will work if you do not have a cage for them. If you have other pets, you must make sure they do not have access to the kittens, I strongly recommend keeping them in a room to themselves. Even when the are starting to walk around they need to be kept in a small area especially when you are not watching them. Leaving them loose in a room is asking for trouble.

Emergency Care

Once you have decided to raise these kittens do not hesitate to consult an expert if you suspect something is wrong. If a kitten is not eating for 24 hours or is weak and listless he or she, needs to see a veterinarian. Kittens are very susceptible to disease, if you have other cats who are not vaccinated take caution not to handle them prior to handling the kittens and certainly do not let them near the kittens, not only for health reasons, but sometimes other cats kill kittens.

Other Links

What to do When a Cat has Kittens

What to do When you Find a Lost Kitten

How to Rescue Orphaned Pups

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User Comments
  1. Lucy

    On October 2, 2008 at 12:33 am

    Thank you – this info has been very practical and helpful. I found this kitten at midnight – no stores open that would sell kitten formula. Your information for “emergency” situations is great.

  2. Be

    On February 27, 2009 at 10:16 am

    When do i fed them if they were born around 5:00am it’s now 9:00am

  3. Mark Gordon Brown

    On July 18, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    to Be, as soon as you can go to the pet supply store, and get KMR, you should feed them that.

    However if they did not have any milk from their mother you also need to get COLOSTRUM from a veterinarian.

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