Tips for Successfully Fostering Kittens

Kitten Bottle Feeding
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Very young kittens who rely on bottles may need to be fed four to six times daily, round the clock.

Fostering kittens is life affirming and life saving, but it’s also a heck of a lot of work. If you’re willing to put in the time, though, your heart will soar when you send them off to their happy new homes, where they will hopefully have a chance to thrive because of the early socialization and care you gave them.

Here’s what you’ll need to have and know to give them the best start in life.

Feeding Basics

The amount of effort it takes to raise foster kittens depends in part on how old they are when you get them. Bottle babies, for instance, will need at least a couple of weeks of intensive care. Bottle babies are kittens younger than 3 or 4 weeks. They need four to six feedings daily, round the clock. Yes, that may mean some 2 a.m. feedings, but, luckily, that stage doesn’t last for more than two or three weeks.

You can gauge how often to feed kittens by the way they act when you bring out the bottle. If they’re crying frantically, ramp up the number of feedings. After the last feeding at bedtime, place them near your bed so you can hear if they get hungry in the middle of the night. If you’re lucky, they might give you six hours of sleep before crying you awake.

You should have no problem finding kitten-size bottles at a pet supply store, but if the store is out of stock, seek out doll bottles at a toy store. To make it easier for the kitten to take in formula, pierce the bottle nipple with a needle or straight pin. Sterilize bottles and nipples in boiling water before use. Make like a surgeon and thoroughly wash your hands all the way up to the elbows before feeding or handling kittens.

The best temperature for formula is between 95 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Test the temperature with a thermometer before feeding or shake a couple of drops onto your wrist to make sure it’s not too hot. If it burns your wrist, it’s too hot for the kittens to drink.

Speaking of heat, it’s important for kittens themselves to be warm before they eat. A kitten who’s cold won’t be able to properly digest his meal. That means if you’ve just brought kittens in from the cold, food is not their first priority. Warm them with the body heat from your hands or line a box with towels fresh out of the dryer. Never use heating pads, which can become too hot. Circulating hot water blankets or a hot water bottle wrapped in a clean towel are both good options. A 60-watt lightbulb or heat lamp can be hung above the box to provide a constant and safe source of warmth. Make sure, however, that the kitten box is big enough for the kittens to move away from the heat source in case they become too warm.

Kittens do best with commercial kitten formula. Never give them cow’s milk, which can cause diarrhea. Kittens are also prone to dehydration. You can help them take in more liquids by adding extra water to the formula when you mix it. You can also add extra water to liquid formula.

The best feeding technique is to hold the kitten’s head steady while applying even, gentle pressure to the bottle. You don’t want to squirt formula into the kitten's mouth; just make it easy for the kitten to suck it in.

You can start to offer solid food when the kittens are 3 to 4 weeks old. Give them a little canned food or whirl some dry food with water in a blender or food processor. To help the kittens realize that what you’re offering is good to eat, enhance the odor by warming the food slightly (mix it well and test it with your finger to make sure there aren’t any hot spots), adding a little water to it or smearing a little on the roofs of their mouths. Until they’re 6 weeks old, continue bottle-feeding as well to make sure they’re getting enough calories.

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