Kitten Bottle Feeding
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.

Growing and Changing

What goes in must come out, and young kittens need a little help from their friends to get the job done. Wait 15 to 30 minutes after each meal, and then gently wipe the kitten’s bottom with a cotton ball or tissue moistened with warm water. This should stimulate him to urinate every time. He may defecate only once a day or even go for two or three days before defecating again. That’s normal, as are stools that are firm with a yellowish or light brown color.

Once kittens start eating solid food, they’ll begin to eliminate on their own. Give them a litterbox that’s easy to get in and out of. When you put them inside it, they’ll quickly figure out what it’s for. Keep it clean and make sure they don’t snack on the litter.

One of the most important items you’ll need is a scale for weighing the kittens — a food scale is a good choice. Kittens should be weighed every 12 hours for the first two weeks of life, then daily at least until weaned. Kittens should be weighed once or twice weekly until at least 8 weeks of age.

Write down each kitten’s weight in a notebook, so you can make sure they are gaining ounces daily. A growing kitten should gain a quarter to a third of an ounce every day, and his weight should double between birth and the end of his first week. Once the kittens hit 2 weeks old, weigh them twice a week until they’re about a month old.

Tiny kittens are highly susceptible to bacterial and viral infections. Even before the eyes open between 8 and 14 days, bacteria can invade. If you see puffiness or discharge from the eyes, use a cotton ball moistened with warm water to gently wipe it away. It’s best if you can take the kittens to the veterinarian for treatment. Sneezing usually signals an upper respiratory infection. Kittens can die quickly from URIs, so seek veterinary care immediately. Other red flags include diarrhea, vomiting, lethargy and refusal to eat. Immediate veterinary care is necessary to save the lives of fragile kittens.

Fostering kittens can be a big job, but the rewards are equally big. I promise: You won’t regret a single 2 a.m. feeding when you’re sending your healthy, happy fosters off to their forever homes.

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