Neonate care: Hand-rearing new-born kittens

Devna Arora

Similar guidelines may be used for hand-rearing non-domestic Felids. Care must be taken to minimize imprinting and handling must be restricted to 1-2 keepers.

Devna Arora - with recently rescued orphaned kittens

Kittens that require hand-rearing

Young kittens are most commonly found as people stumble upon the queen’s hiding/nesting place while she is away foraging. Such kittens are often mistakenly picked up as orphans. Kittens that appear healthy and clean are certainly being cared for and the mother will return to them. If the kittens appear to be cold or are at risk of becoming hypothermic, you may put them in a shallow cardboard box and place them on some warm bedding but refrain from shifting them around as the mother will have difficulty in locating them.

Kittens that appear scraggy and emaciated are quite likely orphaned or have been separated from their mother. It could also be that the mother is in too poor a condition herself to feed the kittens adequately. Once the mother returns, the kittens and the mother may both be given supplemental feeding. If not, the kittens must be hand-raised..

Young kittens may be orphaned as a consequence of losing their mothers which could be due to parturition or road accidents. It is also not uncommon to find an entire litter that has been abandoned by humans. Rarely, a kitten may be too weak to suckle or may not be accepted by the mother. Such kittens will require your assistance and will need to be hand-fed. Sick or unfit kittens may be rejected by the mother – in addition to care, such kittens will require veterinary attention. Often, the mother may accept the kittens after a few days or the kitten regains sufficient strength to suckle without help. In all other instances, the kitten must be cared for.

Cross fostering

Devna Arora - Mum with her new-born kittens

Cross-fostering is a technique commonly used to foster non-biological offspring where orphaned young are offered to lactating mothers with kittens of her own. Due to a surge of maternal hormones during lactation, most females readily accept introduced babies and will care for them as attentively as she would her own. It is ideal for new-born young to be fostered by another mother if you know of any lactating females with kittens of her own. Mothers that do not readily accept an orphaned kitten must never be forced to do so and the kitten must be hand-reared.

Guidelines for the hand-rearing and care of neonates

New-born babies must be handled very gently as they are extremely delicate and can be easily injured. It is therefore advisable for the young to be handled and fed by experienced people alone. They also require a considerable amount of time and attention and you must only take them home if you able to commit to their care, if not, they must be shifted to an appropriate facility.

The umbilical cord

In most instances, the mother will chew up the umbilical cord after birth requiring little intervention on your behalf. In rare instances, you may find a kitten with the cord attached and you might be required to have the cord cut but it would be advisable to seek help from a veterinarian to do so. The cord must be cut with sterile equipment as using unsterile equipment will only lead to infections.

The cord usually dries up and falls off on its own in a couple of days and the scab too drops off by itself within a week or a maximum of 10 days. The navel is prone to infections until the cord completely dries up. It is crucial to keep the kittens and their bedding extremely clean and dry in the meanwhile.

In most cases, it is absolutely unnecessary to interfere but if required, CalendulaNeosporin or Betadinepowder [or any appropriate antiseptic powder used for dressing wounds] may be sprinkled lightly on and around the cord a couple of times a day. In addition to forming a protective layer over the cord, the powder will absorb the moisture and allow the cord to dry up without any infections.


Young animals have underdeveloped immune systems and are extremely susceptible to infections. It is vital to maintain very high standards of hygiene when handling the young. Orphaned animals are at a further disadvantage of not having received their mother’s milk, and hence the maternal anti-bodies, and need special care in terms of handling and hygiene.

It is essential to always wash your hands thoroughly before handling the kittens especially when they are under 4-6 weeks of age. It is important to clean your fingernails after cooking or eating food, chillies, pickles, chiwda (a spicy, savoury mix), etc. as the spices get caught under the nails. Fingernails must be kept trimmed when handling neonates. Owing to their small size, the hands and nails inevitably come in contact with their eyes while handling the kittens, thereby, unintentionally scratching them or smearing the eye with spices that may burn or irritate the eye intensely. Also wash your hands thoroughly after touching any harmful chemicals like mosquito mats, insecticides, bleach, etc.

Although rare, it is important to keep in mind that the kittens may have been infected with rabies, especially if the origin of the kittens is unknown. You must therefore follow high levels of both personal hygiene and safety for the first two weeks. It is important for your safety that you do not permit biting/teething or sucking on your hands for the first two weeks. In case of a bite, contact a doctor or veterinarian immediately and follow the necessary treatment.

N.B. Once the kittens start teething and playing, they will naturally want to chew on everything. They may enjoy biting/chewing on your hands as it will give their teeth/gums some relief. Do not confuse this with aggression or rabies. This is a natural stage in the growth and development of the kitten’s life.


Animal young have higher basal body temperatures and should feel warm on touch. Prolonged exposure to the cold can result in hypothermia, a condition in which the body temperature falls substantially below normal and can prove to be fatal. Thermoregulation is poorly developed in young infants and they are unable to produce body heat to warm up. Consequently, rescued neonates are often in a hypothermic state when found. Even though thermoregulation develops by the time the kittens are densely furred, injured and sick kittens may require an external heating source to maintain their body temperatures until they recover and regain their strength.

Heat stress

If the kittens have been separated for a longer duration and are in a warm location, their body temperatures are likely to be elevated beyond normal. Thermoregulation being poorly developed, the kittens will be unable to cool themselves down either. It is important to first slowly bring down the young one’s body temperature by placing them in a cool and well-ventilated area. They can also be offered a cold (mildly cold, never chilled) hydration formula as it helps in hydrating the young and bringing down their body temperature.

N.B. The young must never be either cooled or warmed too quickly.


Water constitutes a high percentage of body weight in young animals and they get dehydrated easily when not given suitable feeds or fed at regular intervals. Due to the time lag between having separated from their mothers and having been found and reached a rehabilitator, most young animals are quite dehydrated when they first arrive at rescue centres. The young can easily withstand the lack of food for a day but will not survive if dehydration levels peak.

Dehydrated young are unresponsive and listless. Their skin appears wrinkled; they have a weak grip and are unenthusiastic to feed. The Skin Turgor test, commonly referred to as the Tent Test, can be used to test the young for dehydration. Gently pinch a small amount of skin on the kitten’s back, to form a tent, then let go. The skin quickly goes back down to normal when well hydrated, but takes longer to go back to normal, making the “tent” evident when the young are dehydrated.

A very hot hot-water bottle must never be used for the young as it dehydrates them very quickly. The ambient temperature in the box can be gauged by placing your hand in the box five minutes after placing the hot-water bottle. If the box feels too warm and uncomfortable, the warmth of the bottle should be reduced immediately and the box ventilated to bring down the temperature.


An Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS) must be used for dehydrated kittens. Lactated Ringers and Pedialyte are excellent oral rehydration solutions and are advisable for cases of severe dehydration. A homemade oral rehydration solution can be made using 1 litre of water, 1 teaspoon of salt and 3 teaspoons of sugar, but must only be relied upon as a last resort as it cannot replenish other essential salts received through Lactated Ringers or Pedialyte. A home-made Pedialyte solution may be used but must be prepared cautiously and preferably in consultation with a veterinarian.

Although the kittens must solely be offered a rehydration solution when they are severely dehydrated, they can be offered a diluted feed if they appear to be mildly dehydrated. Feeds can initially be begun with a ratio of 60:40 feed and water and a teeny pinch of electrolytes, e.g., Electral powder. The electrolytes must be discontinued when the kittens start to appear hydrated. Smaller and frequent feeds must be offered to the kittens until their hydration levels reach normal and normal feeds must only be begun once the kittens are adequately hydrated.

Water and Digestion

The kittens must always first be re-hydrated before putting them onto a regular feed as rehydration and digestion are both mutually exclusive processes. Water is not only a prerequisite for digestion but also enables the body to perform other vital functions. When food is introduced in to the stomach, the stomach draws out water from other cells of the body to aid the process of digestion. Even a dehydrated body will give up fluids to aid digestion, leaving the body further depleted of fluids. Water in the stomach is only absorbed after it reaches the small intestines and proves to be insufficient to refill the deficit that has already been created. The digestive demands made by food thus cause a further depletion of body fluids and exacerbates dehydration which can prove to be fatal for the young if not addressed immediately.

Handling small kittens

Devna Arora - Holding small kittens

The kittens must be completely supported every time they lifted or carried. Kittens that are supported inadequatedly will inevitably wriggly due of discomfort and hurt themselves. Smaller kittens may be held in one hand while bigger or older kittens must be held in both hands and preferably, held againt the chest for additional support.

Children may be allowed to assist in the care of the kittens (domestic species only - species under rehab must be handled by minimally) but only under adult supervision and they must be carefully taught how to hold, handle and care for the kittens. Young kittens may be especially wriggly and children must always be seated before holding the kittens.

In my experience, allowing children to be involved in the care of young kittens not only gives you an extra pair of helping hands but it also instils a sense of responsibility in the child and encourages a deep and special bonding between the child and the kitten.

Housing new-born kittens

The kittens must always be housed in a warm, dark and quiet place. Kittens under 3 weeks of age can be housed in a cardboard box or a deep basket as it is easier to keep them warm in an enclosed space. Being in a contained space also keeps the kittens from crawling away.

Devna Arora - Housing new-born kittens in a dark space

Devna Arora - Housing new-born kittens in boxes or tubs

A box that is approximately 2-3 feet in length and breadth will comfortably house a litter of new-born kittens for the first couple of weeks of their life. The box should be at least 1 ½ foot high as the bedding and hot-water bottle will take up nearly half a foot. The top of the box needn’t be closed shut but may be kept sufficiently open for ventilation. The hot-water bottle must be placed under the bedding to one side of the box, leaving the remainder of the box without the warmth of the bottle. This allows the kittens to shift around the box depending upon the amount of heat each of them requires.

The kittens, especially neonates, must be kept over a warm blanket. Another piece of cloth, which will be easier to replace once soiled, may be placed over the blanket as it is inconvenient to change the blanket every time it is soiled.

New-borns may often prefer to be covered for the first few days of their life as it keeps them warmer. Leave a raised portion of the blanket for the kittens to crawl under – they should be able to move freely under and away from the raised hood. There must also be enough space for them to resurface if they feel the need to do so.

David Legnon - Tucked under a fold of cloth

Kittens from the same litter must always be housed together. They must only be separated if one is suspected to have an infection that may spread to the others. Kittens from different litters may be kept together but only after they have been quarantined. Young kittens are especially vulnerable and must not be exposed to avoidable infections.

Devna Arora - Keeping kittens together

Keeping the kittens together not only keeps them warm but also gives them a sense of reassurance. Kittens, when alone, may prefer soft toys around them as it gives them a feeling of having someone nearby. Most kittens become quite attached to their toys, often playing with and sleeping on their toys until they are a few months old.

Rodrigo Trovão - Kitten sleeping with his stuffed toy

Housing older kittens

Older kittens needn’t be housed in boxes at all – they can be housed just as you would an older cat but preferably in a constricted space until they are 3-5 weeks old so they don’t run out of sight and get into dangerous places. They must have access to the little tray as they will instinctively attempt to use the tray once their eyes open. Their space may be barricaded using cardboard boxes, wooden planks, etc. Kittens are likely to try and climb over the barricade and you must ensure that nothing can dislodge and fall over the kittens.

Kittens of this age are normally only active during meal times. They eat, play for a while and go off to sleep again until their next meal time. They must be given free space to play and run around the house when they are awake and returned to their space once they fall asleep.

Kittens beyond 6 weeks of age may be housed just as you would an adult cat. Kittens are also litter trained by this age.

Quarantining or housing individual kittens

If need be, individual kittens may even temporarily be kept in buckets – this is especially helpful when housing sick kittens that must be quarantined from the rest to prevent cross-infection. Shallow tubs must be avoided as kittens tend to crawl out of them.

N.B. Hands must be washed thoroughly after handling sick kittens and before handling the healthy ones to prevent the spread of infections.

Devna Arora - Temporary bucket for quarantining kittens

Fleece material, e.g., yellow dust cloth used for vehicles, or woollens must be completely avoided for kittens that less than a month old. The kittens may look for the mother and try to suckle on the fibres of the fleece material in their sleep. In doing so, they can ingest the cloth fibres and choke to death.

A hot-water bottle, heating pad or heating lamp is essential for providing external heat for young. If none of these are available, a soda or drink’s bottle may be used as a substitute. The hot-water bottle must always be wrapped in at least 2 layers of cloth (or 1 layer of a thick material) before placing the kittens on or near the bottle. The kittens must be monitored closely to prevent either chilling or overheating.

Devna Arora - Hot-water bottle

The kittens must never be permitted to come within reach of an uncovered bottle as they can get scorched. Care must be taken to not leave any space for them to crawl under the bottle. To prevent accidental scalding, the hot-water bottle and drink’s bottle must be checked for leakage each time before use. New hot-water bottles too have been found to be faulty and must be tested intensively before use.

A quartz alarm clock too may be used to reassure the young. The ticking of the clock replicates the rhythm of the heartbeat, simulating the mother’s presence and reassuring the young. The clock, with the alarm turned off, can be covered in cloth and placed inside the box.

Feeding bottles and syringes

Small sized feeding bottles and teats are readily available at most pet shops and veterinary clinics. These are ideal for small kittens. Unlike milk bottles for human babies, these bottles are soft and pliable making it easier to coax and even force feed kittens that are reluctant to get started themselves.

Devna Arora - Feeding bottles

A feeder can be also fashioned either using a pipette or a syringe with an appropriate nipple or the nozzle of a scalp vein set. The syringe should be large enough to hold one entire feed as giving the young a break, even to refill the feeder, often puts them off the remaining of the feed. A 2-5 ml syringe would be ideal for smaller kittens while a larger syringe, 5-10 ml, would be more convenient for older kittens.

Assembling the feeder from a syringe and scalp vein set

Devna Arora - Assembling a feeder for kittens

Feeders and hygiene

It is extremely important to maintain very high standards of hygiene while feeding the kittens. Toxins from infections in the gastro-intestinal tract can easily seep through the gut wall and cause systemic toxemia or generalized infections in the young as the gut wall of younger animals is much more permeable than it is in adults. The feeders must therefore be sterilized after every meal. A simple steam sterilizer or an ordinary kitchen pan can be used to sterilize the feeders. All parts of the feeder must be detached and rinsed in clean water, and then immersed in water and boiled for 5 minutes after the water first comes to a boil.

The syringe feeders will need to be replaced periodically especially when using plastic or disposable syringes. The rubber bulb at the base of the plunger of disposable syringes hardens after sterilizing the feeders a few times, jamming the feeders and making them unsafe for use. Consequently, the syringe feeders must be replaced promptly to ensure smooth and safe feeding of the young. Feeding bottles must be cleaned as per the instructions provided and then sterilized after every feed.

Soap must never be used to clean the feeders. The feeders are very small which makes it impracticable to either thoroughly clean them from the inside or rinse them free of soap residue after cleaning. Inadequate cleaning of the feeders would lead to dangerous levels of bacterial growth on the feeders while leaving soap residue in the feeder too would be very harmful for the young. The easiest and safest method of cleaning the feeders is therefore by sterilizing them.

Feed composition

Diet is a crucial factor in the growth and development of the young and it is vital to offer the young a healthy, nourishing and easily digestible feed. A Kitten Milk Replacer (KMR) is ideal for neonate kittens. They are especially manufactured for young kittens, are closest in composition to the mother’s milk and therefore easiest to digest. Although it is easily available in all developed countries, KMR is either unavailable or extremely difficult to procure in developing countries, necessitating the formulation of a home-made formula for the kittens.

Formulating an easily digestible feed for the kittens, in my experience, is a little bit tricky. But here are some facts and suggestions which will help you arrive at an appropriate formula. The choice of the formula will depend upon your kitten – some kittens appear to thrive on infant formulas whereas others can be extremely sensitive and require different combinations.

Understanding and choosing the milk base for the formula:

1. The first and foremost thing to remember while making the formula is the composition of the queen’s milk – the aim is to substitute a formula closest to this composition.

Table: Percentage of fats, protein and carbohydrates in cat’s milk(Hedberg, G. 2002)
Felis catus   Solids   Fats   Protein   Carbohydrates  
g/100 gm   17.7   5   7.2   4.9  
% of solids     28   40.5   27.8  


Cat’s milk is high in fats and proteins when compared to cow or goat’s milk, both of which contain less than 4% fat and just over 3% proteins. Both require additional fats and proteins to suffice the nutritional requirements of the kittens.

2. Choose goat’s milk over cow’s milk – the primary problem with cow’s milk is that it is high in the content of lactose which makes it difficult to digest. Goat’s milk, although not as easy to procure, contains lowers levels of lactose and is therefore easier to digest.

3. Opt for full fat or buffalo milk over skimmed cow’s milk – it naturally provides more fat and is suitable for the kittens.

4. Choose human infant formulas (for e.g., Lactogen, Nan or Farex) or puppy milk formulas (for e.g. Esbilac, Lactol) over fresh cow’s milk – for reasons unknown, most infants seem to tolerate infant formulas and it is the preferred option when KMR is not available.

5. It is a fallacy to use diluted milk as a formula – people mistakenly believe that using diluted milk will be helpful for animal young. In actual fact, you are further diluting an already insufficient feed and further compromising on the nutritional value of the formula.

6. Refrain from using fresh cow’s milk – fresh milk may be used as a last resort but must be supplemented with the enzyme, Lactaid. Often, fish and chicken stock have been preferred over fresh milk. Fresh milk is largely indigestible and must be avoided altogether.

Substituting an appropriate formula:

Before I proceed to suggestions, I must remind you to be judicious in your choice of the home-made formula. Once the kitten has already been offered an inappropriate formula and has indigestion or a bad tummy, she will take longer to settle down and accept a new formula. In such cases, it will be difficult to discern which formula is best as she may still be reacting to a previous formula which may make the current formula seem indigestible. In extreme cases, it may be better to switch her to a rehydrating formula with digestive enzymes and resume with the new formula once she has settled.

N.B. You must consider that the use of unsterilized equipment will lead to a tummy upset due to a bacterial infection. Please ensure the use of sterilized feeding equipment to rule out the only factor you can control.

1. Adding egg yolk – when using simply a combination of egg yolk and milk substitute, it is recommended that egg yolk comprises ¼ of the formula. Egg yolk contains many essential minerals and fats which increase the nutritive value of the feed. Egg yolks are also a good source of Taurine which is essential for felines.

2. Use boiled egg yolk instead of raw – Raw eggs can carry the bacterium, Salmonella Enteritidis, which can lead to severe food poisoning and pose a serious threat to the young. Pasteurised eggs, if available, may be used raw, but only fully boiled eggs must be used otherwise.

3. Adding fresh curds – curds contain many beneficial bacteria which aid digestion. Adding 10-15% of fresh curds to each feed or alternate feeds, as per the needs of the kitten, is very helpful.

4. Adding infant cereal formulas to aid digestibility – adding infant cereal formulas (for e.g., Nestum) is helpful and recommended but may be best avoided for kittens under the age of a week.

5. Use of probiotics and digestive enzymes – The addition of probiotics and digestive enzymes is crucial for kittens that are being fed milk formulas. Specialized veterinary probiotics, for e.g., Purina’s Fortiflora FELINE, Pet Ag’s Bene-Bac Plus, Gutwell, or Protexin’s Pro-Kolin, Pro-Solubale, Bio-Premium or Professional may be used for the kittens. MillPledge Veterinary’s KittyStim may be used for new-borns as it also contains colostrum. The next best alternative to veterinary probiotics would be human probiotics like Sporlac, Bifilac, Vibact, etc. that mainly contain the beneficial bacteria, lactobacilli. A pinch of probiotics added to the kitten’s feed 2-3 times a day suffices most kittens. Chews like Vetri-Science’s UT strength feline, Protexin’s Synbiotic chewable tabs, etc. may be given to older kittens and cats.

6. Adding vitamins and calcium – While most kitten milk replacers have sufficient vitamins and minerals, home-made formulas require additional vitamins. Infant veterinary or paediatric vitamin drops can be added but must be done carefully as an excess can cause diarrhoea. Calcium, too, may need to be supplemented in accordance with the formula being given.

7. Adding Taurine – Taurine is an amino acid that is essential for normal vision, heart muscle functioning and reproduction in felines. Felines cannot produce adequate Taurine through metabolic processes and often require supplements for the same. Taurine is primarily obtained through meats, and in the case of kittens, through egg yolk. Supplements must be added if the diet appears to be deficient.

8. Using fish and chicken stock as a base – I have often resorted to fish stock for kittens over 5-7 days old and chicken stock for kittens over 10-15 day old. This is fairly easy for them to digest and brings in added nutrients and fats that are missing in milk-based diets. Ideally, the milk formula may be prepared using fish or chicken stock instead of plain water.

9. Switching to blended/pureed meats – blended meats (fish, chicken and turkey) can be introduced in the feed once the kittens cross 3 weeks of age. Introduce up to 25% per feed, gradually increasing the proportion over the next few weeks until the kittens switch to a meat-based diet. The kittens will also attempt to eat out of a bowl by 3 weeks of age and pureed or mashed meats can be offered to them in a bowl.

10. Using cream, butterfat or mayonnaise to increase the fat content – the use of cream, butterfat and mayonnaise has been suggested and used by many. Please do so very cautiously if you choose to.

N.B. Dosages of calcium, vitamin, probiotics and digestive enzymes will differ according to the size and age of the kitten, the formula being used, the kitten’s own digestion and acceptance of the feed and of course, the supplement being used. If unsure, it would be best to consult a veterinarian for the exact dose and frequency.

Using curds and whey (dahi ka pani)

Curds are often added to the formula to aid digestion. When absolutely necessary, the kittens can simply be offered whey (dahi ka pani) for a couple of feeds until their stomach settles down. Once better, feeding must resume slowly with subsequent feeds being a mix of whey and curd, followed by a combination formula and curd. If excessive water loss is suspected, a pinch of electrolytes must be added to each feed and discontinued once the kitten appears better.

Devna Arora - Warming curd gradually

The problem is that warming curd tends to curdle both the curd and the feed. Fresh set curd is ideal for use as it is warmer and easier to mix with a warm feed. The best way to warm curd is to take some curd in a bowl and then place that bowl in another bowl of warm water. This procedure must be repeated twice, the second time with warmer water. This prevents the curd from curdling. Curdled curd must never be used for the kittens.

Feed consistency

Cat’s milk contains nearly twice the amount of solids than cow’s milk and is therefore of a thicker consistency. The formula must be prepared to a similar consistency and will be thick like a milkshake. New-borns and fresh rescues may be given a slightly diluted formula until they stabilize. The feed must be prepared to the right consistency as thicker feeds provide inadequate water and can prove to be heavy to digest. Diluted feeds, on the other hand, may not provide enough nutrition and would affect the growth and development of the kittens.

Using formula milk

Only boiled water must ever be used to prepare the feed. Refrain from preparing the feed in plastic containers as they are concerns over chemicals like BPA leaking into the formula if stored and heated in plastic containers. A fresh batch of feed must be prepared every day as using stale feed can lead to infections. Feed prepared for the day must be immediately refrigerated upon preparing and only the quantity required per feed must be heated each time. The remainder of the feed must be discarded after feeding the kittens.

N.B. The feed must never be reheated more than once as it promotes bacterial growth and can lead to severe food poisoning.

Feeding kittens

The kittens must always be given a warm (never hot) feed simulating the temperature at which the young would receive milk in nature as it is soothing, easier to digest and they feed better. Cold milk on the other hand must be avoided altogether as it can chill the young and even cause cramps. The kittens must be given small feeds frequently as larger feeds prove to be heavier to digest and longer gaps between the feeds tend to weaken them.

Devna Arora - Correct feeding position for kittens

The kittens must be fed slowly while maintaining a steady pressure on the feeder and allowing them to suckle. If unsure about how to feed the young, it is safer to drop tiny droplets of milk on their tongue and allow them to lick it. Never use excessive force whilst feeding the kittens if the feeder appears to be stuck – this may happen if the formula hasn’t been mixed sufficiently. The feeder must be removed from the kitten’s mouth and readjusted until the obstruction has completely been removed before continuing to feed. This prevents accidentally squirting too much feed into their mouth and aspirating the young.

Kittens that refuse to feed

It is normal for all freshly rescued kittens to protest to the feed and the feeder for the first few feeds as they do not recognize it. It is unnatural for them to drink from artificial feeders and they have to learn to accept the new feeder. Once fed appropriately for the first few times, the kittens will readily accept the feeder whereas struggling with the feeder will only lead to negative conditioning and rejection of the feeder.

Devna Arora - Recently admitted kittens are reluctant to feed

A kitten must never be fed with force even if it is crucial to keep her alive. It is usually more effective to give the kitten a few drops at a time and then pull the feeder away, giving her enough time to swallow the feed. The feeder must never be pushed into the mouths of kittens that refuse to suckle. Instead, slide a finger in through the side of the kitten’s mouth and then offer the feeder (like in the picture above). The finger can remain in the kitten’s mouth if it helps him/her feed. It is just as important to give the kittens some space to move a bit between the drops of feed rather than holding her firm and constricted. Once feeding continues in a pleasant manner, the kitten will soon accept the feeder.

Aspiration pneumonia

The repeated inhalation of either oropharyngeal or gastric contents, for e.g., milk, into the lower airways can lead to an infectious process causing aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia is one of the most common causes of mortality in hand-raised animal young and every care needs to be taken to minimize this risk. It is vital to ensure the use of the correct teat with an appropriately sized hole, correct feeding position and handling, correct milk temperature, and avoidance of overfeeding or force feeding to prevent aspiration pneumonia. If it is suspected that the kittens have aspirated the feed, for e.g., if the kittens sneeze or cough up milk after a feed, a veterinarian must be consulted to begin the preventive treatment without delay.

Ano-genital stimulation

The muscle and control of the gastric tract are poorly developed in the young and it is essential to stimulate the ano-genital area very gently with a warm, wet cloth after every feed for the first 3-4 weeks of the kitten’s life. A gentle body rub, with emphasis on the bottom half of the body, the upper thighs and the buttocks, also encourages urination and defecation. Stimulating the kitten for a few minutes after a meal will ensure that the kitten relieves itself. Once the kitten relieves itself, it will immediately go off to sleep. Failure to do so results in constipation, bladder problems, uraemia and even toxaemia.

Another major advantage of proper stimulation is that the kittens pee and poop outside the box which makes it easier to keep the box clean. Young kittens don’t have the sense of judgement to avoid the soiled area of the box and may walk over the soiled area. Even if one kitten poops, all kittens will inevitably walk/roll over it, necessitating a thorough cleaning for everyone!


It is a good practice to gently sponge the kittens with a soft cloth dipped in warm water 2-3 times a week as it helps keep them clean. Giving them a warm sponge also simulates the mother’s licks, adding to a feeling of security.

The kittens must only be sponged (never bathed) during the day and dried immediately using a dry towel. They must never be sponged at night as it can rapidly chill the young. A hairdryer must never be used to dry the young – they must be allowed to dry naturally or be exposed to mild sunlight.

A drop or two of a mild shampoo may be added to a small bowl of water for sponging kittens that appear to be rather dirty, for e.g. those that have been recently rescued and are unclean and smelly, or kittens that have soiled the box and rolled over in the poop. The shampoo helps to clean them up and leaves a sweeter smell. If using shampoo, ensure to wipe them up with another wet cloth so as to leave minimal residue on the kittens. Excessive residue might go into the eyes of the kittens or cause allergies.

Kitten poop

Poop is a good indicator of digestion. It is essential to keep an eye on the kitten’s poop to make sure they digest their feed well. The poop should be well formed. The poop shouldn’t be too sticky and you should be able to lift it with a piece of tissue without causing any staining.

Poop that is watery, pasty or excessively sticky indicates that the kitten isn’t digesting the feed well and hence also not absorbing adequate nutrients out of the feed. Changes must be made to their diet if they don’t digest their feed well.

Warmth and well-being

Mammalian young thrive on warmth and touch. They love to be held and stroked. This is especially important when handling lone youngsters. Holding small kittens close to your chest gives them a feeling of reassurance as they listen to the rhythm of your heartbeat. Babies of mammals always huddle close to their mother’s chest and tummy and feel reassured when held in a similar fashion.

Devna Arora - Kittens vocalize when they need something

Animal young rarely vocalize unless they need something. The kittens will vocalize when they are hungry or need to relieve themselves or if the temperature of the box is either too warm or too cold. Often, the kittens will even vocalize when they just want to be held. It is important to check on them once they vocalize as ignoring them for prolonged periods will lead to a feeling of neglect and insecurity.

Sexing kittens

Devna Arora - Sexing kittens

In the male kitten, both the anal opening and the prepuce appear as a tiny dot. The testes are placed over the penis (and under the anus) and the penis is therefore spaced further apart from the anus. The testicles are prominently visible after 3-4 months of age.

The vagina, on the other hand, is a vertical slit and placed closer to the anus – resembling an inverted exclamation mark.

I apologize for the tacky drawing but I hope it makes the point.


New-born kittens are quite unlikely to be infected by external parasites, i.e., fleas. While those found at a later stage might have severe infestations. Although it is not recommended to bathe small kittens, I prefer using an anti-flea shampoo for the kitten’s bath and find the combination of using a good shampoo with manually removing the fleas immediately after a bath quite effective. The kitten must be dried immediately and placed on warm bedding thereafter.

An alternative is to use a spray or powder. Frontline or Protektor spray (containing Fipronil, a broad spectrum insecticide) has been used successfully to treat severe infestations of fleas. The instructions for using the product are given in the literature provided, which must be followed strictly for optimum results and the safety of the kittens.

The solution must not be allowed to come in contact with the eyes. The kittens are required to dry up themselves after using the spray; it must therefore be used during the day. It takes a while for the kittens to dry up and they might catch a chill if left sodden for long at night.

The fleas tend to multiply in the kittens’ bedding as well and will repeatedly climb onto the kittens from their bedding. It is therefore essential that the fleas not only be eliminated from the kittens but also from their bedding. Although it is ideal to use a fresh set of bedding after the application of the spray, the spray may also be applied to the bedding to eliminate the fleas.

Caution: Flea sprays are very toxic. The spray must be used cautiously. I recommend you consult a veterinarian if unsure about its usage.

Continue to Page 2: growth and corresponding care

Please note: This document is targeted at hand-rearing alone and does not address or substitute any veterinary procedures. For any medical concerns, please consult your veterinarian at the earliest.

For amateurs or people handling a new born kitten for the very first time, please keep in touch with a trained and experienced hand for guidance and regular progress updates.

Protocol published in 2013

First and foremost: if the animal is injured, it would be very obvious but is the animal truly orphaned? Please ensure if the animal is truly orphaned and not receiving parental care before you decide to pick it and take it home.

The second step would be to reach the animal to a rehabilitator or rescue center. If you are unaware of any in your vicinity, you will be able to get guidance from your local veterinarian, zoo or forest department.

This is not an uncommon situation to find yourself in. Although there are innumerable rescue centers and rehabilitators around, there may be times when there are none in your vicinity or you are unable to reach anyone in time for help. It may be best to prepare yourself to care for the animal in such an instance.

Much information on many topics and species is readily available online. Try to narrow down some pieces of information you can work with for a start. Also, get in touch with rescue centers or rehabilitators via phone or internet. Exchange digital photographs where necessary – it barely takes a few minutes. Even if unable to help you directly in person, any person or center will surely be willing to guide you through the care of the animal and help you in choosing an appropriate protocol for its care and rehabilitation.

It is a common myth that any baby (or adult) bird or mammal that has been touched by human hands will be killed by the rest of its group. This belief has most strongly been associated with baby birds, making people extremely reluctant to pick up and leave babies back in their nest even when the parents are around.

Over innumerable years, we have reunited many youngsters successfully, and inevitably, they have all been handled by human hands for several hours or days before being reunited. The key factor in the acceptance of the animal by the parent and other group members seems not to be the smell of human touch on the animal, but the actual process of reuniting.

A common mistake that most people make while attempting to reunite an animal is that they linger on too close and in turn, frighten the parents away. When trying to place an animal back in its nest, you must always keep a safe distance from the nest and the rest of the group so as not to scare them away. It is easy to get impatient and want to return to the animal after short intervals, but you must refrain from doing so, rather, observe from a distance. Success is more likely than not. I can hardly believe any parent would refuse to accept its own child just because a ‘human’ has touched it!

Some people have suggested the use of gloves to prevent direct contact with the animal. Although you may not always have gloves on you when you need to handle an animal and it isn’t completely necessary to have them when handling a rescue, you may choose to use them if you prefer to.

Yes, in all probability. But, no animal can be simply picked from captivity and released – that is when they will not survive. Animals need to go through a period of rehabilitation before they can be release. The technique and timeframe of rehabilitation will depend upon the species and individual in concern. Guidance on rehabilitating your animal can be sought from an experienced rehabilitator.

Wild animals belong in their natural habitats. Their true glory and happiness can only ever be seen in nature. As much as the babies will be attached to you and need you when they are young, they will soon outgrow their dependence on you and their heart will yearn to be outside, in the wild – where they belong.

Rather than waiting too long and releasing an animal that is not completely prepared, it is wise to plan the release, rehabilitate the animal and release a strong and prepared animal that will surely be able to survive in the wild.

If you truly love them and want what’s really best for them, I trust you will do what is best for your little one.

You can work with any species you are more comfortable with or all species that you come across. Often, we just work with animals as they come along but if you don’t feel particularly confident with any species, it might be better to transfer it to someone more confident. If you prefer to work with a certain species and feel your hands are better adapted for that species, you may specialize in it – its’ your call.

It takes lots of time, deep commitment and a genuine interest in the wellbeing of another animal’s life to enter the field of wildlife rehabilitation. Experience and knowledge are paramount as there are many that cannot be written or explained to you but those that you will learn through your own experience. Wildlife rehabilitation is a painstaking and time consuming task requiring your complete dedication and lots of sacrifices.

In a nutshell, the following are the basic qualities required to be a rehabilitator:

1. Genuine interest and concern

2. Dedication and sacrifice

3. Commitment to work in the best interest of the animal

4. Willingness to learn

5. Willingness to ask and look for help

6. Willingness to go the extra mile

7. Willingness to let go at the time of release

Many small animals, esp. urban species, can be rehabilitated and released from home as long as they have a natural distribution around your home. Many of these animals come back for visits until they are completely independent but sometimes for longer as they are closely bonded to the caregivers. Often, the animals may completely cease to return after release or some days after release. Although this seems disappointing, it a good sign demonstrating that the animal is completely independent and capable of surviving on its own without any assistance from you.

As rehabbers, our aim is always make the animal independent so it doesn’t feel the need to keep returning.

Yes, we can definitely attempt to help every animal that needs our help. But unfortunately, we may not always be able to cure every animal and restore it to its desired health status. As rescue workers, we come across a disproportionately disadvantaged population of animals, some of which are beyond human help. There may be times when it is in the best interest of the animal to euthanize it. But it is our duty and responsibility to make an informed choice and always work for the betterment and highest quality of life for the animal in concern.

Euthanasia, commonly known as ‘mercy killing’, is the act of killing someone to relieve it from unbearable and incurable suffering. Needless to say, euthanasia is always the very last resort after all other means to help the animal have failed and purely done to relieve an animal of unbearable pain and suffering. Euthanasia can be easily carried out by a veterinarian by means of an injectable drug – a quick and painless process. Your veterinarian will be able to advise you on the same. Ensure you have the appropriate permission to do so when dealing with protected species.