How to care for and feed your foster kittens (part 2)
If you’re reading this blog post, I first want to thank you. Maybe you’ve stumbled upon a litter of kittens that appears to be abandoned. Or perhaps you’re thinking of opening your home to foster kittens through a program at your local shelter. Or maybe you’re just “foster-kitten curious,” wondering if you have the time and resources to add a little kitten mayhem to your life.
Whatever brought you to this post, I applaud you and your generous heart. Even if now isn’t the right time for fostering, it takes a certain kind of person to even consider caring for a helpless living thing. The world needs more people like you.
This post is Part 2 of a two-part series about kitten fostering. This one digs into the day-to-day, nitty gritty of caring for motherless kittens. The first post addresses how to become a foster kitten parent and the tools and products that are handy for this kind of project. Read "How to foster kittens" first.
How to feed your foster kittens
If you have found your kittens outside, and you are sure they have been orphaned (I discuss how to tell whether kittens are truly orphaned in "How to foster kittens"), they will need food immediately. Kittens cannot survive very long without food. But you won’t know what to feed your kittens until you know how old they are.
How old are my orphaned kittens?
One week to 10 days old. His umbilical cord has fallen off. His eyes might be starting to open, but his ears will still be flattened against his head. He will weigh a little more than four ounces.
10 days to two weeks old. Her eyes opening more and very blue. She may be crawling. She might not yet have teeth. She will probably weigh six to eight ounces.
Two to three weeks old. His eyes will be completely open and his ears will be unfolded. By the end of three weeks, he will be standing up properly, but might still be tottering. You might see teeth. He might show some interest in a litter box.
Four to five weeks old. She might be a whole pound by this milestone. She can run, play, and leap. She will most certainly be interested in the litter box.
Six to seven weeks old. He will be very active and coordinated, and interested in the world. His eyes may be changing to his adult eye color. He’ll weigh between one pound and one-and-one-half pounds.
Eight weeks old. She will weigh up to two pounds, be eating solid food exclusively, and using the litter box like a pro.
Feed kittens younger than four weeks old kitten milk replacer only
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If your kitten is younger than four weeks old, he will need to be bottle fed using kitten milk replacer only. Milk replacer should be mixed with body-temperature water or, if it has been refrigerated already, warmed by placing a full bottle in a mug of warm tap water. Don’t feed cold milk to kittens, because kittens don’t have the ability to regulate their own body temperature, and they can’t “afford” the energy required to warm up cold milk in their tummies.
You have to be careful not to feed milk that is dangerously hot, either. Use caution if you decide to microwave your formula because microwaving tends to heat things unevenly. Overheating can degrade certain nutrients in the food, so microwave for only a few seconds at a time and then check the temperature of the formula. Be sure to shake the formula vigorously and test the temperature one more time before you serve it to tiny kittens.
If you are using KMR Formula, as I recommend, mix it with water according to the instructions, which is one part formula to two parts water. A “part” is anything that you use to measure with. For example, you can mix up one tablespoon of formula with two tablespoons of water, or ¼ of a cup of formula with ½ cup of water.
How much you mix at one time depends upon how many kittens are in your litter. Multiple the number of kittens in your litter times the number of times a day they are eating times the amount they are each eating per day.
Note that any unused formula needs to be refrigerated, and then discarded after 24 hours.
Do not feed kittens cow or goat’s milk. Don’t use human baby formula, or formula intended for puppies. Only a milk replacer that was designed for kittens will provide them with the right nutrition, and cow’s milk, for example, could cause life-threatening diarrhea.
For more information about cats and kittens and their ability to drink milk, read this post, Can my cat drink milk?
You will need to cut a hole in a new bottle nipple
The tiny PetAg bottles that I recommend for feeding kittens come without a hole in the top. This is because the bottle is designed to be used to care for baby animals of different species who might need their formula to flow at different rates.
This video shows you how to make a hole in top. You want the hole to be small enough to allow milk to drip out of the hole one drop at a time, so that a young kitten doesn’t get too much formula too fast, but not so slowly that it exhausts a suckling kitten, who then won’t get enough to eat.Try your bottle out by flipping it over a sink to see how quickly the formula flows.
How much formula should I feed each kitten and how often?
Kittens should consume approximately two tablespoons (or 30 ccs) of prepared formula for every four ounces of body weight in a 24-hour period. So, a ½ pound kitten should be eating about four tablespoons of formula per day.
Note that kittens are all individuals and that this is just a rule of thumb.
Kittens younger than two weeks should be fed every two hours around the clock. Yes, you have to get up in the middle of the night to feed the kittens, and yes, you need to wake a kitten who might otherwise sleep through a feeding.
By two to four weeks of age, your kittens can wait a little longer between feedings: every three to four hours is sufficient, and you don’t have to wake a sleeping baby to feed him.
If you have a very weak kitten, or one who does not seem to be eating enough at every meal, you might have to try to feed her more frequently.
How to bottle-feed kittensKittens are fed in the position they would eat at their mama’s side: on their belly. If you try to feed a kitten on his back like a human baby, he may inhale the milk, instead of swallowing it. Aspirating formula could lead to pneumonia.
Place a towel on your lap and place the kitten on the towel. If this is a kitten’s first time drinking from a bottle, you may have to open his mouth slightly with your free hand and gently guide the nipple in. Once he realizes that this is where the milk comes from, he will likely be more enthusiastic the next time.
Keep the bottle tipped so that the air stays on top of the formula. Watch (or feel) the kitten’s throat to be sure she is suckling and swallowing.
If you have more than one kitten (but only two hands!), feed one kitten at a time, allowing him to suckle for as long as he wants before moving on to the next kitten. After you’ve gone one round through all the kittens, given everyone another chance at the bottle. You can see if anyone is interested in a third round, but once everyone has lost interest, you are done.
How to stimulate young kittens to poop and pee
Baby kittens rely on their mamas to help them poop and pee. They don’t just poop and pee on their own, like human babies.
Mama cats lick their babies’ bottoms on a regular schedule to stimulate them to poop and pee. If you’ve become the stand-in for your kittens’ mother, you have to stimulate your babies to poop and pee. Stimulate before or after every single feeding.
You can use a cotton ball dipped in warm water, a scent-free baby wipe, or even a piece of very soft toilet paper, wet or dry, to simulate a mother cat’s licking tongue.
You can hold your kitten in whatever position feels right to you: on her back, on her belly, or standing up.
Very , very softly rub the kittens’ lower bellies and genital area in a circular motion with the cotton ball or wipe. Do not rub for too hard or too long – just long enough for a kitten to finish her business, about 10 to 40 seconds. Too long, and you could irritate a kitten’s very delicate skin. Kitten Lady will show you how it’s done in this video:Kittens should pee at every stimulation, but might only poop once to four times per day. Make sure you wipe each little kitten bottom clean with a scent-free cloth or warm water on a bit of toilet paper or cotton ball. Anything left on the skin can cause irritation. Urine left on the skin can cause a burn called urine scald.
By the time a kitten is between three and four weeks old, he will no longer need stimulating. Place a very low litter box in your kitten enclosure with some non-clumping litter.
Read this post about teaching a kitten how to use a litter box.
A good schedule for feeding and stimulating
Kitten Lady provides a very clear schedule for feeding and stimulating that is worth repeating here. It can be hard to keep track of a kitten’s ever-changing needs as she grows:
0-1 weeks old: Bottle feed and stimulate every 2 hours.
1-2 weeks old: Bottle feed and stimulate every 2-3 hours.
2-3 weeks old: Bottle feed and stimulate every 3 hours.
3-4 weeks old: Bottle feed and stimulate every 4 hours.
4-5 weeks old: Begin weaning; feed every 5-6 hours. Introduce the litter box.
5-6 weeks old: Continue weaning. Feed every 6-8 hours.
6-8 weeks old: Kittens should be fully weaned. Feed every 8 hours.
How to wean kittens
By three to four weeks of age, a kitten may be ready to begin weaning. Weaning is the gradual transition from diet of only formula to solid food. Kittens who are ready to try solid food may indicate their frustration with their formula-only diet by biting and chewing the bottle nipple.
You will need to continue feeding formula to the kittens through the weaning process to ensure that the kittens are getting enough nutrition. Continue to offer a bottle every five to six hours, eventually extending it to every six to eight hours. You can stop providing formula once the kittens are eating mostly canned food and drinking water from a bowl.
Eating solid food is very different from suckling formula from a bottle. A kitten needs to learn to lick food up first. Mix canned wet kitten food with prepared formula to form a thin gruel and see if you can get the kitten to lick it off of your finger.
Eventually, you can place this thin gruel on a flat dish in the kitten enclosure. Over time, slowly thicken the food by adding less and less formula until the kittens are just eating the canned wet food.
Make sure the kittens have access to a clean bowl of water in a tip-resistant bowl at all times, as they are no longer getting the liquid that they need from formula feedings. I find that I have to change the water many times during the day as it gets played with, dumped, or filled with kitty litter.Kittens are ridiculously messy eaters and will traipse right through their food dish, so feed them and remove the food bowl when they are done with a meal. Clean each kitten after every feeding and make sure that they are dry before putting them back in their enclosure.
I let kittens eat as much as they are hungry for, usually around a ½ of a small can of kitten food per kitten at each feeding.
Keeping kittens warmOne of your biggest responsibilities when raising young kittens is keeping them warm. Kittens do not have the ability to control their own body temperature and would normally rely on their mother’s body for warmth. You will need to provide an artificial source of warmth for them.
First, make sure that you’re keeping your kittens in an area of the house that is quiet, and free from drafts. A separate room with the ability to turn up the heat to 80-85 degrees would be ideal for kittens, but it’s not something that most of us have in our homes.
Use a heating pad especially designed for animals, covered with a soft towel or blanket. Make sure that the kittens also have a place in their enclosure that is not heated, so they can get away from the heat source if they are feeling overly warm.
Making sure your kittens are growing on schedule
Kittens should gain about a half-ounce every day or about four ounces per week.
If a very young kitten is not gaining weight every single day, you need to contact a veterinarian, or the foster coordinator at the shelter.
When to seek emergency veterinary care for your foster kittens
Kittens are very fragile beings. A condition that an adult cat could handle for a few hours or days might represent a life-threatening emergency for a tiny kitten.
If you think your kitten has gotten too warm or too cold, help slowly bring his body to a more comfortable temperature. If your kitten seems very lethargic, and if his gums are dry or white, you can rub a small amount of corn syrup on the gums, while you’re calling the vet.
All kittens will eventually need to be seen by a vet, but go right away if a kitten is:
- Suffering from an eye or skin infection
- Limp or lethargic
- Gasping for breath
- Did not eat at one meal
- Has very watery diarrhea
- Vomiting multiple times
These symptoms are slightly less concerning, but you must still call your vet if your kitten is:
- Sneezing, coughing, or has a runny nose
- Discharge from the eyes
- Seems mildly lethargic
- Vomits occasionally
- Not gaining weight
- Has loose stool
- Seems less interested in food
- Has gone two days without a bowel movement.
What to do if your foster kitten has fleas
Fleas are bugs that live by biting your kitten and consuming her blood. Fleas can make kittens very itchy and uncomfortable and can also cause a life-threatening loss of blood. Read all about fleas in this post.
At six weeks old, it is safe to use a spot-on treatment designed for kittens such as Revolution for Kittens, but you will need a prescription from a vet.
Before six weeks old, you will have to bathe your kittens in dish soap or baby shampoo to kill any live fleas, and to wash away the flea dirt (which is actually flea poop).
Use warm, not hot water, and be fast about it. You don’t want your kitten to be traumatized by the bath, or to get chilled.
Start by drawing a ring of dish soap around the kitten’s neck to prevent the fleas from running to “safety” on the top of the kitten’s head.
Lather up the rest of the body, being sure to get all the crevices, like those between the toes. Rinse completely with clean water.
Dry your kitten thoroughly and put him back on the heating pad.
Bring your kittens for regular veterinary care
Even healthy kittens need to see a vet.
Before your kittens can be adopted, they need to be vaccinated, tested for feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), and spayed or neutered.
Read about the best time to spay or neuter in this post.
Your vet will begin your kittens’ vaccination program at six weeks, and also recommend a deworming program, depending upon the parasites that are most prevalent in the area where you live. If you are fostering through a shelter, the shelter may have its own worming protocol.
Give your foster kittens an enriched life
There’s more to raising foster kittens than just keeping them warm, dry, and well-fed.
Your job is also to help prepare them, both body and mind, for the rest of their lives.
Socialize your kittens for a life with humans
There is a very short window in a kitten’s life when her mind is very open to new experiences. The best time to socialize a kitten is when she is between two and seven weeks of age. All is not lost if a kitten comes to you later in life, but an older, unsocialized kitten will not learn as quickly as a younger kitten, and may not be as comfortable with things introduced later in life.
Handle your kittens frequently. Touch every part of their bodies. Invite friends over to play with the kittens so that they get to meet all kinds of people, but be sure that every experience is a positive one. Kittens learn from negative experiences, too, and not what you’re hoping they learn.
Let them experience the kinds of sounds they will likely hear in whatever household they end up in. Ring doorbells, clang pans (but not right by sensitive ears – it has the same effect if they hear it from a safe distance), and run appliances. Since my own children are all grown, I play (softly) the sounds of babies crying and children screaming.
Introduce your kittens to all kinds of household objects: shoes, bags of groceries, books. Put a variety of items on the floor for them to explore.
Leave the carrier out where they can jump in it. Take your kittens for a ride in the car.
Let them feel different textures underfoot: blankets, carpeting, tile: everything they could potentially meet up with at their future home.
Let your kittens play
Kittens begin to play when they are about three to four weeks old. Play may look like fun, but it’s important business for a growing kitten.
By playing with objects, kittens learn adult-cat hunting behaviors: stalking, chasing, and pouncing. They develop eye-paw coordination by swatting at toys. Your toys don’t have to be fancy: toilet paper tubes and empty water bottles are as good as commercial cat toys.
Give your kittens boxes to jump into and things to climb over. These kinds of physical challenges will help your kittens develop agility and coordination.
Ideally, your kitten will have at least one littermate to play with. Other kittens can teach each other things it’s hard for a human to teach, such as when they’ve taken a “play fight” too far.
If you have a single kitten, try to find similar-age kittens for her to play with. If you can’t, do your best to play with your kitten often, and let her know when she’s bitten too hard or played too rough, by saying “ouch” and removing yourself, briefly, from the fray.
Enjoy your foster kittens while you have them
But most of all, enjoy your kittens. Yes, the piles of pooped-on towels will pile up in the laundry room, and it will feel like you’ve only just finished a feeding before it’s time for the next one, but kittens grow quickly.
Before you know it, your work with them will be done. Their new forever families will pick up where you left off, and your foster kittens will go on to the adult-cat lives they were always meant to live.
You’ll always have your memories, of course, and the knowledge that they couldn’t have made it there without you.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
You can find play supplies online, and if you want to save money, you can buy bulk cat supplies from a reputable provider like SeeBiz.
 “Determining the Age of Orphaned Kittens.” Best Friends Animal Society - Save Them All, 13 Jan. 2014, https://bestfriends.org/stories/features/determining-age-orphaned-kittens.
 “Bottle Feeding Kittens.” Best Friends Animal Society, https://resources.bestfriends.org/article/bottle-feeding-kittens.
 “Kitten Care Guide.” Greenville County. https://www.greenvillecounty.org/acs/pdf/KittenCareGuide.pdf
 “Kitten Care Guide.”
 “Library.” UW Shelter Medicine, https://www.uwsheltermedicine.com/library/resources/kitten-deworming-protocol.
 “Kitten Socialization.” The Anti-Cruelty Society, https://anticruelty.org/pet-library/kitten-socialization.