By Hannah Shaw
So you’re caring for a bottle-fed kitten. Maybe you’ve signed up to foster orphans for your local shelter, or you’ve found a baby outside and the mother has not returned for her. No matter the case, you’ll want to exercise caution and follow these six tips for safely bottle feeding kittens.
Choose the Right Kitten Formula and Bottle
Motherless neonatal kittens have sensitive systems that require a special kitten formula—not just any dairy product you have in the fridge. Kitten formula is formulated to provide a proper balance of vitamins, minerals, probiotics, and a caloric pattern that mimics the content of a mother cat’s milk. This product comes as a liquid or powder mix, which you can pick up at the nearest pet supply store, feed store, or online retailer. Never feed a kitten cow’s milk, human baby formula, milk alternatives, or at-home recipes, as these can cause illness and death.
While picking up your kitten formula, you will also want to pick up a kitten bottle and perhaps an extra set of rubber nipples for feeding. If the nipple on your bottle does not come pre-cut, cut a small hole in the nipple on a diagonal angle, being mindful that the hole is not too big or too small. This is important because it will determine the flow of the formula while the kitten is nursing. To ensure proper flow, test the hole by turning the bottle upside down. The formula should slowly drip one drop at a time if the hole is the correct size. If it flowing too slowly, enlarge the hole… too quickly and you’ll have to try again with a new nipple.
Prepare Your Kitten’s Bottle Properly
Preparing the bottle properly will take the fuss out of feeding and give the kitten just what she needs. Make the formula so that it is fresh, clump-free, and comfortably warm. If using a powder formula, mix powder thoroughly with warm water according to the instructions until it is completely smooth (a smoothie shaker may come in handy for this) to avoid clumps that can clog up the bottle. If using a liquid formula, gently warm it by placing the bottle in a cup with hot water for 30 to 60 seconds, and shaking the bottle to gently and evenly warm the contents.
Before feeding, test the temperature on the inside of your wrist and ensure that it is comfortably warm. Refrigerate unused powder and mix a new batch at each feeding to keep everything fresh.
Feed Kittens Using a Safe Posture
Always bottle feed in a natural, belly-down posture—the kitten should be comfortably lying or seated with her belly toward the floor. Never feed a kitten on her back, like a human baby would eat, as this can cause the kitten to inhale fluid into the lungs.
Sit the kitten in your lap or on a table, holding the head steady with your non-dominant hand, and introduce the nipple to her mouth with your dominant hand. Invert the bottle so that the formula can slowly flow into the kitten’s mouth. Ideally, the kitten will make a u-shape with her tongue and latch to the bottle, suckling to drink the formula. Place a finger on her throat to ensure that she is swallowing as she eats. Never forcefully squeeze a bottle into a kitten’s mouth. Instead, let the kitten suckle at her own pace.
Feed Your Kitten the Right Amount, With the Right Frequency
Young kittens require frequent feeding, so be prepared to care for them around-the-clock until they are 5 to 6 weeks of age and weaning onto wet food. For the first few weeks of life, this will mean waking up in the middle of the night to feed. Small amounts of food every few hours will keep the kitten hydrated and provide the nutrients and fat needed for rapid development and weight gain.
Use the following chart as a kitten feeding guide:
Amount per feeding
Every 2 hours
Every 2-3 hours
Every 3-4 hours
Every 4-5 hours
Every 5-6 hours
(weaning; offer ample wet food)
Every 6 hours
This chart is simply a guide—not a rule book. Some kittens will vary in weight and development, so use your best judgment, or speak with a veterinarian, while keeping this guide in mind as a helpful baseline.
Monitor the Kitten’s Progress
Keeping track of a kitten’s weight is a great way to monitor her progress and ensure that she is making the necessary gains. A small digital food scale is perfect for weighing kittens, as it can display their weight in grams and give you a precise measurement. At least once a day, place the kitten on the scale and write down her weight in grams. She should gain at least 10 grams per day. If the kitten is not gaining weight or if she loses weight, seek immediate veterinary support.
Care After Kitten Feeding
Caring for orphan kittens requires more than just bottle feeding. You will also be tasked with stimulating the kitten to go to the bathroom, tending to her medical needs, keeping her warm and clean, and otherwise providing her with a safe and secure environment until she is old enough for adoption.
After feeding, wipe down the kitten’s face so that no formula is sticking to her fur. Gently rub the kitten’s genitals with a soft tissue to stimulate her to urinate and defecate. Do this at each feeding, being mindful to wipe up afterward so that she stays clean and comfortable. Once the kitten has been fed, stimulated, and cleaned up, it’s time for her to go back into her warm, safe space until the next feeding. Repeat until the kitten is 5 to 6 weeks old and weaning onto wet kitten food.
To learn more about how to provide well-rounded care for an orphan kitten, download a PDF on kitten care here.
Hannah Shaw is an expert on neonatal kittens and is founder of the rescue and advocacy project Kitten Lady. You can find more kitten-care resources on the Kitten Lady website.