By Dr Joanna De Klerk
Having a kitten in your house is much like having a new baby. Kittens require lots of care, especially if they are under eight weeks old. Maybe you’re only getting your new kitten from the breeder at eight weeks old though, which is great and will make your life a little bit easier.
But it’s so common to end up with kittens much younger than this. Maybe your female kitty has unexpectantly fallen pregnant from the local tomcat, and she’s expecting a litter? Or maybe you’ve found an abandoned litter of kittens while out and about?
In this article we will discuss how to look after your new furbabies from birth to more than four months; a time period when getting the right care can mean life or death for these little fuzzballs.
In weeks one to four, your fluffy little kitties will be exclusively drinking kitten milk (see our favourites here). If their mother is with them and they’re suckling appropriately, you probably won’t need to intervene. Most female cats are wonderful mothers and look after their babies excellently.
But if you have a litter of orphan kittens, then you need to take on that role of mother. Bottle feeding is not for the faint-hearted as it requires plenty of dedication and time. Kittens under one-week-old need to be fed every four hours through the day and night. At two weeks old, this can be extended to every six hours.
You can buy kitten milk in a powdered formula form, which you mix with lukewarm water. Cow’s milk simply won’t provide them with the nourishment they need, and therefore buying replacement milk from your vet or pet store is vital. You can feed the kittens with a syringe or feeding bottle very gently, ensuring they don’t breathe in any milk. This can easily happen if you force in the milk and can lead to nasty lung infections. When using kitten replacement milk, follow the instructions carefully, as giving formula too often or making it too concentrated can lead to your kittens developing diarrhoea.
Once they are three weeks old, you can start introducing a bowl of shallow milk for them to learn to lap from, although be sure to monitor that none fall in the bowl and that they all get their equal share.
After the kittens have fed, they need to be stimulated to urinate and empty their bowels. The mother would usually have licked them, but you can do this by using a warm damp cotton wool ball to rub their bottoms and tummy.
When kittens are very young, they usually have the heat of their mother to keep them warm, but if they are orphaned, you’ll need to make another plan. Heat lamps, warm (not hot) hot water bottles, covered in towels, and heating pads are all excellent options. However, remember very little kittens cannot yet crawl away from the heat source if they get too hot, so monitor the temperature carefully.
Around four weeks old, your little kittens would naturally start nibbling on their mother’s food, and gradually decrease their milk intake. This is the time you can start to wean them, although they still need some milk until they are about six weeks old. You can also offer a shallow dish of fresh water at all times.
Once they’ve mastered lapping up kitten milk replacer from a shallow dish, you can start offering a soaked or moist kitten food too. When choosing a kitten food, it needs to be highly nutritious and of excellent quality. Kitten food provides all the essential nutrients for growth, including the correct levels of protein for muscle development, and calcium and phosphorus for healthy bone development.
You should never try a homemade diet for kittens, as it is difficult to get the correct balance of nutrients, which in turn may affect your kittens’ growth and health.
Between four and eight weeks old, you should be deworming the kittens every two weeks. This prevents roundworms and tapeworms; which kittens are prone to contracting. In addition to this, you might wish to use a flea treatment suitable for kittens (such as a flea spray) to ensure they don’t have any fleas. While fleas can cause skin irritation in adults, they can result in kittens rapidly becoming anaemic due to blood loss, which can be life-threatening. Therefore, do not ignore the occasional flea.
Around week eight is when kittens can go to their new homes. So, if you’ve been fostering very little kittens, this might be the time you say goodbye. On the other hand, if you are buying a kitten, or rescuing a kitten from a rescue centre or foster home, this might be the time when you bring your new furry friend home for the first time.
By now, kittens should be eating solid kitten food with ease and don’t need any milk. Don’t be tempted to give your kitten milk as a treat, as it will only lead to your feline friend becoming fat. This should be avoided at all costs, as overweight cats are prone to developing diabetes. Instead, your kitten should have access to clean, fresh water at all times to meet its fluid requirement.
Between eight and 12 weeks of age, your kitten needs to be dewormed every month, which continues until she is six months old. This will ensure she doesn’t get worms, which can lead to diarrhoea and weight loss; she should be growing rapidly at this time in her life.
Flea preventative treatment should also be given to your kitty, but now she will be big enough to have spot-on flea treatments instead of sprays, which she will definitely appreciate. There are many different flea treatment options, and it is worth discussing them with your vet.
You should also consider vaccinations for your kitten, and around eight weeks is when she can have her first vaccine. There are a couple of options when you decide which cat vaccines to give, and if you think your kitty is going to spend time outdoors, you should ensure she has as much protective cover as possible. If she is going to be an indoor cat only, then it is fine to have a more limited vaccination protocol. The following vaccines are available:
- Feline flu and enteritis: This covers feline herpesvirus type 1 (rhinotracheitis), feline calicivirus and feline panleukopenia virus (MW-1). Sometimes a more limited version is available, without the feline panleukopaenia virus cover.
- FeLV: This covers feline leukemia virus.
While microchips are a legal requirement for dogs, and not cats, in the UK, you might also want to consider one if your cat is going to go outside at some point. Your vet can insert it during the vaccination consultation via a simple injection.
Between 12 and 16 weeks, you’ll need to take your kitty back to the vets for her second round of vaccinations. At this stage, she will have a repeat vaccination of what she already had. In addition to that, you can also have her vaccinated against rabies if you think you will travel with her outside of the UK within the next three years. Rabies is not actively present in the UK though, so it is not a requirement if you do not wish to travel.
You should also continue on with deworming and flea treatment monthly.
Once she is fully vaccinated, you can let her outside for the first time, if you wish. However, some people decide to keep their kitten inside until they have been neutered, which is also a sensible idea. When letting them outside for the first time, opt for a time not too long before a meal. This means they will probably not go very far and will come home for food after a short period of time. You can then gradually increase the length of time allowed outside.
Now she is over 16 weeks old, you can begin thinking about booking her in for neutering. Males can be neutered from this age, as long as there are two testicles present, and females are usually spayed around six months.
This is essential if your cat is going to live part of their life outdoors, as male cats roam more if they are entire, leading to road traffic accidents and fights. If they were to fight with a cat with FIV, it could be passed on via a deep would.
Females on the other hand will become pregnant from a local tomcat, resulting in unwanted litters, and more cats in the world than there are caring homes.
Neutering is simply a day procedure which is routinely performed by veterinarians. Your kitty might feel a bit drowsy in the evening, but the next day, she’ll be back to normal. Males don’t have any stitches in, but females usually do (but some vets will do them internally so you cannot see them). You shouldn’t let your girl out until the stitches have come out, which is usually 10-14 days, but your male can go back outside after a few days as long as the wounds are healing well. Try to prevent licking as this will delay healing and introduce infection. Your vet can provide a buster collar if your feline friend won’t leave their surgical wound alone.
Finally, remember to continue with monthly deworming and flea treatment up until six months of age. At this stage, you can begin deworming every three to six months instead. However, if your furry friend loves to bring you the occasional mouse or bird, then monthly is still best to prevent those worms!
Kittens can be bundles of joy, and a wonderful addition to your house. Providing them with the right health care and diet early on in life will give them the best possible start to grow up into a healthy and active cat, as well as live a long and happy life.