Kittens are so wonderful! But they do take some special care.
Mothers usually begin to wean their kittens at about 4 weeks of age. By 8 weeks of age, the kittens are eating solid food. Older kittens who are still with their mothers may occasionally nurse, but this is more for comfort and reassurance than for nutrition.
In general, kittens should not be removed from their mothers until they are at least 8 weeks of age. Kittens seperated from their mothers at too young an age require special care. Exceptions to this are feral kittens who need to be removed from the mother no later than 4 weeks of age so that they can be socialized.
Do not give your kitten cow's milk - it can make them sick and give them diarrhea. You can obtain mother's milk replacer for young kittens at many of the pet stores in the area. We recomment KMR. When the kittens are 8 weeks or older, they no longer need the milk but may enjoy it anyway. Milk that has been specially processed for cats to consume safely is available from many local groceries.
Keep clean, fresh water available to your kitten at all times. The bowl should be low enough for the kitten to able to drink from it easily. Some kittens enjoy playing in the water and even tipping over the bowl, so you may need a heavy bowl. Place the bowl when it won't get dirtied by litter etc.
You can offer your kitten either dry food, canned food, or both. Be sure to choose food which is designed for kittens. They require a diet which is especially rich in protein, calcium, and other nutrients. Cat food that is for adults is not sufficient. Your young cat will need the enhanced kitten food until he or she is a year old. Young kittens need to eat every few hours, because their tummies are so small. I like to feed them canned food several times a day but also have a bowl of dry food available for them to munch on whenever they wish.
Young kittens need to stay warm, but their bodies are too small to retain body heat well. That is why they like to cuddle up together, or curl up under your chin or in your lap to sleep. Kittens younger than about 10 weeks need a warm place to be, such as under an incadescent lamp or in a warm, lined box or kitty bed. This is especially important if you have only one kitten.
Kittens will instinctively use the litter box as they get older, but their mother also helps to teach them. Make sure that a litter box with sides low enough for the kittens to get in and out is easily accessible. Use regular litter, not the clumping kind! Small kittens can lick themselves, swallow the clumping litter, and suffer dangerous blockages in their digestive track! Once the kitten is 3 months old, they can safely use the clumping litter. Keep the litter box clean - this encourages the kitten to develop good litter box habits.
Kittens will instinctively clean themselves, but the mother helps to develop this behavior too. You can help keep your little kitten by cleaning him or her gently with a damp washrag. Often they need to have their little rear-ends cleaned! This also helps to bond your kitten to you, since you are acting in the role of "mommy". They generally do not need real baths unless they have gotten especially dirty or if they need flea baths.
You can help your kitten become a friendly, well socialized cat by spending plenty of quality time with him or her. He will like be stroked gently around the ears and under the chin. Be sure to pet her all over her body, so she gets used to be touched even on her paws and tummy. They enjoy being touched gently by you and will grow to enjoy your smell and your voice. Speak in a low voice - they are afraid of loud noises! Oh, another thing - don't say, "shhhhhhh" to your kitten - it sounds like a cat hissing to them!
Play time is very important to a kitten. They learn to socialize, develop physical skills, get exercise, and have fun! Kittens have a great time playing with each other - rough housing, stalking, pouncing, chasing, and grooming each other. Young kittens don't know they are hurting you when they grab at or bite your hand, or run up your pant leg, so be patient and forgiving. If you have just one kitten, you will the focus of all of his playmaking attention! You can "train" your kitten not to bite or scratch by giving a high-pitched yelp whenever she gets too enthusiastic. This is how kittens let each other know that the play has gotten too rough. An idea which can help save your arms from scratches is provide what I call a "wrestle buddy" for your kitten - a stuffed toy or old sock filled with soft cloth or socks - that they can be free to sink their little teeth and claws into. Use it to rough house with your kitten and she won't become accustomed to using you as her scratching toy!
Your kitten will start to scratch at things at an early age. This is the time to start training her! Provide a small scratching post or flat scratching pad and keep it wherever she usually plays. Encourage her to use it by enticing her with a toy or with catnip. Gives her praise when she uses it, and give a loud yell ("CLAWS!) when she scratches the wrong thing. A loud voice is generally all it takes to communicate the error - don't hit her or squirt her with water. You can also start trimming her claws. Wait until she is sleepy and relaxed. Start by trimiming just a few of her claws, and don't force it if she starts to resist. Pet her and tell her good she is! She will soon get used to it, and it will become a lifelong good habit.
Kittens will need to be dewormed at least once and probably twice. The "worms" are typically roundworms or pin worms. They are passed to the kitten through the mother's milk. Your vet can give your kitten a dose of medication such as Strongit to kill these parasites when the kitten is 6 weeks old or so. This should be followed 2 weeks later either by a second dose of medication or a fecal test to insure that all the worms have been killed.
If after deworming, your kitten's stools are mushy, have mucus or blood in them, be sure to see your vet. There are other kinds of intestinal parasites, such as coccidia, that can infect kittens. These require different treatments depending on the parasites.
Tests for Feline Leukemia and FIV.
If you have not had a cat in recent years, you may have never heard of these new, dangerous cat diseases. Feline Leukemia (FeLeuk) and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) are diseases that attack the immune system, much as HIV does in humans. (Neither of these diseases can be caught by humans.) You should, if possible, have the kitten's mother tested for these two diseases. Typically the kitten will not get one of these diseases unless the mother has it. If the mother is not available, you can have your kitten tested for FeLeuk, which is the most communicable of the two diseases. You may want to wait for about 6 weeks after receiving your kitty to test for FIV. This is because the test may give a false positive result if the kitten has been exposed to FIV through the mother, but has not caught the disease.
Your kitty will need shots to prevent diseases, just as children do. The distemper vaccine typically includes protection not only for feline distemper but also some upper respiratory viruses. Feline distemper (panleukopenia) is a serious, often fatal disease that is easily transmitted, so don't delay getting this important vaccination. Your kitten should receive his first distemper shot when he is about 8 weeks old. A booster shot is then needed 3 to 4 weeks later. After this, your kitty will need annual boosters.
Rabies is a serious, fatal disease that can attack any mammal, including humans. In many locales (including Maryland), you are required by law to have your pet vaccinated for rabies. Your kitty should get her first rabies vaccination when she is 4 months old. After this, she will need a booster one year later. After that, she will need boosters every 3 years.
If your kitten seems sick.
You must be attentive to your kitten's behavior, because small kittens can fade very quickly if not treated right away. If your kitten becomes sluggish, quits playing, and sleeps more than usual, then he is probably sick. He may also quit eating, and this is very dangerous since his liver may then shut down. If you notice that your kitten has quit eating, you may need to force feed him (see next item). Of course you should take the kitten to see your veterinarian as soon as possible!
To do this, you will need an eye dropper or syringe. Mix some canned kitten food with mother's milk replacer, stirring to make a slurry (a blender works great). Fill the eye dropper or syringe, and place it into the kitten's mouth. Squirt a small amount very gently - he should swallow it with no problem. Continue to feed him small amounts. The amount varies on the size of the kitten, but underfeeding is better than overfeeding.
Recipes for Emergency Kitten Formula
The pet store is closed, and you have hungry kittens that need formula! Never fear!
In a pinch, the Cornell Book of Cats says that human baby formula can be used if made up to double the normal strength (human baby formula is normally not nutritious enough for kittens). As with the below formulas, please remember that any emergency formula should only be used until regular Feline Replacement Formula (such as KMR or Just Born) can be purchased at the pet store. None of these are nutritionally complete for the long term health of a kitten.
1 quart whole goat's milk
1 teaspoon light Karo syrup<
1 tablespoon nonfat plain yogurt (goat's milk preferred)
1 egg yolk
Knox unflavored gelatin:
Newborn-1 week 1 pkg
2nd week 1 1/2 - 2 pkgs
3rd week 2 1/2 - 3 pkgs
4th week 4 pkgs
Put goat's milk in saucepan, add gelatin in the amount above depending on the kitten's age.
Heat goat's milk/gelatin mixture just until gelatin is dissolved. Remove from heat.
Mix in remaining ingredients and refrigerate. It will keep up to one week.
Heat to skin test temperature and feed kittens.
8 ounces homogenized whole milk
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon salad oil
1 drop liquid pediatric vitamins (optional)
Mix well and warm before using. Keep refrigerated.
1 part boiled water to 5 parts evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon bone meal per 16 oz fluid
Mix well, refrigerate, warm before using.
1 can Evaporated Milk
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons Karo syrup
Mix all 3 ingredients well and kept in tightly sealed jar in fridge.
At feeding time mix 1/2 of the estimated feeding amount with:
Equal amount of boiling water
(once a day mix 1 drop of human infant liquid vitamins in each kitties formula)
If constipation occurs: add 1 drop of vegetable oil to each kitties formula no more than once daily till problem is eased. Test temperature before feeding (the combination of boiling water and chilled formula should be just about right).