Caring for orphaned kittens

 

Each year a large number of kittens who are orphaned are rescued and find their way into good caring hands. Although taking kittens in is a noble act driven by good intentions, preliminary actions and precautions need to be taken.

Stray kittens could carry diseases and parasites and put other animals as well as people at risk. Kittens should be housed separately from resident pets. Any resident pets should be healthy, parasite free and properly vaccinated. Young children should not handle the kittens, and the car giver should wash their hands with a disinfectant soap each time following contact with the kittens. Have a veterinarian check the kittens as soon as possible, preferably prior to introducing them into the house.

Newborn kittens should be kept in a large, warm box (use a heating pad or a sock filled with warm rice). Many kittens do not urinate and defecate on their own (when they are less than 2 weeks old) and they will need to be stimulated by rubbing their hinds with a warm wet towel. They should also be cleaned and brushed daily. 

Use a warm kitten milk replacement formula like KMR in either liquid or powder form. Small portions should be prepared for each meal. Do not use any formula after twenty-four hours (even refrigerated) as they easily grow bacteria and may cause diarrhea and disease. If you use powder, prepare only the portion for immediate use. If you use cans, divide the can into daily portions and freeze them for later use. Use a special feeding bottle and start with about half a tablespoon every three to four hours.  Neonate kittens are not completely developed. At about a week of age the ear canals open, then at about two weeks the eyes will open and appear blue. They later gradually evolve assuming the mature form and color. Healthy kittens have nice pink noses and pads (if they are light colored). They are energetic and do not cry a lot. Like babies, they spend much of their time sleeping, and gradually become more and more active.

At two months of age they turn into "fire devils". Feeding amounts and intervals should gradually increase. At about four to five weeks of age they eat about three tablespoons every eight hours. At this point weaning should be done gradually, using gruel of warmed canned food mixed with water in a flat plate. Over the next two weeks, increase the thickness of the food and decrease the formula feeding. Kittens usually will start eating the food and won't need any formula by the time they are six to seven weeks. As they become active, kittens will wonder around and use the litter box with a little help and training. At eight weeks of age, they are basically self-sufficient and need no further assistance in the "kitchen" or the "bathroom".

Kittens often get sick. They have an immature immune system and their ability to fight diseases depends largely on the health and immunity of their mothers. There is a variety of diseases that can be passed on to kittens from their mothers.     Parasites such as round worms can be passed in the uterus, in the milk and via fecal contamination. Other intestinal parasites like Giardia and Coccidia may by passed onto the kitten in the feces and cause serious health problems. Intestinal parasites can cause severe diarrhea, systemic illnesses and malnutrition. Some parasites also pose risk to people and caregivers should exercise proper hygiene regiments.  

Sick kittens with diarrhea and vomiting should be treated aggressively as they quickly dehydrate and die. Debilitated kittens are not able to effectively combat diseases and often succumb to complications of secondary bacterial infections and massive parasite overload. External parasites such as fleas, ear mites and others are extremely common in kittens. Heavy flea infestation can cause severe, life threatening anemia. They can also easily spread all over the house. Every kitten as well as the mother should be checked by the veterinarian and treated for internal and external parasites. 

Viral and bacterial diseases that affect kittens include upper respiratory viruses, Feline distemper, Feline leukemia and Feline infectious peritonitis. Upper respiratory infections cause nasal and ocular discharge, sneezing, coughing, anorexia and eye injuries. Many of these diseases can become chronic and persist for life. Some of the viruses like the Herpes virus stay in the body forever and flare-up from time to time. It is important to vaccinate kittens for these diseases starting at six to eight weeks of age. Sick kittens need veterinary care, which varies depending on the severity of the disease. Feline leukemia and Feline infectious peritonitis are fatal diseases that can devastate entire households. 

Kittens may be affected by diseases without showing evident signs of illness. It is imperative to visit the veterinarian and run all necessary diagnostic tests to verify the health status of the kitten as soon as possible. Also remember that premature exposure of the new kitten to other household members may result in serious and sometimes irreversible damage.

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