Bringing up a litter of kittens – health considerations

You have brought a litter of kittens into the world, either by accident or on purpose, and you are now responsible for their wellbeing.

You also need to ensure that your input over the next few weeks results in kittens that will make good pets for their future owners. To be good pets they need to be both healthy and have the ability to enjoy living with people.

The average birth weight for most cats is approximately 100 grammes, however it is normal for some pedigree cats to have significantly smaller or larger kittens, depending on the breed. Healthy kittens should double their birth weight in the first two weeks, then continue to gain weight steadily. It is helpful to weigh your kittens to see whether they are thriving and growing as they should.

These are some of the physical changes that take place during the first few weeks of life:

0-2 weeks

Kittens' responses are limited and revolve around temperature, touch and smell on the first two weeks of life. The ability to feel pain is present at birth. They are relatively immobile but can use a slow paddling movement to travel very short distances. During this time and up to three weeks the kittens are totally dependent on the mother's milk for nutrition and nursing is initiated entirely by the mother. Eyes will open at any time between two and 16 days but usually between seven and 10 days. Teeth start to erupt at about two weeks of age.

3-4 weeks

Vision starts to play a role in guiding the kitten towards its mother at three to four weeks old. Rudimentary walking appears during the third week and by four weeks of age kittens can move a reasonable distance away from the nest. The body-righting reaction is fully developed by four weeks. The ability to right the body in mid-air while falling starts to appear during the fourth week and is fully developed by the age of six weeks. Under free-living conditions, mothers start to bring live prey to their kittens from four weeks after birth onwards so this is also the time at which kittens normally start to eat solid food and therefore marks the onset of the weaning period.

5-6 weeks

By the fifth week kittens show brief episodes of running and may even start to kill mice. As weaning progresses, the kittens become increasingly responsible for initiating bouts of nursing. By this time voluntary elimination has developed, and kittens are no longer dependent on their mother to lick their bottoms to stimulate urination.

7-8 weeks

Kittens have begun to show adult-like responses to smell and visual threats from other cats. Weaning is largely completed by seven weeks after birth. By this time a kitten's ability to regulate its own body temperature is the same as adults. 

9 weeks and onwards

Complex motor abilities, such as walking along a narrow fence or turning on it may not develop fully until 10 to 11 weeks after birth. Vision continues to improve until 12 to 16 weeks.

 

Feeding

Normal kittens should eat or sleep for 90 per cent of the time for the first two weeks of their lives. Well-fed kittens have plump abdomens and appear content. If they cry excessively, are restless or very inactive, or have lean abdomens then they are usually hungry or ill. Newborn kittens get their entire nutritional needs (including water) from their mother's milk. The first milk is known as colostrum. It is produced for the first two days after birth. It contains all kittens’ nutritional requirements together with antibodies from the mother to help provide immunity from common diseases until the kitten’s own immunity develops. Queens produce approximately 125ml of milk per day. Supplemental feeding is recommended when the milk supply is inadequate. However, when the kittens have been orphaned or the queen is unable to feed them they will need total replacement feeding – see our information on hand rearing kittens.

Weaning your kittens

Weaning (the transition to solid food) should begin at around three to four weeks of age. This can be stressful for the mother if done suddenly or too early, and can also be stressful for the kitten as it starts to eat new foods, explore its surroundings and begins to spend time apart from its mother and its litter mates. A slow steady weaning will lead to healthier kittens.

Regular feeding times are recommended and are particularly useful as they enable you to see which kittens are eating well, and which may need further encouragement. Solid food can be introduced from around three to four weeks of age – special kitten food (wet or dry food) is always recommended as these have been specifically designed to meet the special nutritional demands of a young growing kitten. If using dry food, although the kitten kibble is very small, it may be sensible to moisten this with some water (or kitten milk) before offering it to the kittens to begin with.

Food should be offered on a very shallow saucer or plate so that the kittens can access it easily, and the kittens can be encouraged to eat by offering food on your finger or the tip of a small spoon. Initially, only a very small amount should be given. The kittens will also tread on the food in the saucer so it should be changed frequently. Over just a few weeks, the kittens will gradually consume more of the kitten food and take less and less milk from the queen.

Dog food and human baby food should never be fed to cats since they are deficient in a number of essential nutrients, and can be dangerous (and in some cases – such as where onion powder is included - even toxic to cats). Even proper adult cat food is inadequate for the nutritional demands of a growing kitten so only good quality kitten food should be offered and there is no need to supplement this with any human foods or other additives.

The kittens' growth should be monitored and healthy kittens should continue to gain weight steadily. Most kittens are completely weaned by six to eight weeks of age and should be fed according to their needs following the recommendations of the food manufacturer as a guide. Most kittens can actually be fed 'ad libitum', as excessive calorie intake is rarely a problem in kittens. Most kittens fed ad lib will eat every few hours, and small frequent meals are preferred. For a newly weaned kitten, if ad lib feeding is not used they should ideally be fed at least 4 times a day.

While kittens can be offered milk replacement or commercial cat milks as part of the weaning process, this is not necessary, as they will get all the nutrition they need from the queen and the kitten food. If the queen cannot produce sufficient milk for the kittens then supplementation with special milk replacer may be required and attempts can be made to wean the kittens slightly earlier.

Litter box training

A low-sided litter box (tray) should be provided from about three weeks after the kittens are born. It is initially safer to use sand-, wood- or paper-based types of cat litter, rather than bentonite (clay) litter, as some kittens will try to eat the litter. Silica gel litter should not be used for kittens under eight weeks of age.

Many kittens learn litter box training simply by watching their mother. However, if they do not, then stand the kitten in the tray (the best time is after sleeping or eating) and use one of its forepaws to scratch at the litter. Then massage the kitten’s ano-genital area with a ‘wet wipe’ or damp ball of cotton wool. This usually trains the kitten to perform as required. Leaving a small amount of soiled litter in the tray can act as a useful scent reminder.

Se our information on how to choose and use a litter tray

Worming and flea treatment

Since intestinal parasites (eg, roundworms, hookworms, and tapeworms) are common in kittens, all kittens should be treated with drugs to kill these parasites from three to six weeks of age.

See our information on worming your cat

Vaccination

The protective effect of maternal antibodies lasts for a number of weeks, generally six to eight weeks after birth. The kittens’ vaccination programme should therefore start from approximately nine weeks of age, although the exact timing and content of the vaccinations can be tailored to the needs of the particular environment, as determined by your veterinary surgeon. If you do not vaccinate the kittens before they go to new homes you will need to advise the new owners what is required.

See our information on vaccinating your cat or kitten

Neutering

Cats not intended for breeding should be neutered before puberty (at around 4 months old). There are no health, behavioural or other advantages to delaying neutering until after puberty (see our information on neutering your cat). Also, the mother cat is not neutered she can quickly become pregnant again, so unless you intend to breed from her again, talk to your vet about neutering here as soon as the kittens are weaned 

Recognition and treatment of illness in kittens

If kittens cry excessively, or fail to suck, they are usually hungry or ill. Common signs of illness include the kittens being cold (hypothermic), lethargic (weak), or regurgitating milk. Sick kittens respond poorly to their environment, they often lay separated from the other kittens, and are often ignored by their mother. They typically have either very empty abdomens from lack of food or very swollen abdomens from swallowing air. Since kittens can die very quickly, they (and their mother, if still present) should be examined by a veterinary surgeon as soon as possible to ensure that nothing serious is going wrong.

The most common health problems seen in young kittens are probably hypothermia (getting too cold), hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), dehydration, diarrhoea and constipation. Newborn kittens may die suddenly, or present as ‘poor doers’ and ‘fade’ within a few days. Unfortunately, the clinical signs of many kitten diseases are very similar and vague.

Congenital abnormalities

Obvious physical defects may be seen in 10 to 20 per cent of dead newborn kittens. Congenital disorders are present from birth, and can affect any body system. A common abnormality is a cleft palate although severe defects usually result in stillbirth or early death. However, milder disorders may result in fading kittens, or only become apparent later in life.

Infection

There are certain viruses that can cause kittens to become ill. Probably the most common are the cat flu viruses, feline calicivirus [FCV] and feline herpesvirus [FHV-1]. While in healthy kittens infection may be mild and short lived, weak kittens may develop more severe clinical signs or secondary bacterial infections. Treatment of viral disease in kittens is often very difficult so your veterinary surgeon should be consulted immediately your kittens show any signs of illness.

Insurance

You can rehome your kittens with 5 to 6 weeks free insurance which will give the new owners some peace of mind should anything happen. 

See our guide to cat insurance


There are the main health considerations when bringing up a litter of kittens – how well the kittens interact with people in a human environment is very important and the responsibility for how the kitten approaches people for the rest of its life as a cat can rest on how you bring it up in the first 7 to 8 weeks of life. Click here for more information on behavioural considerations in bringing up a litter of kittens.

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