From choosing the right bottle and nipple to coaxing a reluctant kitten to suck, here’s how to help an orphaned or abandoned kitten grow strong and healthy.

By Doug Jimerson
October 16, 2020
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You know that old saying: “As helpless as a newborn kitten”? There’s a reason for the comparison. New kittens are indeed pretty helpless. And if a kitten doesn’t have a momma to shepherd it through those early weeks, he will need human help to bridge the gap. Especially when it comes to feeding. 

Bottle-feeding a newborn kitten takes commitment and patience, but the rewards are well worth the effort. In just a few weeks with the right feeding formula and schedule, you’ll see a helpless ball of fur turn into a fun, frolicking happy kitten.

What You Need To Bottle Feed a Kitten

To get started you’ll need several baby bottles with nipples designed especially for kittens, and some kitten milk replacer. (Note: Never offer cow’s milk to a kitten.) Most nipples don’t come with holes, so you may have to make a small hole in the end to allow milk to drip out. Kitten milk replacer is available in pre-mixed liquid form and in a dry powder. Both work equally well, but some people find the powder to be more convenient because you only need to mix what you need for each feeding. 

Before you offer your kitten a bottle, make sure the milk replacement is warm. To check that it’s not too hot, shake a few drops of formula onto your wrist to make sure it’s comfortably warm. Carlene Strandell, founder and director of Smitten with Kittens, a nonprofit, foster-based kitten rescue that operates in Tallahassee, Fla., says that the first thing you need to do when feeding a newborn kitten is to ensure that the kitten is warm. “You should not feed a cold kitten. A cold kitten is a fading kitten, and trying to feed them is just adding one more stress to their bodies,” she says. If your kitten’s pads or gums feel cold, wrap him in a blanket and/or hold him against you until he warms up.

How to Bottle Feed a Kitten

Once the kitten and formula are ready, set the kitten on his stomach; never try to feed a kitten on its back. Hold his head gently with one hand to encourage the kitten to latch onto the nipple. According to Alley Cat Allies, try your best to imitate the position a newborn kitten would use when nursing from its mother. Use your other hand to guide the kitten’s mouth to the nipple. Never force a kitten onto a nipple. The kitten’s tongue should form a v-shape to facilitate sucking. By holding the head of the kitten, you’ll be able to feel if he’s swallowing the milk. 

If your kitten refuses to suckle, you may want to try gently rubbing his face and head with a terry washcloth or an old toothbrush to simulate the roughness of the mother cat’s tongue. If the kitten still refuses to latch onto the nipple you can use a syringe to provide nourishment. Offer small drops of formula this way. Never force formula down the kitten’s throat or you could asphyxiate the animal by filling its lungs with liquid.

How Much to Bottle Feed a Kitten

Newborn kittens should be fed every 2 to 3 hours. Kittens who are 2 to 3 weeks in age need to eat every 4 to 6 hours. See how much to feed your kitten for every age with this feeding chart.  Avoid overfeeding, which can cause digestive problems. 

When your kitten is about 4 weeks old you can begin offering a small bit of formula on a spoon, slowly mixing in a bit of canned food to start the weaning process. Until kittens are eating solid food on their own, you may need to continue bottle-feeding several times a day to keep them healthy. During and after weaning, offer a shallow bowl of fresh water at all times.

Keeping a Bottle-Fed Kitten Healthy

Newborn kittens can’t regulate their bodily functions on their own (their mother helps them with that). To imitate the actions of the mother, rub the kitten’s belly with a soft tissue or a cloth after every meal until it pees and poops. Then, place the kitten in a warm, quiet place until the next feeding. 

According to Shelter Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, it’s also important to weigh your young kitten every day to be sure he’s gaining weight. Newborn kittens should gain 3 to 4 ounces a week and weigh approximately 2 pounds by the time they’re 8 weeks old. If your kitten is not flourishing or shows signs of crusty eyes or running nose, get him to a veterinarian as soon as possible.