With the right tools, formula, and patience, you can give a newborn kitten what she needs to grow into a healthy cat.

When it comes to feeding newborn kittens, it's hard to beat Mother Nature. A mother cat's milk provides everything a growing kitten needs to thrive. Sadly, though, orphaned kittens do happen, either when the mother cat dies unexpectedly or if she moves her babies to a different location and accidentally leaves one behind. That's when you need to step in and take over mom's job.

Luckily, orphaned newborn kittens can still eat with the help of kitten formula and bottle feeding. Through a careful schedule, a high-quality kitten milk replacement, and lots of patience, your kitten will be on their way to a strong and healthy development.

person bottle feeding kitten; how to use kitten formula to bottle feed a kitten
Credit: Nattakorn_Maneera / Shutterstock

What To Feed a Newborn Kitten

Newborn kittens should be fed a commercial kitten milk replacement, a product that performs the same function as human baby formula. You can find commercial kitten milk replacer for sale at your local pet store or veterinarian's office. It's best to stick to brands certified by the American Association of Feed Control Officials, which means the food meets the nutrition requirements recommended by veterinary experts. 

Carlene Strandell, founder and director of Smitten with Kittens, a non-profit, foster-based kitten rescue that operates in Tallahassee, Fla., says that feeding newborns requires two things: a bottle and kitten formula.

"You can buy a kitten bottle and formula at a pet store (or pet department in a big box store)," Strandell says. She says to feed newborn kittens a formulated milk replacer, which provides a complete and balanced mix of calories, vitamins, and minerals kittens need to grow. 

Kittens should never be fed human baby formula or cow's milk. Because kittens don't have the enzymes to properly digest lactose, cow's milk can quickly cause diarrhea, dehydration, and even death. In a pinch, Strandell says you can use goat's milk until you find a kitten milk replacement—but it shouldn't be longterm.

Choosing Kitten Formula

Commercial kitten milk replacement is designed to mimic a mother cat's milk and generally comes in two forms: dry or canned. Dry versions are easier to use because you can make as much formula as you need, reducing waste and cost. Strandell says that dry formula is also less likely to cause digestive upset in your kitten.

Once you choose a kitten milk replacement, follow the label directions carefully. Both canned and dry kitten formula must be refrigerated after opening and should be used before the expiration date. Fresh formula should smell slightly sweet. If there is a bitter or sharp smell, it's likely spoiled and should be thrown away.

Strandell also recommends using unflavored Pedialyte electrolyte solution instead of water for kittens who are sick or dehydrated. The solution can help provide the glucose and electrolytes the kitten needs, though you should be sure to check with a vet if the kitten appears unwell.

kitten bottle feeding schedule
Credit: Corinne Mucha

How To Use Kitten Formula To Feed a Newborn Kitten

Until your kitten can eat solid food on their own (usually 6 to 8 weeks), they'll need to be bottle-fed. As a general rule, newborn kittens should be fed less than a tablespoon of milk replacement every 2 to 3 hours. As kittens age, the time between meals and amount of formula fed each meal can increase. This chart offers a general guide, but all kittens are different, so be sure to check with your vet to see what formula amount and feeding schedule is right for your cat.

Once you know how much formula your kitten needs, it's time to feed. Here's how to safely bottle-feed a newborn kitten:

  1. Warm up the kitten. Before you feed a newborn kitten, make sure she's warm. Cold kittens will not suck. If the kitten's pads and ears feel cold to the touch, wrap the kitten in a towel and place it close to your skin to warm her up before feeding begins. Kittens who are two to 21 days old should have a body temperature between 96 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Warm up the formula. Mix the kitten formula and pour it into a bottle specifically designed for kittens. These special bottles are available at pet stores and veterinarian's offices. You'll want to use a nipple that's designed for newborns, and you may need to make a hole in the end of a new nipple before you start. Warm up the formula in the bottle by setting it in warm water (similar to how you'd warm a baby's bottle). You'll want the formula to be warm—not hot—to the touch, and the liquid should feel comfortable when applied to the inside of your wrist (about 100 degrees Fahrenheit).
  3. Feed the kitten carefully. Bottle-feeding a kitten requires a little how-to and a gentle touch. Start by placing the kitten on a towel with her belly down and gently tilt her head back with one hand. Then, with your other hand, gently introduce the nipple to the kitten's mouth. You may need to squeeze a little milk onto the kitten's lips to encourage her to suck. Never feed a kitten on its back, as this can cause choking. If the kitten continues to refuse to suck, use a syringe to very slowly and carefully start the feeding process.
  4. Clean up after feeding. Once they've finished eating, wipe your kitten's face with a baby wipe or a warm washcloth to prevent any spilled formula from drying on their fur.

Making Kitten Formula at Home 

Although using commercially formulated kitten milk replacement is recommended, you may not have any available in an emergency. Most adult cats are lactose intolerant and kittens lack the enzymes to properly digest lactose, so cow's milk is not considered an acceptable substitute as it can cause stomach upset. If kitten milk replacement is unavailable, in an emergency you can make your own using a mixture of karo syrup, goat's milk, egg yolks, and gelatin.