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

By Doug Jimerson
October 16, 2020
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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.

What To Feed a Newborn Kitten

Newborn kittens should be fed a commercial kitten milk replacement. It’s 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. 

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),” she says. Strandell says to feed newborn kittens a formulated milk replacer. “Never use cow’s milk,” says Strandell. In a pinch, she says, you can use goat’s milk until you find the kitten milk replacement or make your own.

Kitten Milk Replacement

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 up as much formula as you need (reducing waste). “Dry formula is more cost effective, too,” says Strandell. She feels that dry formula is less likely to cause digestive upset in your kitten.  Follow the label directions carefully. Once you open canned or dry kitten formula, store it in your refrigerator. 

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.

How To 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 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. If the kitten continues to refuse to suck, use a syringe to very slowly and carefully start the feeding process.

Making Kitten Formula at Home 

Although using commercially formulated kitten milk replacement is recommended, you may not have any available in an emergency. Cow’s milk is not considered an acceptable substitute and can cause stomach upset, so 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.