Raising newborn kittens is both challenging and time-consuming; it can be intensely rewarding and heartbreaking, as well. If you don't have the time or the emotional stamina to deal with the potential of losing kittens, you might leave the job to trained professionals. However, if your bleeding heart is ready to take on the challenge of stray babies, then go for it. Just make sure you can find a home for them all.
Birth Mother or Surrogate?
If the kittens are stray, yet being cared for by the mother cat, she will do the work. Just schedule a quick veterinary checkup to make sure everyone's healthy. Then, provide the mother cat with fresh water and food and monitor her nursing and attention to the kittens' cleanings. The rest is up to her.
If your kittens came without a mother, however, things are more complicated. Now you are the mother and must provide the kittens' basic needs to ensure their survival. This requires round-the-clock care, at first, as if you just brought home a newborn baby.
First Trip to the Vet
Your veterinarian should examine stray newborns as soon as possible. Litters from ferals can suffer from fleas and other parasites and do not have the natural immunity of vaccinated mother cats. Orphaned kittens may need immunizations as soon as two to three weeks. And, any kitten showing signs of distress—such as prolonged chilling, watery eyes, runny nose, lethargy, or failure to eat—should be seen immediately by a veterinarian.
Building a Nest
Next up on your surrogate to-do list is building a nest for your kittens. You can use an oversized cat bed with bumper sides or even just a cardboard box lined with clean towels. Either way, make sure your nest has sides so that the small babies won't tumble out. This also encourages the litter to stay together to generate the warmth they would traditionally get from their mother.
Since chilled kittens can die very quickly, make sure that the nest is located in a warm space in your home. For the first few weeks, you may have to provide supplemental heat in the form of a heating pad set on low. Wrap this pad in a thick towel and place it in the bottom of the nest. Make sure the nursery has an unheated section, as well. Instinctively, the cats will migrate to this section, should they become too hot.
Feeding Newborn Kittens
For the first few weeks, you will need to bottle feed the entire litter several times a day. Purchase formula made particularly for kittens, as well as kitten bottles and nipples, or an eyedropper. Follow the directions on the kitten formula for feeding by weight. Tiny babies will need as many as twelve feedings around the clock, so set your alarm for night feedings and recruit a family member to help. Bottle feedings can be performed in a comfortable chair with a kitten on your lap, wrapped in a warm towel. Situate him on his belly, and then present the nipple to encourage him to suck. Feed each kitten until they are no longer interested and have had enough.
At three weeks, the babies are ready to eat food from a dish. Place canned kitten food and formula into your blender and process it until it's the consistency of a thick liquid. Prime each kitten by putting a bit of the mixture onto your fingertip, and then lead them to the saucer. As the kittens start to enjoy their mush, gradually reduce the amount of formula in the mixture until they are eating soft, canned food as is. At this point, your kittens can also drink water from a bowl. But don't be surprised if there is a little water play before the litter decides to drink it.
Eventually, your kittens will graduate to a premium brand of dry kitten food. Since their tummies are small, offer them four or five small meals a day.
Nurturing Newborn Kittens
The mother kitten performs various tasks that both ensure the health of her kittens, as well as promote bonding. If you're the head honcho, these tasks fall on you.
Mother cats encourage newborns to move their bowels by washing their bums with her tongue. You can encourage the same elimination pattern by holding each kitty (put a towel over your lap first) and gently stroking its body with a warm washcloth. Do the same thing with its abdomen and butt. Soon, you will be rewarded with a bowel movement after every meal and will not need to give this assistance.
Grooming and massaging your newborn kittens replicates the bonding activities the mother cat usually performs. A soft baby brush or towel can be used to stroke your kittens down their backs, on their tummies, and to clean any dirt or defecation from their bodies. Soft-touch and massage help kittens adapt more easily to your presence and their new home.
Kittens take to the litterbox as quickly as ducks to water. Use a low-sided box for training—the lid to a shoebox works perfectly. A non-clumping, pellet litter works best for untrained newbies, as the clumping-type causes digestive upset if they eat it. Once the kittens start eating on their own, place each one in the box fifteen minutes after eating. Scratch the litter with your finger to show them what it's all about. When they hop out, put them back in a few times, then leave them alone. If one has an accident on the floor, pick up a small amount of poop with a shovel and put it into the box to show him where it belongs.