If you're caring for very young kittens who have been abandoned or orphaned — aka "bottle babies" — you'll need to be comfortable with bottle-feeding kittens. This guide contains instructions for caring for bottle-feeding kittens, with information on feeding, weaning, medical care, developmental milestones, and more.
Table of Contents
1. Warmth and bedding
2. Bottle-feeding kittens
3. Weaning kittens
4. Weight and hydration
5. Elimination and litter box training
6. Cleaning kittens
7. Medical care
8. Kittens’ developmental milestones
9. Loving care
Warmth and bedding
For their safety, bottle babies should be kept in a cat carrier when you are not feeding or caring for them. The kittens must be kept warm. Use a heating pad designed and approved for pets (such as a K&H or Snugglesafe pet bed warmer), wrapped in two or three layers of towels. The top layer of bedding can also be a soft fleece blanket instead of a towel. Make sure the carrier is large enough for the kittens to have an area to move away from the heating pad if they are too warm. Kittens will need the heating pad until they are 3 to 4 weeks old.
Cover the carrier with a towel or blanket and keep it in a warm, draft-free room, securely away from other pets. Check the bedding several times a day for messes. Bedding should be changed at least once a day or more often if the kittens soil the bedding.
A kitten’s ideal body temperature is 100 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. A kitten who feels cold and is unresponsive should be warmed immediately. Never attempt to feed a cold kitten. Place the kitten on an approved heating pad safely wrapped in two or three layers of towels. Turn the kitten side to side every five minutes. To stimulate blood flow, you may, ever so gently, massage the kitten with hand-rubbing. If the kitten does not respond within 20 to 30 minutes, contact your medical staff immediately.
Do not feed cow’s milk to kittens, as it does not have the proper nutrition for them. Cow’s milk will also cause diarrhea, a possibly life-threatening condition for young kittens. Only feed your kittens an approved kitten formula. Kitten Milk Replacement (KMR) formula is ideal. The instructions for mixing KMR are below.
KMR powdered formula for bottle-feeding kittens
Use 1 part formula to 2 parts water. A part is whatever you are using to measure with. For example, if you’re using a tablespoon for measuring, this would mean 1 tablespoon of powdered KMR and 2 tablespoons of water.
Formula that has been in the refrigerator must be warmed to 98 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit before feeding. Heat a mug of water and place the bottle in the mug of heated water. Never heat the bottle in the microwave. Before bottle-feeding the kittens, always test the temperature of the formula by placing a few drops on your inner wrist to be sure it is not too hot. Always wash your hands well with soap and water before and after feeding the kittens. Bottles and nipples should be cleaned thoroughly before each use.
When bottle nipples are brand new, you might need to cut a hole in the top. Cut an X in the tip of the nipple using small, sharp scissors. Or you can burn a hole in the nipple using a large needle. Heat the needle with a match and then poke it through the nipple tip. It might take a few attempts to make the hole the correct size. Once the hole is made, test it by placing the nipple on a bottle of formula and turning the bottle upside down. The formula should drip slowly out of the hole. If the hole is too big, the kittens will ingest too much formula too fast; if it is too small, they will have to work harder to eat and won’t eat as much as they should.
To prevent the possibility of spreading viruses between the kittens and other pets in your house, keep a “kitten gown” (a robe, sweatshirt, etc.) in the kittens’ room to wear during feeding and handling of the kittens. You can also wear gloves if you wish, and remember to always wash your hands well before and after feedings.
Because kittens under 4 weeks old aren’t able to pee or poop on their own, you’ll need to help the kittens do that by stimulating them before or after each feeding, or both. Using something soft and absorbent, such as tissues or toilet paper, rub each kitten’s genital area in a circular motion. (For more details, see the section on elimination below.) Keep records of their eliminations in case an issue arises. After a kitten has eliminated, weigh them before feeding. You should also keep records of the kittens’ weights before and after each feeding.
After recording the kitten’s elimination and weight, it’s time to feed. Never feed a kitten on their back. The kitten should be on their stomach in a position similar to how they would lie next to their mother to nurse. You can try holding the kitten upright swaddled in a warm towel or have the kitten lie on a towel in your lap. Experiment with what position works best for you and the kitten.
Turn the bottle upside down and allow a drop of formula to come out. Place the bottle nipple in the kitten’s mouth and gently move it back and forth, holding the bottle at a 45-degree angle to keep air from getting into the kitten’s stomach. This movement should encourage the kitten to start eating. If at first you don’t succeed, wait a few minutes and try again. Usually the kitten will latch on and begin to suckle. If the bottle appears to be collapsing, gently remove the nipple from the kitten’s mouth and let more air return to the bottle.
Allow the kitten to suckle at their own pace. If a kitten refuses to suckle, try stroking the kitten’s back or gently rubbing them on their forehead. This stroking is similar to mama cat’s cleaning, and it might stimulate the kitten to nurse. If this doesn’t work, try rubbing some Karo syrup on the kitten’s lips. If the kitten still doesn’t want to nurse, contact your medical staff immediately.
Kittens also need to be burped, just like human babies. Lay the kitten on their stomach, on your shoulder or in your lap, and very gently pat their back until you hear a little burp. You might need to burp a couple times per feeding.
A couple notes of caution: Do not attempt to feed a kitten who is chilled because it can have serious health consequences. Try warming the kitten as described above. If you are unable to warm the kitten, contact your medical staff immediately. Furthermore, young kittens might suckle on each other. If you notice a kitten doing that, you should separate the kittens because this can lead to many medical issues.
How often should you bottle-feed a kitten?
A kitten should eat about 8 milliliters of formula per ounce of body weight per day. The kitten age chart below provides guidance on how much and how often to bottle-feed kittens.
Nursing bottles are marked with measurements, so this is another way to know how much you’re feeding the kittens. Please note that some bottles use ml for measurement, and some use cubic centimeters (cc). They are the same: 1 cc equals 1 ml.
Using a kitchen or small postal scale, weigh the kittens daily to calculate the amount of formula they need. Keep a log listing daily weights and amount of formula consumed at each feeding.
If you are feeding multiple kittens, feed the first kitten until they stop nursing, and then begin feeding the next kitten and so on. Once you have fed all the kittens, feed the first kitten again and repeat with all the kittens. Usually one to three nursing turns will suffice. When a kitten stops nursing, they've had enough. A well-fed kitten’s belly should be round but not hard and distended. Smaller or weaker kittens might eat less per feeding and will need to be fed more often.
Watch a kitten bottle-feeding session
Nom nom nom ... Rosebud is ready for her lunch! In the following video, Best Friends cat expert Samantha Bell shares how she bottle-feeds her foster kitten Rosebud from the comfort of her living room.
Weaning bottle-feeding kittens may begin around 4 weeks of age. Start by offering the kittens formula on a spoon. Once they are lapping off the spoon, try putting some formula in a saucer. As they master lapping up the formula out of the saucer, you can gradually add a small amount of canned food to the formula in the saucer, making a gruel. Increase the amount of canned food slowly, adding more food and less formula.
Some kittens catch on right away; others might take a few days. To be sure the kittens are getting enough food, you might need to continue bottle-feeding them a few times a day until they are eating well on their own. Be sure to feed them what they need to be full, but don’t overfeed them.
Never force a kitten to wean. Some kittens continue to enjoy their bottle past 4 weeks old. This is fine as long as you keep a close eye on them and ensure that they’re not chewing on the nipple. Now that they have teeth, they could ingest part of the nipple.
Monitor the kittens’ stools to make sure they are tolerating and digesting the gruel mix well. If the kittens have loose stools, reduce the amount of canned food and increase the formula until their systems have adjusted. As the kittens adjust to the gruel mix and you are adding more canned food to their diet, you can also add more water to the formula mix. If you are using KMR formula, add an extra measure of water when preparing the formula. Instead of 1 part formula to 2 parts water, mix 1 part formula to 3 or 4 parts water.
As the kittens eat more food and less formula, you will need to have a bowl of fresh water available to them at all times to keep them well hydrated. At this time, you can also add dry food to their diet. Add some of the watered-down formula mix to the dry food to entice the kittens to eat it. Gradually reduce the formula and let them eat the food dry. Again, keep watch on the kittens’ stools to make sure they are tolerating the food well. If diarrhea or constipation persists with the change in diet, contact your medical staff. (Spoiler alert: There’s always some diarrhea when kittens wean.)
Weight and hydration
Weigh your kittens before and after each feeding using a kitchen or postal scale. Kittens should gain about ½ ounce every day or 3 to 4 ounces per week. By 8 weeks old, most kittens weigh about 2 pounds. Enter their daily weights in the logbook. If the kittens are not gaining weight or are losing weight, contact your medical staff right away.
A well-fed kitten should be properly hydrated. To test a kitten’s hydration, pull up on the skin at the scruff of the neck. The skin should bounce back easily. If it doesn’t bounce back, or goes back down slowly, the kitten might be dehydrated. If the kitten appears dehydrated, contact your medical staff.
Elimination and litter box training
As mentioned above, young kittens cannot eliminate on their own. A mama cat will clean her kittens, stimulating them to urinate and have a bowel movement. As their human caregiver, you now have the honor of performing this duty. Before and/or after each feeding, use a tissue or soft cloth to gently rub and clean the kitten’s lower belly and genital and anal area. The kitten should begin eliminating within a minute.
Kittens should urinate after each feeding and have a bowel movement one to four times a day. Do not continue to rub the kitten for more than a minute or so because this could irritate their delicate skin. Gently wash the kitten after they're done eliminating using a clean, damp, soft cloth. Record the kittens’ elimination type and frequency in the logbook.
When they are between 3 and 4 weeks of age, kittens can be introduced to the litter box. Use a small cardboard box or plastic litter box with just enough clay litter to cover the bottom. Don’t use clumping litter. Adding a used tissue from when you helped them urinate to the box will help them get the idea of what to do next. Put the kittens in the box, allowing them to get the feel for the litter. Natural instinct will generally prevail and the kittens will begin investigating, scratching, and within a few days using the box.
After feeding, clean any formula, urine, feces, or other messes off the kitten using a clean, soft, warm, damp cloth. This action simulates how the mama cat would clean the kittens. If more cleaning is required, you can use a wetter washcloth dipped in warm water to loosen caked-on messes in the kitten’s fur.
Do not use soap or pet shampoo directly on the kitten. If you must use a shampoo to clean the kitten, add one or two drops of shampoo to a cup of warm water, and then use the cloth dipped in this mixture to clean the kitten. Rinse the cleaned area with another cloth dipped in clear, warm water. Gently dry the kitten with a soft towel or hair dryer set on low and not held too closely. Do not allow the kitten to become chilled. Once the kitten is clean and dry, place them back in the carrier on the covered heating pad, which should be covered in clean layers of bedding.
Kittens’ ears should be clean and dirt-free. If the ears are dirty, gently clean the area with a Q-tip; you might need to dampen it in warm water. Do not use ear-cleaning solution because it could be harmful to the kitten. Only clean the outer area of the inside ear, just the part that you can see; do not push the Q-tip down into the ear. If the ears are extremely dirty or you see signs of ear mites (specks that look like coffee grounds), contact your medical staff about treatment options.
Kittens might have some discharge in or around their eyes. To cleanse the area, gently wipe around the eye with a warm, damp, soft cloth. If the discharge continues, is cloudy, or the eyes are gooped shut, clean the eyes as directed above. Then contact your medical staff for treatment options.
All kitten bedding should be washed separately from other household laundry using detergent and ¾ cup of bleach per load. To clean carriers and litter boxes used for the kittens, use a mixture of ¼ cup of bleach per gallon of water. You may add a tablespoon of laundry soap to the wash water. Do not use any cleaning agents that contain ammonia or are not approved to mix with bleach because this can cause hazardous fumes. Be sure the carrier and/or litter boxes are completely dry and free of bleach fumes before putting them back with the kittens.
A veterinarian should be consulted for kittens showing any of the following symptoms.
Do not medicate kittens without consulting a vet first.
- Straining to urinate or not urinating
- Upper respiratory symptoms: goopy/watery eyes, runny nose, constant sneezing, coughing, wheezing or labored breathing
- Not eating
- Change in attitude or behavior
- Hair loss
- Anything you are worried or concerned about
Kittens' developmental milestones
Kittens weigh about 2 to 4 ounces at birth. They are blind, deaf, and totally dependent on the mother cat for survival. Some developmental milestones:
- At 7 to 10 days old, their eyes start to open. Kittens’ eyes are fully open by 20 days. Their eyes stay blue until they are 6 to 7 weeks old.
- They will begin to play with each other at 3 to 4 weeks.
- By 3 to 4 weeks, solid food can be introduced, their first juvenile teeth are cut, and litter box training begins.
- At 6 weeks, kittens are well-coordinated, running and climbing and full of mischief.
- Kittens are ready for their first vaccinations at 4 weeks and spay/neuter surgery at 6 weeks.
Physical and emotional contact with you is extremely important for a growing, developing kitten. Early cuddling and gentle petting of kittens helps them to bond well with humans, allowing them to grow up feeling safe and secure with their human family. Playing with the kittens with a variety of toys will stimulate their minds and help them develop good motor skills.