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Premature Kitten Care
Most kitten rescuers dread hearing the comment; “I found a premature kitten.” One reason, the person behind the voice is usually in a state of high anxiety. If you don’t know what you are doing, the care of a premature kitten is a daunting task. Even when you do know what you’re doing, premature kittens can fail.
The reasons premature kittens are born vary; weak gene pools, malnutrition, disease, genetic issues and inbreeding. Intact cats let outside or roaming outside breed indiscriminately (another reason to neuter) the females can be mated with several times by more than one Tom. When the first litter is ready to be born, this pushes all kittens out- ready or not.
At birth, the mom cat will take the premature kitten out of the nest to save the litter from predators. New mothers may cannibalize the kitten. If the kitten is not nursing, his siblings will push him away from the milk bar; weakened, he will not resist.
Signs the kitten is premature:
At birth, healthy kittens should weigh 3.15-3.85 ounces. Their eyes will be closed. On premature kittens missing patches of fur will be visible, or they can be completely nude. Their exposed skin resembles a prune. Unable to move their head, movement will be limited. They will be unable to suckle. These kittens are fragile beings. Their welfare depends on you. What you do in the first moment of finding a premature kitten is critical. Always remember to support the head and neck.
If I find a premature kitten, what do I do first?
Is the kitten breathing? If not take a bulb syringe and gently clear the throat or mouth of any discharge. Still not breathing? Take a rough towel and gently rub the kitty to stimulate him. If kitten is still lifeless, cup your hands together, palm up. Place kitty in the palm of your hands, use your thumbs to gently seatbelt him in. Raise your hands up over your head (not to far) then in one quick motion swoop your hands down to about your waist. Repeat several times. If still not breathing get to the vet, unless you know how to perform kitty CPR.
The Warming Process:
Make sure the kitten is warmed up gradually. If he is ice cold, take a rough towel and rub the kitten gently to stimulate him as you are setting up the heating bed. Take a small insulated soft cooler (the type that carry six packs of soda) or a small box and put soft bedding that you have either nuked in your microwave (for about 30 seconds) or cycled in your dryer. Place the kitty down into warm bedding, and place the box away from drafts. Place a heating pad (on high) under the box or layer the pad with several thick rags. It will take about 30 minutes for the heat to get through the layers. While the bed is “baking,” you can take the kitty, wrap him up in a soft, warm towel and cuddle him to your chest. He will be comforted by your beating heart and draw from your body heat. Yes, he needs food, but without body heat he won’t be able to function. If he is cold; ears, paws or even the entire body- heat is the most important factor. Don’t place the kitten directly on a heat source.
Feeding the premature kitten:
Once the kitten is warmed, the second action is food. A premature kitten is not going to be able to suckle right away, so instead of rushing out and buying a nursing bottle, buy an eyedropper or feeding syringe instead. Dribble the kitten formula into the kitten’s mouth (very slowly small drops only). Gently massage the throat and stomach to persuade the kitty to swallow. Flooding the mouth with formula will cause the kitty to aspirate. You should never give cow’s milk to a preemie kitten.
If kitten formula is unavailable and you have access to baby formula, you can use this in a pinch. In order for it to be effective, double the amount of the mixture of powder to milk/water. Kitten replacement formula that contains colostrum Just Born Kitten Milk Replacer 6 is ideal. You will need to add ¼ cup more of boiled, cooled water to each feeding (no matter what you are feeding) or tummy upset may occur. 1-2ml per feeding is normal as his stomach is still developing.
Throw on some coffee and grab two toothpicks (for your eyes) because you are in it for the long-haul. This little one will need to be fed every two hours round the clock if he has any chance of surviving. Once the kitten starts feeding- here is an alternate recipe that will help kitty thrive:
Microwave for 3-5 minutes or until you see the yolk is completely cooked. Whirl cooled mixture in blender until smooth. Feed to kitten via eyedropper or syringe. Refrigerate leftovers but before feeding reheat in the microwave for just less than 20 seconds or until warm to the touch. Do not feed a premature kitty cold formula. (Remember the ¼ cup of boiled, cooled water to each feeding) Feed only warmed formula.
Record the kitten’s weight and keep meticulous records about the preemies progress (or lack thereof). Track how much you feed, when the kitty poops and pees so you can spot problems early-on.
Premature kittens are prone to infections. They should be kept separate from other pets in your home. Do not let small children handle the kitty. He needs to be left alone, kept warm and in the dark in a quiet, low-traffic area of your home. Keep him warm 95 degrees Fahrenheit. You can add heat with either a heat lamp, or you can use light bulbs overhead to generate more heat. A pet heating pad is ideal.
Stimulating a premature kitten
Pooping and peeing (stimulating) a kitten who is so weak and fragile carries risks. You cannot be overly aggressive; this is a light touch operation. You must wash your hands before and after handling. For stimulation, use a combination of warm tap water and mineral oil to prevent chapping and redness. Even a cotton ball can feel to rough. Stay calm, focused; sometimes when a kitty isn’t pooping when WE think he should, our efforts to produce this action can cause harm. If kitty’s belly is swollen, distended or hard and he isn’t pooping- see a vet!
Urgent Help with Premature Kittens
Problems can occur at any time with hand-rearing even healthy kittens. But premature kittens come with their own set of problems. They are susceptible to FIP and other diseases. URI are common as are digestive issues. Many preemies cannot swallow. Your vet will show you how to tube feed. Keep up the dribble method of feeding until you get to the vet. As to when to give up on the little one, no one but you and your vet can reach this difficult decision. But if your kitty isn’t thriving, is crying, thrashing, restless or lethargic and you can’t seem to find out why- it is likely the kitten is suffering. To quote authors Carolyn M. Vella and John McGonagle in their book Breeding Pedigreed Cats Second Edition:
“When life is critical, quality of life is just as critical. Living sick is not really living….”
A premature kitten needs to be touched, cuddled and loved. Keep your head about you and don’t let down your guard. This tiny one is in need of full-time care. But when they do survive, there is a bond existing between kitten and rescuer that needs to be celebrated. It is the joy of life.