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How to Bottle Feed a Kitten the Right Way (Vet Answer)

rescued tiny kitten hand fed with milk relacer from a nursing bottle

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Dr. Leigh Wilder (DVM) Photo

Written by

Dr. Leigh Wilder (DVM)

Veterinarian

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Caring for newborn kittens that have been orphaned or abandoned can be an extremely rewarding experience. However, if you have never cared for them before, it may feel overwhelming trying to get your bearings. A major component of newborn kitten care is managing their nutrition with bottle feedings. The following guide will detail the supplies, steps, and stages associated with bottle feeding kittens so that you can feel confident caring for your feline friends.

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What You Need

Before starting to bottle feed you will need to gather appropriate supplies, including the following:

  • Kitten formula: This can be purchased at pet stores, online, or through your veterinarian. Kitten formula can be purchased in either liquid or powder formulations and should be prepared and stored according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Bottles: Specific kitten bottles and nipples can also be purchased through the above-mentioned sources. It is important to note that you will need to use either a pin, blade, or small scissors to create a small opening in the nipple for the formula to flow through. A correctly sized hole will allow milk to slowly drip out of the nipple.
  • Heating source: A heating source (such as a heating pad) is essential as kittens less than 4 weeks of age are unable to maintain their body temperature. Without an external heating source, feeding will be unsuccessful as they cannot digest their food appropriately if their body temperature is too low. Place the heating source in the kittens’ cage or crate with either a towel or blanket on top, to ensure it does not directly contact the kittens. The temperature of the cage should be kept around 95ºF for kittens 0–2 weeks of age, and can gradually be decreased as they mature. There should be at least part of the cage that does not contain a heating source, so kittens can move away from it if they become overheated.
  • Scale: Daily weight checks are essential to ensure weight gain, and to calculate the amount of formula that kittens should be receiving. Kittens should be weighed at the same time every day. On average, a kitten should gain about ½ ounce per day or 4 ounces per week. A journal can be kept to make it easy to spot weight loss, which may indicate that the kittens’ nutritional needs are not being met. Lack of weight gain, or weight loss, is always a concern in kittens and should be further evaluated by a veterinarian.
a kitten hand fed with milk replacer
Image Credit: AdinaVoicu, Pixabay

Steps to Perform a Bottle Feeding

1. Warm the bottle formula

This may be accomplished by placing the bottle in a bowl of hot water for several minutes until warm. Test the temperature of the formula before feeding, to ensure that it is not too hot.


2. Position the kitten for feeding

Kittens should be flat on their stomach or leaning forward slightly while taking a bottle. Sometimes it is helpful to gently wrap a kitten in a towel or blanket. Kittens should never be placed on their backs for feedings as this may cause them to aspirate, and can potentially lead to pneumonia.


3. Introduce the bottle

The bottle should be held at a 45-degree angle to help minimize ingestion of air during feedings. The nipple can be introduced by gently opening the kitten’s mouth with a finger. If a kitten is reluctant to suckle, gentle but vigorous stroking of their head and back may stimulate a nursing response by mimicking care that would be provided by a mother cat. If a kitten seems weak, cold, or is uninterested in feedings, veterinary care should be sought right away.

bottle feeding a newborn kitten
Image Credit: clarissavannini860, Pixabay

4. Attempt stimulation

Young kittens require regular grooming by their mother to go to the bathroom. Therefore, stimulating orphaned kittens to urinate and defecate is essential, and should occur both before and after feedings. To accomplish this a warm, damp, cotton swab may be used to gently rub the lower abdomen, genital, and rectal areas of a kitten. Urination should occur with each stimulation, and defecation should be noted at least once per day. Stimulation to eliminate should continue until approximately 3–4 weeks of age.


5. Clean kittens

A warm, slightly damp washcloth should be used to gently clean the face and body of kittens after feeding and elimination. After ensuring that the kitten is clean and dry, they can be placed back in their warm cage or crate.

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Amount and Frequency of Feedings

Once you have your supplies and have successfully initiated a feeding, the next step will be to determine how much and how often to feed your kittens. In general, kittens should eat 2 tablespoons or 30 ml of formula per 4 ounces of body weight every 24 hours. While some variation may exist, the following guidelines for feeding frequency are recommended:

  • Kittens less than 2 weeks: Bottle feed at least every 2 hours
  • Kittens 2–3 weeks: Bottle feed every 2–3 hours
  • Kittens 3–4 weeks: Bottle feed every 3–4 hours
  • Kittens 4–5 weeks: Bottle feed every 4 hours

Weaning from bottle feedings may begin around 3–4 weeks of age. Bottle feeding should continue while kittens are learning to eat solid food, however, the amount and frequency may decrease as weaning progresses. Once a kitten is eating dry food successfully, bottle feedings may be discontinued.

How to Wean From Bottle Feedings

A kitten is ready to start weaning when its deciduous teeth have started to erupt, and they are consistently attempting to bite the nipple during feedings. This is a gradual process and some variation may occur from kitten to kitten. The following steps detail how to successfully transition a kitten to solid food:

  • Allow the kitten to lap formula from your fingers or a shallow dish. Once they can do this effectively, you can proceed to the next step.
  • Offer a gruel or slurry. This will be a mixture of warmed formula and canned kitten food. Gruel can initially be offered from your fingertips or a spoon, and eventually placed in a shallow dish once the kitten is getting the hang of eating. Between 5–6 weeks of age, this mixture should be offered roughly 4 times per day. Gradually decrease the amount of formula added to the mixture, until the kitten is eating only canned food.
  • Once eating canned food successfully, water and dry kitten food should also be made available at all times. It is important to provide water in a small, shallow dish, as a larger bowl may be a safety hazard for young kittens. Canned food can be offered around three times daily around 6 weeks of age.

Weaning kittens is an exciting, albeit messy time! Kittens learning to eat solid food often end up covered in gruel or slurry and can become cold quickly. Ensuring that kittens are staying clean and dry is an important part of the weaning process. It will also be important to continue weighing your kittens daily, to ensure appropriate weight gain during this time.

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Conclusion

From round-the-clock bottle feedings to their first bites of solid food, providing appropriate nutrition for kittens can seem like a full-time job. Once fully weaned, your efforts will be rewarded in the form of healthy, thriving kittens, ready to take on the world!


Featured Image Credit: Anca Popa, Shutterstock

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