Caring for Bottle Babies

Bottle babies are very young kittens who have been orphaned or abandoned.  They are incredibly cute, but are also very, very delicate.  It is very important that whoever provides their care knows how to do it and understands just how fragile these little ones are.

Warmth and Bedding

Bottle babies must be kept warm and secure.  They can rapidly lose body heat which may endanger their health.  They should be kept in a cat carrier on a heating pat approved for pets when you are not caring or feeding them.  The heating pad should be wrapped in several layers of towels so the kittens are never laying directly on the pad.

The top layer of their bedding may be a soft fleece blanket instead of a bottlebaby1towel.  The carrier should be large enough for the kittens to have an area to move away from the heating pad if they get too warm.  The kittens will need the heating pad until they are three to four weeks old.

The carrier should be covered with a towel or a light blanket.  Keep the carrier in a warm, draft-free room where it is secure from other pets.  Check the carrier and bedding several times daily and clean up any messes.  The bedding should be changed at least once per day, more often if it is soiled.

The ideal body temperature of a kitten is 100 to 102°.  The kittens should be checked several times a day to ensure they are warm.  Any kitten who feels cold or who is unresponsive should be warmed immediately.

Never attempt to feed a cold kitten.  Wrap the kitten in several layers of towels and lay securely on an approved heating pad.  Turn the kitten from side to side every five minutes.  If necessary to stimulate blood flow, gently massage the kitten with hand-rubbing.  If the kitten does not respond within 20 to 30 minutes, contact a veterinarian immediately.


Never feed cow’s milk to kittens.  Cow’s milk does not have proper nutrition for kittens.  It will also cause diarrhea which can be a life-threatening condition for kittens.  Kittens should only be fed an approved kitten formula, such as KMR.  Hoskins, which is a homemade formula is also a good option.

Hoskins Formula

3 oz. goat’s milk

3 oz. water

4 oz. plain, full-fat yogurt

3 egg yolks

The formula will be good for about 48 hours, if refrigerated.  If the formula is left out for more than two hours, it must be discarded.

 KMR Powdered Formula

KMR may be purchased at pet supply stores.  Use 1 part formula to 1 parts water.  You can refrigerate any leftover formula.  If formula is left out, discard after two hours.

Formula that has been in the refrigerator must be warmed to just above room temperature.  Place the bottle in a bowl of shallow water, then heat in the microwave for ten seconds.  You may also place the bottle in a bowl of hot water for a few minutes.  If mixing up a fresh batch of KMR powder formula, use warm water.

Before 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 each feeding.  Bottles should be cleaned thoroughly before each use.

When bottle nipples are brand new, you will need to cut a hole in the top.  Cut an X in the tip of the nipple using small, sharp scissors.  You may also burn a hole in the nipple using a large needle.  Heat the needle with a match, then poke it through the nipple tip.  It may 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 formula and turning the bottle upside down.  The formula should drip slowly out of the home.  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 may not 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 sweatshirt,babies a robe, etc.) in the kittens’ room to wear during feeding and handling of the kittens.  You may also wear gloves if you wish and remember to always wash your hands well before and after feeding your bottle babies.

Never feed a kitten on its back.  The kitten can ingest formula into its lungs and drown.  The kitten should be on his stomach in a position similar to how he would lay next to his mother to nurse.  You may try holding his kitten upright swaddled in a warm towel or have the kitten lay 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 bit, then try again.

The kitten will usually latch on and begin to suckle.  If the bottle appears to be collapsing, gently remove the nipple from the kitten’s mouth and allow more air to return to the bottle.  Let the kitten suckle at his own pace. If a kitten refuses to suckle, try stroking the kitten’s back or gently rubbing her forehead.  This stroking is similar to momma cat’s cleaning and it may stimulate the kitten to nurse.  If this doesn’t work, try rubbing a bit of Karo Syrup on the kitten’s lips.  If the kitten still doesn’t want to nurse, contact a veterinarian immediately.

A kitten should eat about 8 milliliters (mls) of formula per ounce of body weight per day.  For example, a kitten who weighs 4 ounces should eat about 32 mls of formula per day.  To determine how much to give at each feeding, divide the total amount of formula per day by the number of feedings.  For example, if you’re going to feed 32 mls per day and do 7 feedings per day (about every 3 hours), that would mean feeding 4.5 mls per feeding.

Nursing bottles are marked with measurements, so it’s easy to know how much you’re feeding the kittens.  Please note that some bottles use ml for measurement, while others use cubic centimeters or cc.  They are the same: 1 cc = 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.

Newborn kittens, up to 1 week old, should be fed every 2-3 hours; by 2 weeks old, every 4-6 hours.  Once they are 3 weeks old, they can be fed every 4-6 hours.  Continue to follow the rule of 8 mls of formula per ounce of body weight per day, as described above, to determine the amount of food the kitten should be eating.

If you are feeding multiple kittens, feed the first kitten until he stops nursing, 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, he/she has had enough.  Do not overfeed the kittens because it can cause loose stools and diarrhea. A well-fed kitten’s belly should be round, but not hard and distended.  Smaller or weaker kittens may eat less per feeding and will need to be fed more often.

Kittens need to be burped, just like human babies.  Lay the kitten on its stomach, on your shoulder, or in your lap.  Very gently pat his back until you hear a little burp.  You may need to burp a couple of times per feeding.

Young kittens may suckle on each other.  This is normal, just ensure they are not damaging the fur or skin of their littermates.  If the suckling is causing problems, you’ll need to separate the kittens.


Weaning may begin at 3 ½ to 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 formal out of the saucer, you can gradually add a small amount of canned food to the formula in the saucer, making a gruel.

Slowly increase the amount of canned food, adding more food and less formula.  Some kittens catch on right away, while others may take a few days.  To ensure the kittens are getting enough food, you may need to continue bottle feeding several times a day, until they are eating well on their own.  Be sure to feed them until they are full, but not to overfeed them.

Monitor the kittens’ stools to make sure the kittens are tolerating and digesting the gruel mix well.  If the kittens have loose stools, RM2reduce 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.  For the Hoskins formula, add an extra ounce of water to the recipe.

As 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 may 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 veterinarian.

Weight and Hydration

Weigh your kittens daily; preferably at the same time each day, using a postal or kitchen scale.  Kittens should gain about ½ ounce every day or 3 to 4 ounces per week.  By eight weeks, 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 veterinarian.

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 may be dehydrated.  If the kitten appears dehydrated, contact your veterinarian.

Elimination and Litter Box Training

Young kittens cannot eliminate on their own.  A momma 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.  After each feeding, use a warm, moist cotton ball, tissue, or soft cloth to gently rub and clean the kitten’s lower belly, 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 two, since this may irritate their delicate skin.  Gently wash the kitten after she is done eliminating using a clean, damp, soft cloth.  Record the kitten’s elimination type and frequency in the logbook.

When the kittens are between three and four weeks of age, kittens can be introduced to the litter box.  Use a small cardboard or plastic litter box with just enough clay litter to cover the bottom.  Don’t use clumping litter.  Adding a used cotton ball (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, letting them get the feel of the litter.  Natural instinct will generally prevail and the kittens will begin scratching, investigating, and within a few days, using the box.

A Clean Kitten is a Happy Kitten

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 momma cat would clean the kitten.  If more cleaning is required, you may use a wetter washcloth dipped in warm water to loosen up the 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, 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.  Do not allow the kitten to become chilled.  Once the kitten is clean and dry, place her back in the carrier on the covered heating pad, which should be covered with clean layers of bedding.

Kittens’ ears should be clean and free of dirt.  If the ears are dirty, gently clean the area with a Q-tip.  You may need to dampen the tip in warm water.  Do not use an ear-cleaning solution, because it can be harmful to the kitten.  Only clean the outer area of the inside ear, just the part 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 veterinarian.

Kittens may also have some discharge in or around their eyes.  To cleanse this 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, and then

contact your veterinarian 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, since this may cause hazardous fumes.  Be sure the litter boxes and carriers are completely dry and free of bleach fumes before putting them back with the kittens.

Medical Care

A veterinarian should be consulted for kittens showing any of the following symptoms.  Do not medicate a kitten 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 upon the mother cat for survival.  Some developmental milestones:

At seven to ten days, their eyes begin to open.  Kittens eyes are fully open by twenty days.  Their eyes remain blue until they are six to seven weeks old

They begin crawling at 1 to 20 days.

They will begin to play with each other at three to four weeks.

Solid food can be introduced by three to four weeks.  Their first juvenile teeth are cut and litter box training can begin.

At six weeks, kittens are well-coordinated, running, climbing, and full of mischief.

Kittens are ready for their first vaccinations and spay/neuter surgery at eight weeks.

Loving Care

adorablekittensPhysical and emotional contact with you is extremely important for growing and developing kittens.  Early cuddling and gentle petting helps kittens bond well with humans and allows them to grow up feeling safe and secure with their human family.  Playing with the kittens using a variety of toys helps stimulate their minds and develops their motors skills.


For even more information on Caring for Bottle Babies, watch the videos below:


Cat’s Cradle would like to thank Best Friends Animal Society and Maddie’s Fund for contributing to this post.

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