One-week-old kittens are helpless; their eyes and ears are closed and they’re unable to crawl. During their second week, they’ll begin to move around and start to hear and see the world around them. Tiny kittens do best when reared by their mother, but this isn’t always possible. Sometimes mother cats become sick, die or abandon their litters for unknown reasons. Human intervention can help some kittens survive.
Leave Kittens Alone for Awhile
You may find a litter of crying kittens in your garage or barn and assume they’ve been abandoned. That may not be the case. Mother cats may hide when they hear the approach of humans or may be taking a break or seeking food and water. As long as the kittens are in a safe, warm, dry location, leave them alone. Check back every hour or so. Once you are certain that the mother is not going to return, remove them.
Make a Warm Nest
The biggest health threat to young kittens is hypothermia; they can’t regulate their own temperatures. Place a heating pad, on its lowest setting, on the floor of a cardboard box and place two folded up towels on top. Kittens can be burned if they have direct contact with the heating pad. Provide a baby blanket for kittens to burrow into. Install a thermometer on the side of the box so you can track the temperature. Week-old kittens need a nest that is around 85 degrees.
Keep Careful Records
Before handling the kittens, wash your hands thoroughly. Use a hand sanitizer or wear disposable latex gloves. Place an apron over your clothing.
Before and after feeding, track each kitten’s vital statistics. This allows you to see which kittens are thriving and which may need additional attention.
Remove a kitten from his nest. Wrap him in a soft blanket or piece of polar fleece to keep him warm. Apply petroleum jelly to a kitten thermometer and place it carefully in the kitten’s anus. His temperature should be between 98 and 100 degrees. If it’s lower, he’s hypothermic and shouldn’t be fed until his temperature is normal.
To weigh the kitten, remove the blanket and place him on a kitchen scale. Quickly record his weight and wrap him again. After his feeding is complete, weigh him again and record the second weight. His weight should have increased by the amount you’ve fed.
Feeding and Elimination
Mix commercial kitten formula as directed by the manufacturer. Provide 5 cubic centimeters of formula per every 100 grams of body weight. Hold the kitten upright. Never feed a kitten on his back; he could aspirate formula and choke.
Place one hand loosely around the kitten’s neck, supporting his chin with a finger or two. Some kittens are able to suck on a kitten nipple at one week; if the kitten can’t suck, use the syringe. Place it into his mouth and squirt a small amount of formula. Wait for him to swallow and repeat.
Week-old kittens can’t eliminate on their own; their mother stimulates this function by licking their bottoms. You’ll perform the same function by taking a damp gauze pad and swiping his bottom, tummy to tail. Place him on a paper towel and wait for him to eliminate. If he doesn’t, get another clean gauze pad and try again.
Some Kittens Thrive, Some Don’t
Fading kitten syndrome is common with young, abandoned kittens. Symptoms include:
- Lack of weight gain
- Inability to swallow
- Low body temperature
- Slow, ragged breathing
Fading kittens typically suffer from hypothermia or hypoglycemia. Hypothermic kittens feel cold to the touch and have body temperatures of less than 98 degrees. Warm a hypothermic kitten slowly by holding him close to your body and rubbing him gently through his blanket wrap. This process can take up to two hours; be patient. Warming a kitten too quickly can result in his death.
Hypoglycemic kittens have dangerously low blood sugar; lethargy or inability to eat are the most common symptoms. Dip your clean finger into some corn syrup and rub it into the kitten’s mouth. Continue every three minutes until the kitten begins to revive.
Kittens who continue to have hypoglycemic episodes or are unable to gain weight may benefit from emergency veterinarian care. All kittens should visit the vet when they are 6-weeks-old for an exam and their first vaccinations.
Some kittens simply fail to thrive and never gain weight. While many week-old kittens survive with round-the-clock care, others don’t. Sadly, some kittens just don’t do well without the care of their mother, and they die.
- NYC Feral Cat Initiative: Bottle Feeding and Care of Orphaned Kittens
- Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals: What to do and Not Do If You Find a Newborn Kitten
- Utah Humane Society: Bottle Babies Care Guide
Cate Rushton has been a freelance writer since 1999, specializing in wildlife and outdoor activities. Her published works also cover relationships, gardening and travel on various websites. Rushton holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Utah.