How to hand feed a kitten

Most people who have to hand-feed a kitten have to learn how to do it by trial and error. To some extent it is obvious, but even so kittens die because they aspirate milk and get pneumonia. It's actually very easy to bottle-feed a kitten, but people make mistakes because they are nervous of what they are doing. Words don't really help, so I filmed myself feeding a kitten when she was 3 days old. This is quite a long movie because it's not something you can describe in a few seconds, and as it didn’t load well on the website I have put it on youtube. Please do also read the text for pointers.

This is just how
I do it, but I've found it works really well, and I've never 'drowned' a kitten or had one get milk in its lungs. The kitten was about 3 days old in these shots - her mother had a c-section and didn't produce any milk because there was only the one kitten (not enough demand to make her milk start), so I had to feed, but the mother did everything else (including getting in the frame!). I think she produced tiny amounts of milk, as I didn't have to feed the kitten during the night after the first week or so. Fortunately another queen had older kittens, and once this one was strong enough they moved in together, with one mother doing all the feeding and the other (the mother of this one) doing all the cleaning up.

For milk formula I only use KMR from Kruuse (for more details of supply see the
FCK health page), as the quality of this supplement is better than any other by miles. WARNING; I have had some problems with hand-fed kittens getting dehydrated. If you don't notice this the kitten will die — they go floppy, sometimes they seem twitchy, then they just fade away. Some vets say 'ah, yes, fading kitten syndrome…' as if they know what they are talking about. This is ghastly. I had two kittens who looked awful quite suddenly: I was giving them KMR supplements as the mother didn't have enough milk. They were unresponsive and I reckoned they would die within a couple of hours. Just on the off chance I gave them sub-cutaneous fluids (though there was no reason to think they might be dehydrated) and they bounced back immediately: within 30 mins they were feeding normally, and both are happy healthy adults now. This was a worrying thing to happen. It made me look again at a previous litter who had to be hand reared as the mother was very ill: several kittens died for no good reason I (or the vet) could see. I now think they were dehydrated and could have been saved easily. It is heartbreaking to think about this. I suspect the formula for KMR is too rich, and should be watered down more than they say at first.

There are various key things:

  • Don't let the milk run out of the teat until the kitten takes it into her mouth. If it is very young, having something liquid dribbling into its mouth will make it choke and reject the bottle. To get the kitten to take the teat, make sure there is milk on the outside of the rubber which the kitten will taste when you put it in the mouth. Usually it only takes one or two feeds and the kitten will know exactly what is going on. Their instinct is to feed.
  • An older kitten may need to be reminded that this is milk, so you can let some dribble out, then the kitten should grab the teat and do the work, as this one does.
  • Watch the length of the teat and how much of it disappears into the kitten's mouth: when they are feeding normally they will suck the whole teat - over an inch in length - down the throat. If you wait until the kitten has swallowed the teat before letting the milk go, then there's no danger of getting the fluid into the lungs. One mistake many people make is to pull the teat away when the kitten lunges forward to try and swallow it. Hold your hand in the same place and let the kitten take as much of the teat as they want.
  • The teat needs to go straight down the centre of the tongue, and when suckling the kitten will loop its tongue around the teat.
  • I do this with a syringe at first, using the plunger to control the flow - a very hungry kitten is inclined to gulp and may choke.
  • When the kitten knows what it is doing you can remove the plunger (as I've done in this movie) and just use the container, or change to a feeding bottle.
  • In spite of the way it looks, I'm holding the kitten VERY gently and just directing her head to the right angle.
  • If the milk is too hot or too cold, the kitten will reject it. It needs to be slightly warmer than your blood heat. For a guide slip your hand under a lactating queen and feel how hot her tummy is!
  • You will nearly always need to 'burp' the kitten after feeding - hold it upright with its back feet on the blanket, and rub its back and tummy, occasionally patting very gently. A big burp is very satisfying! You can tell if they are windy if they crawl around crying after feeding, or go straight to suckle again, even though they are full (assuming you have a mother to hand).
  • Malnourished or very young kittens will do better if you mix the formula up with small-animal rehydration salts from the vet (Lectade in the UK). Without this a malnourished kitten won't be able to absorb the goodness and will stay thin and crying for food, despite having a full belly.
  • Warning! KMR formula is very rich and it almost always makes a kitten constipated. When this happens I give the kitten a very small dose of rhubarb powder (mixed with formula) last thing at night. Liquid paraffin also helps both with colic and constipation, and I would give just a tiny amount of this morning and evening (0.1 ml). If you try to mix it with the milk it can be a problem as it makes the syringe stick. This usually keeps the gut from becoming over-full and painful (see the Constipation health page).
  • Finally, I mostly now feed with a syringe with the plunger in. The kitten can suck the plunger down itself if the syringe is new, or you can help it with a little pressure. This is more natural than just free milk, as the kitten would normally have to suck quite hard to get milk. You can buy syringes cheaply in bulk online — use a larger one as the kitten grows and needs more milk. I’ve found that trying to offer a second syringe usually doesn’t go down that well, so I try to do the feed in one go. Warning: fatter very large syringes are much harder to control!