A little over two weeks ago I witnessed firsthand how severe the stray animal epidemic has become in Puerto Rico. After returning home from my college classes on a rainy weekday, I was greeted by seven small, starving and soaking wet kittens hidden under my father’s car, all of them alone and visibly scared. After listening to their weak cries with no mother cat in sight, I decided to take on the responsibility and rescue them… and boy, it was a challenge!
Seemingly needing round-the-clock care and constant supervision, taking care of this number of kittens became very difficult very fast. Luckily, after countless veterinary appointments, online research, and mostly patience, I learned some vital and little known facts that helped me properly care for these kittens as I prepared them for adoption. As cat mating season approaches, it can become increasingly common for one to stumble into litters of kittens without homes. If you have found abandoned, feral or orphaned kittens and wish to rescue and raise them before they’re ready to find their forever homes, here are some things I learned from my experience that you should know.
1. Immediate home care and first aid are essential.
The first moments when rescuing stray kittens are crucial because they can pave the way for a life-or-death situation. If you're committed to helping the newborn kittens and become their temporary surrogate parent, you'll first need to provide a safe, warm home, such as a box, small crate or cat carrier with plenty of dry and clean bedding. This temporary home should be placed in a draft-free space, completely isolated from other animals as to not risk them getting hurt. It’s important to keep the container covered with a towel or blanket; a small towel or cloth inside the carrier will also keep them cozy. It’s important to change the bedding of the kitten’s den frequently since soiled beds can be a breeding ground for dangerous and potentially life-threatening bacteria.
The kittens must be taken as soon as possible to the closest veterinarian or local animal shelter to examine their health status and age. This way, any noticeable health problems the kittens may be experiencing, such as skin lesions, crusty eyelids, dehydration, or parasites, can be addressed to determine the proper treatment.
2. Feeding techniques can vary with age.
For very young kittens, you'll need to acquire kitten milk replacer or powdered-formula and some feeding devices. Most pet stores or veterinary clinics have nursing bottles, but be alert to the fact that some kittens cannot suck the contents through the small nipple. You could have to actually squeeze the milk out for the kitten while having the nipple in the kitty's mouth. Young kittens will need to feed every couple of hours at first, so one will have to gradually build up time between feedings as they begin to eat more at each meal.
Different people have different “styles” of bottle-feeding. Kittens are most comfortable in a position like the position they’d be in if they were nursing from their mother. One of the safest feeding positions to place a kitten is on its stomach on a towel or cloth on which it can cling, as it facilitates their native feeding instinct and eliminates the risk of them feeding too quickly.
When the orphaned kittens reach about 3 weeks of age, you can start providing watered-down meat-based kitten food for them to nibble on. You should keep a fresh supply and not too much at one time. Once they start eating food as it comes from the can, you can leave out dry kibble for them to munch on, too. A kibble with good protein and fat levels is recommended.
3. Kittens need help with their personal hygiene—and it can get messy.
Very young kittens will need to be stimulated to eliminate waste during or after each feeding. This can be accomplished by using a warm, wet paper towel to gently massage the anal and urinary openings. Your kitten should immediately urinate and/or defecate. Afterward, gently pat the area dry to avoid irritation and infection.
As the kittens get older and more mobile and exploratory, you can provide a low-sided cardboard box with a small amount of litter for the kittens to get used to. It's generally an instinct for them to scratch in something for their elimination habits. Once they start urinating and passing stool on their own (generally by 3 weeks of age), you'll be able to give up that particular job of assisting them.
4. Socialization is crucial.
Emotional and physical closeness to you is as important to a kitten as is food and warmth. Hand-raised kittens have a deep bond to their owners and are highly loyal, intelligent, and affectionate, meaning that it’s important to pet, snuggle and play with the rescued kittens to get them accustomed to humans. This will help kittens to not only develop their motor skills but also decrease their fear of human interaction, which in turn increases their bond to humans and helps them cope with change. This is super important when the time comes to hand them over to their forever home.
5. It’s a challenging responsibility—but in the end, it’s worth it.
Raising “bottle-babies” is a labor of love for almost everyone who takes it on! Keep in mind, though, that it can be a difficult process and some things are beyond our control. Taking on an abandoned kitten is a wonderful and educational undertaking.
Though raising orphaned kittens is a long, arduous, and at times complicated process, when the kittens are finally ready to be adopted and are received with loving and open arms by their future owners, it really makes passing the struggle feel even more emotionally rewarding.