Cats typically make great mothers, but on occasion humans need to step in and either help in the process or take over entirely if mama cat can't fulfill her duties. Bottle-fed kittens can grow into normal well-adjusted cats, but ultimately there's no substitute for being raised by mom.
A huge concern for newborn kittens is nutrition. Mama cat's milk contains the perfect balance of vitamins, minerals, fats and protein that baby kittens need, with the added bonus of antibodies that the kittens aren't able to produce for themselves for the first few months. A bottle-fed kitten should be given kitten milk replacer because it is the closest thing you'll find to mother's milk. It isn't perfect nutrition as it doesn't contain anti-body-rich colostrum, but it is the best you can do for an orphaned kitten.
If you're dedicated to taking on a kitten or an entire litter that needs mothering, you know going in that it is a huge responsibility. After all, there's a reason cats don't have jobs: being a kitten mother is full time and a half. Brand new kittens need to eat round the clock, every two to three hours, meaning you'll need to set an alarm for those middle of the night feedings. It's funny to think of holding a kitten up to your shoulder and gently patting her tiny back to get her to burp. Even though that's not quite the correct technique, massaging her on the back and belly is required to allow her to expel any gas she might have gulped in while nursing. You'll also have to keep her warm, help her potty and keep her clean. Mommy cats do all of this instinctually and efficiently without a complaint. That's one more mark on the score sheet for mother cats.
Kittens raised by their mother have the benefit of her brand of discipline as well as the advantage of being taught how to be a cat by an expert. Kittens who are bottle-fed and aggressively protected from life's every hazard, however, can grow up to be 'fraidy cats, tyrants who rule your household with an iron paw, or might be pleasant kitties who just don't know how to act like cats. If you're raising a whole litter of kittens rather than just one lone little one, the entire gang will do a fairly good job of teaching each other social skills and boundaries. They may not be the best mousers on the block, but they stand a better chance of being well-behaved than a single kitten who is hand-raised.
The Bottom Line
The absolute best case scenario is for kittens to be raised by their mother or by another cat who is lactating and can foster them, if she'll oblige. That's not to say that you should never attempt to foster a kitten or an entire litter if the need arises and you're willing. It can be a tough role stepping into a mama cat's shoes, but with quality kitten formula available at the vet clinic or pet supply, a stock of soft towels and a good alarm clock, it can be a rewarding experience. In the end though, even the best intentions can't take the place of a mother cat's care.
Elle Di Jensen has been a writer and editor since 1990. She began working in the fitness industry in 1987, and her experience includes editing and publishing a workout manual. She has an extended family of pets, including special needs animals. Jensen attended Idaho and Boise State Universities. Her work has appeared in various print and online publications.