Premature kittens, like premature human babies, often require additional care and monitoring to ensure they're getting enough nutrients and remain healthy. Be vigilant in monitoring their behavior and keeping up with their care while you revel in their cuteness: Take the entire litter to the vet for a checkup.
Create a nesting box for the mother and the kittens. A nesting box can be any box-like structure that the mother can easily get in and out of that is large enough for the whole family to stay comfortable.
Place a sheet, towel or blanket over the majority of the nesting box to block most of the light. Cats prefer to hide their babies; this will help the mother feel safe about the location of her premature newborn kittens.
Add an artificial heat source to the box if the mother is leaving frequently. Premature kittens must be kept warm, and the mother's body can radiate enough heat for this only if she stays in the box except to feed and use the litter box. Premature kittens may have little to no fur on their bodies and need a little more heat than fully developed kittens. For an additional heat source, use a hot water bottle under a towel, heat lamp or heating pad. Keep the temperature between 85 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit, or set on low -- too hot is just as dangerous as too cold.
Monitor the kittens' feeding regimen. They should be sleeping or eating for 90 percent of their day. They should also be relatively quiet during and right after nursing from their mother -- they shouldn't be crying. Excessive crying means they are not getting enough milk or that they may be sick.
Supplement the milk supply for premature kittens by feeding warm (95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit) commercially available kitten formula through a specialized feeding bottle anywhere from one to three times per day, depending on how much milk the kittens are receiving from their mother. These bottles are typically stocked next to the milk replacement formula at pet supply stores. The nipples are usually unpierced. With a sterile pair of scissors, make a small slit. Start very small and enlarge as necessary. To avoid choking the kitten, fluid should freely dribble from the nipple only when you apply pressure on the bottle. The milk replacement is sometimes called "kitten milk replacement" or simply "kitten formula." Follow this procedure if the kittens are not getting enough milk or if your litter has over five kittens.
Position the kitten on his belly on a soft surface, such as a towel or blanket, in the palm of your hand or on your inner forearm, facing away from you. If the kitten cannot hold up his head on his own, gently cradle the head in your fingers. Place the nipple of the bottle to the kitten's mouth and tilt it slightly so that the milk replacement fills the nipple. The kitten should automatically start sucking on the nipple. If he doesn't, gently tease the nipple back and forth to encourage him to latch on: A reluctant kitten will often grab the nipple as it's retreating. Alternately, place a small amount of corn syrup on the kitten's tongue to stimulate sucking. Finally, check the nipple hole size to ensure it has adequate flow.
Replace the mother's milk completely if she is not producing milk or if there is reason to believe her milk is infected, and always have her checked by a veterinarian if you suspect that her milk may be inadequate or infected. Total replacement feeding requires each kitten to be fed the total amount recommended on the milk replacement product every 1 to 4 hours for kittens younger than 2 weeks old; and at least every 6 to 8 hours for kittens up to 4 weeks old.
After the kitten has had enough, burp him gently and return him to mother for cleaning. If she's overwhelmed, inattentive or absent, you also have to help the kitten eliminate and keep it clean by wiping its anal/genital area with a warm, moistened cotton ball.
Start the weaning process at approximately 4 weeks old. Place milk replacement in a flat saucer or dinner plate and place your finger in it and touch it to the kittens' noses. Once they are intrigued by the taste or smell on your finger, let them follow your finger to the saucer.
Mix canned kitten food into the milk replacement a few days after the kittens begin lapping the formula on their own. Allow the kitten food to become thoroughly soggy before feeding.
Decrease the milk replacement in the canned kitten food mixture daily until the kittens eagerly and readily accept the canned kitten food.
- Premature kittens are prone to infection and therefore should have regular checkups during the first several weeks by a veterinarian.
With a professional background in gardening, landscapes, pests and natural ecosystems, Jasey Kelly has been sharing her knowledge through writing since 2009 and has served as an expert writer in these fields. Kelly's background also includes childcare, and animal rescue and care.