Mother's milk is the best food for kittens, but sometimes it's not available. The mother cat might reject her kittens or be unable to produce milk. Perhaps you've found a little kitten and quickly need to find good nourishment for him. Kitten formulas can fill the bill.
You can find kitten milk replacers at pet stores, veterinary clinics and possibly the supermarket. These commercially made formulas contain the ingredients needed by kittens' growing bodies and are manufactured to replicate cat milk as much as possible. Look for a formula that includes a minimum of 36 percent crude protein and 40 percent crude fat, approximately the amount of protein and fat a kitten receives in mother's milk. It should also include colostrum, which newborn kittens need to receive protective antibodies. Other ingredients to look for on a label are taurine for eye and cardiac development, vitamins, minerals and microbials to establish "good" bacteria in the kitten's intestinal tract.
In addition to kitten formula, you'll also need a nursing bottle to feed kittens just a few weeks old, or eyedroppers to feed newborns and tiny babies. With most commercial kitten formulas, you add water to the powdered mix, generally enough to last for 24 hours. Prepared formula more than 24 hours old usually should be thrown out to avoid bacteria growth, although the amount of time a prepared formula is good is listed on the package.
It never fails. You discover a needy kitten late at the night when the stores are closed, or in the middle of a blizzard, hurricane or some other weather event that has you temporarily housebound. Until you can purchase commercial formula, there's a standby you can concoct out of materials you might have around the house. Avoid giving kittens cow's milk, although you can use evaporated milk if it's the only alternative. Goat's milk is the better choice, but the odds are you don't have it around. Vetinfo's evaporated milk formula contains 4 ounces of evaporated milk; 4 ounces of boiled, cooled water; one tablespoon fat mayonnaise; one teaspoon corn syrup and a fish oil capsule. If you don't have all these ingredients, use 1 ounce of condensed milk, 1 ounce of water, an egg yolk and an ounce of plain yogurt. Vetinfo advises microwaving the mixture for one minute, then allowing it to cool before feeding kittens.
Feeding kittens requires a great deal of time and effort. Newborns nurse every couple of hours or more, while kittens up to three weeks of age need feeding at least every four hours. Once kittens are approximately 3 weeks old, you can mix a little dry, mashed-up commercial kitten food in with the formula. Gradually increase the kitten food while cutting back on the kitten formula, so that by the time kitty is 6 weeks old he's eating dry and canned kitten food and no longer needs his bottle.
When feeding kittens, let them nurse upright on their tummies, the way they would if they were getting milk from mommy. Underfeeding and overfeeding are both bad -- your vet should be able to recommend how much formula to give a kitten at a particular age. After kitty eats, you'll have to play the role of mother cat to get him to pee and poop. Gently massage kitty's urinary area and anus with a warm washcloth. His real mom would use her rough tongue on these areas to make kitty "do his business." By the time kittens are a month old, they can be introduced to the litter box.
If you don't have the time or ability to consistently feed a young kitten, ask your vet or local animal shelter if they know of a nursing mother cat who might take him on. If she accepts him, that's probably the best alternative for a motherless kitten. Not only will she feed him, but he'll learn socialization from her and his foster siblings.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.