Very young kittens who are too young to be weaned are called neonates. There has been some changes over the past decade or so about how some animal control facilities or shelters deal with the problem of orphaned kittens who are too young to eat on their own.
It's hard to believe that anything having to do with kittens would be controversial. They are so doggone cute ... but a controversy stems from policies over how to handle neonates that come into a shelter or animal control agency. If the kittens are orphaned, they need to be bottle-fed. This means extra staff time or farming the litter out to a foster home. In some places, finding foster moms willing to put the time and effort into neonates isn't a problem, but in large urban animal control agencies it can be. But that's not the only problem with neonates.
Even if you find a willing volunteer who will take on the responsibility of raising orphaned neonatal kittens, there are other considerations. For instance, there's a technique to feeding and cleaning kittens. These kittens are too young to eat on their own so they have to be bottle-fed with a warm kitten milk replacement formula. The kittens also need to be kept warm and clean. The kitten's genitals need stimulation in order to function in the beginning. The mother cat would perform this service with her sandpapery tongue, but humans use a moist cotton ball. Getting enough nutrition at this tender age is a challenge, but even if you can get all the milk replacement into the newborn kitten, there's still more to consider.
Nutrition and Immunization
Kittens and puppies should ideally stay with their mothers for at least eight weeks so they can get the full benefit of the mothers' milk, which contains important antibodies. This is the rationale behind many state laws that prohibit the sale or adoption of animals under the age of eight weeks. The mother cat's milk not only provides all the protein, fat and vitamins a kitten needs to grow strong and healthy, but also the elements necessary to build a strong immune system. Mother's milk contains colostrum, a nutrient-rich substance that carries with it all the immunity a healthy mother cat has built up. Normally, the colostrum phases out by about the third or fourth day of nursing, so if you have kittens over the age of a few days, they may have gotten at least some of the benefit. But a full eight weeks of nursing will help the kitten grow strong and healthy, benefiting from the natural antibodies and high nutrition delivered through nursing. Replacement formula can and does replace some of the nutrition needed but it's never as good as the real thing.
Finally, there's the problem of socializing very young kittens. In most cases, this works out well if the kittens have been handled a lot during the first eight weeks of life. In some cases, however, it doesn't. Mother cats know just how to discipline their kittens to teach them how to be in the world. If kittens bite or scratch too hard, mom knows how to mete out the right punishment to teach them not to do that again. Since humans can't replicate that behavior exactly, the neonate kittens can grow up thinking it's OK to bite and scratch others. Also, kittens need touch and interaction. The mother cat and litter stay together almost without pause while kittens are nursing. But a surrogate mother has other duties and cannot possibly spend every waking moment with a kitten. Without enough mental stimulation, the kitten will never be as well socialized as he could have been. Having other kittens around is helpful, but not perfect. Neonatal kittens raised by foster parents sometimes have a plethora of emotional, mental and physical health problems throughout their lives. If kittens are from a feral mother, this problem could be exacerbated.
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.