Proven Strategies

Three neonate kittens being held by person wearing purple gloves

Neonatal Kitten Toolkit

The very thought of handling underaged kittens tends to overwhelm many organizations. Their vulnerability, the time commitment needed to keep them alive and the fear of a poor outcome increase stress on employees already juggling many daily tasks. (Just seeing someone walk into the shelter with a litter of neonatal kittens can prompt an anxiety attack!) 

But we’re here to tell you that you don’t have to be afraid of neonatal kittens. This toolkit is designed to help any organization build a prepared, educated and confident team that will be more than ready to shepherd these little ones through the system the next time that box full of babies arrives at the door.  

It’s never too soon to prepare 
First steps in intaking kittens 
Keeping neonates healthy 
Housing babies appropriately 
Neonate feeding and care guidelines 
Weaning and litter box training 
Recruiting foster parents 
Additional Resources

It’s never too soon to prepare 

What to do if you find kittens infographic in English

Even if it’s not yet the time of year for neonatal kittens to be wandering through your door, it’s always a good idea to advise your community about what they should do when they find babies that appear to be abandoned. Best Friends offers infographics in both English and Spanish that you can download and share on social media. 

There are also a lot of great campaigns out there that stress leaving kittens where they are, like Jacksonville Humane Society’s (JHS) “Don’t Kit-Nap Kittens.” (The JHS webpage also includes the Best Friends’ video showing what to do when you find kittens!) 

It’s always easier to manage kittens if there aren’t many of them to be found in the first place. If your shelter doesn’t already do trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) and return-to-field (RTF; also called shelter-neuter-return or SNR), this is the ideal time to begin such efforts to prevent as many pregnancies as possible. Our Community Cat Programs Handbook can help organizations get started with robust TNVR/RTF programming.  

Once you do begin to get calls from community members finding kittens, you’ll want to have a basic list of questions ready for them:  

  • How long ago did you first notice the litter? If it has only been a short time, it’s OK to wait up to 10 to 12 hours to see if mom returns for them.  
  • Have you seen the mom cat recently? Sprinkle a ring of flour around the kittens so you can go away but check periodically for paw prints from a returning mother cat. If you have a wildlife camera, that’s also an excellent way to monitor the nest from a safe distance. 
  • Are the kittens in any danger and/or do any of them look injured or sick?  
  • Are the kittens crying or cold to the touch? This could be a sign that the mom hasn’t been around in some time.  
  • Is their nest messy? Mom cats are very fastidious about keeping their babies clean, so chances are if they are in a tidy location she’s been around recently. 
  • How old do you think the kittens may be? It is handy to have a kitten development chart available to identify key milestones (are their eyes open, are they walking, etc.). The younger the kittens, the more likely they will need human intervention if mom doesn’t show up soon.  

Collecting such information is helpful in determining if kittens are fine staying where they are or if they need help. In the case of the latter, this is the ideal time to convert the finder into a foster rather than encouraging them to bring kittens into the shelter. For more info on how to do that, see the section on “Foster parent recruitment tips and tricks.” 

First steps in intaking kittens 

Once neonatal kittens start arriving at your facility, the first 24 hours are critical to plan a path towards success. Evaluating the kittens’ age and health status are the first steps to take when they arrive. 

A newborn kitten requires much different care than a two-week-old kitten, who has different needs than a four-week-old kitten, so it’s important to correctly age kittens right away. Having a handy cheat sheet for those handling the intakes can streamline the process and remove any doubt in the steps to take during the intake exam. Alley Cat Allies and Best Friends have developed good guides with photos and details about each stage of growth. 

Evaluating a kitten’s health status begins with getting a baseline temperature upon intake. A kitten’s ideal body temperature is 100 to 102 degrees. If they are not within this range they will need to be cooled down or warmed up prior to feeding, as feeding kittens who are either hypothermic (too cold; temp under 98°F) or hyperthermic (too hot; temp over 104°F) can be extremely dangerous.  

Your organization’s vet will set up standard operating procedures around other critical steps in evaluating health upon intake for this vulnerable population. These should be written guidelines that are prominently posted in the intake area, clinic and kitten housing area.  

Keeping neonates healthy  

To cut down on disease transmission to these immunocompromised babies, limit handling to minimal key staff. Some additional tips to reduce disease transmission during their intake exam is to: 

  • Wear gloves during the initial exam and whenever caring for the kittens, and change them between each individual litter 
  • Sanitize the table and lay down a clean towel for each kitten  
    • Verify you are using a cleaner that will reduce most illnesses. A great quick exam room cleaner is Rescue Wipes by Virox Animal Health. Not only do they require only a one -minute contact time, they kill most virucidal and fungicidal pathogens.  

Housing babies appropriately  

Kittens under four weeks of age cannot self-regulate their own body temperature and ideally should be housed in a small carrier or a crate with a heating disc or pad placed under a blanket. NEVER lay kittens directly on a heated surface! 

Also place a small stuffed animal (nothing that their unretractable nails could get stuck in) and a nursing blanket inside the carrier to help them curl up with a “mom-like” figure. Commercially available “snuggle kitties” are another option, and they feature a heat function as well as a heartbeat to soothe orphaned kittens. 

While kittens between four and eight weeks don’t need to remain closed in such kennels, even once they are moved into cages those should not be located with the rest of the general population. (Although the AVMA Shelter Guidelines recommend that shelters place kittens under five months of age into their own location, if your shelter cannot accommodate this at least create a private space for those under two months.)  

  • For many shelters, this guideline may not seem feasible due to limited spacing but you may be able to convert an office or storage room into a neonatal ward at least during kitten season. Always choose the quietest, least-trafficked location; it is ideal if the room has a door that can remain shut. 

Neonate feeding and care guidelines  

Prior to starting the feeding process, gather everything you need so it is within arm’s reach. Recommended items are a scale that reads in grams, bottle or syringe and formula, wet wipes or warm washcloth, gloves or hand sanitizer and a blanket for the baby to lay on while feeding.  

Before you feed the kitten, it is helpful to stimulate them first to urinate and defecate as they will feel more comfortable when eating. Use a warmed washcloth, baby wipe (sensitive and scent-free) or paper towel and rub their rear end gently in a circular motion. Continue stimulation until they have finished.  

Kittens should ALWAYS be fed in a sternal position, meaning they are laying on their bellies with their head angled slightly upward, like they would be when nursing from mom. Feeding a kitten upright or on their back can cause them to aspirate, which is dangerous and potentially deadly. While some kittens do great with a bottle, others may prefer a syringe as their formula transportation method.  

Remember that patience is key! The National Kitten Coalition has some additional bottle feeding tips that can be utilized not only by shelter staff, but also by foster parents. 

Tracking your kitten’s progress is extremely important. A dip in weight, lack of elimination in 24 hours or a reduction in appetite can be early indicators of a health concern. A tracking document helps monitor changes and avoid any surprises.  

  • Tip: Get in the habit of weighing each kitten both before and after feeding them. American Pets Alive! came up with this handy chart and listed some recommendations that they utilize in their kitten program to ensure kittens can be kept on track.  

Kittens, unlike puppies, do a great job communicating when they are full. They will begin to turn their heads, avoiding the syringe or bottle nipple. It is common for kittens under two weeks to fall asleep while feeding from the bottle so just pay attention to when they stop suckling and remove the bottle at that time. If you guessed wrong, don’t worry, they will tell you and begin to cry out for the bottle again. If you are correct, they will simply continue to nap. To finish, it is recommended you stimulate once more then place them back in their carrier or housing location.  

Kitten U at the Best Friends Salt Lake City location put together a series of videos to help with each of the steps listed above. This link can not only be helpful for shelter staff but would also be a great resource to provide foster parents, so they aren’t second-guessing any steps.  

Weaning and litter box training 

Kittens should begin their weaning and litter box training journey around three to four weeks of age. The most common mistake is thinking that kittens may learn these things quickly. Some kittens have a hard time transitioning their eating habits and others may not grasp the litter box right away. These journeys take time and patience and if you don’t think your kitten is ready, it is OK to wait.  

Weaning is the process of transitioning kittens from eating out of a bottle to eating gruel, then wet food, then dry (typically by eight to nine weeks of age). You will know they are ready to start moving on to having wet food added to their diet when they begin to chew on the nipple.  

Wet food should be place in a shallow dish or plate, and you can even create a gruel by mixing milk replacer with it to help entice them. It is helpful to have this offered at each feeding, but do not force the kitten to only eat gruel. Allow them the opportunity to also still nurse from the bottle to ensure they are getting the right number of calories and complete nutrition at each meal. It isn’t until the molars come in that hard food should be introduced. More information on weaning can be found here

Litter box training is the process by which we get the kittens comfortable with urinating and defecting in a box. It is important to choose a litter that is safe for kittens as some may try to eat the standard designs. Shredded paper or pellet litter can help train your kitten safely.  

Make sure the litter box is low enough for kittens to climb in and out easily. A cardboard tray from a case of canned food works well and can be tossed and replaced frequently. When you stimulate the kitten for feedings, as they begin urinating or defecating, immediately place them in the box to let them finish. Give them lots of pets when the task is complete. More information on litter box training can be found here

Recruiting foster parents 

The easiest way to accomplish the goal of keeping kittens healthy is to get them out of a shelter environment as quickly as you can and into a foster home (or, preferably, to keep them from coming into a shelter at all).  

When it comes to finding foster parents, we may let our personal judgment get in the way in a quest for the “perfect” foster home. Quite often, people who find orphaned kittens will continue caring for them—we just need to ask. And we must trust that the public (who after all are the ones bringing kittens to the shelter in the first place) do have their best interest at heart. IndyHumane has created a foster-to-surrender program that easily converts finders into foster parents. 

When we are sending out neonates, injured animals, etc., it’s understandable to want to ensure they receive the best care possible so they can continue to grow or heal and reach adoptable status. However, it is also important to expand your program as well, which can be a slow process if there are too many limitations, such as requiring every foster home to go through overly involved and extensive training.  

Some easy changes to an application can be to try to include open-ended questions on the application to allow for conversations with the potential foster parent such as “why are you interested in fostering?”  

When it comes to recruiting and retaining, communication is key. This is important to not only help onboard people into the program, but to also help them understand your operational procedures. Some of the most common complaints from foster parents are that once they get the animal home, they don’t hear anything else from the organization and end up not fostering again out of frustration. 

If you don’t have one already, a foster manual is highly recommended. There are many ways you can set up your organizations’ manual and several examples from various shelters can be found here. Put the manual and any other information they may need in one location, either a physical folder or a virtual one through software such as Microsoft Teams. The folder should include copies of the intake documents, health tracking documents, a list of emergency numbers, the dates the fosters are due for follow-up appointments, and any other necessary resources. 

Facebook or another online group is not only a great way to communicate with your fosters, it’s a way to advertise and reach new foster parents. Forsyth Humane Society is a great example when it comes to utilizing Facebook to recruit fosters, and South Suburban Humane Society utilizes Trello to organize their fostering needs. This app allows fosters to view who needs foster care in real time and includes details about each kitten’s individual needs.  

So, what are some good tips to retain fosters?  

  • Trust your fosters and community members. If they are showing interest in fostering, nurture that and help it grow.  
  • Start new fosters off with easier cases. Let them get comfortable with the program and have a positive first experience before giving them a three-day-old kitten. As they continue to foster, allow them to take on more challenging cases if they are interested. 
  • Follow up with foster parents 24 to 48 hours after they welcome their kittens home to see if they have any additional questions or concerns. This is a great time to also remind them of any upcoming appointments and thank them once more for taking in the new fosters.  
  • Prep for the parents visit ahead of time (try to remember all their names!) and compliment their progress during appointments. 
  • If you do have to have a hard talk with them, communicate gently. For example, if you have a foster parent whose kittens come to their appointment with obvious weight loss and indications of diarrhea being present, try to open the conversation with “how are they eating?” or “Are they still eating a gruel mix?” or “I’m noticing signs that they may be experiencing diarrhea, have you notice anything different the past few days?” This is also a great opportunity to teach the foster parent how to identify if the kittens are having diarrhea even if they have not seen any piles (especially if they are giving their kittens free time in a space with good poop hiding spots).  
  • Let them advertise to potential new adopters. Supply them with the adoption applications so they know what questions may be asked and allow them to help in the process.  

Additional Resources: