Written by Tania Waterhouse
Discovering an orphaned or abandoned kitten, and deciding to hand-raise the little one can be a rewarding, yet daunting undertaking. Finding out that the kitten may be premature can leave you feeling even more anxious and wondering whether you'll be able to care for this tiny, fragile being.
How can I tell if a kitten is premature?
There are several things to look for if you suspect a kitten is premature:
- Very low weight. A full-term newborn kitten weighs 3.3-3.7 ounces (91-105 grams). Anything lower than approximately 3.1 ounces (87 grams) is considered a low birth weight in kittens. Live premature kittens can weigh as little as 2 ounces (57 grams), although these extremely tiny kittens do not often survive.
- Very small body size.
- Wrinkled skin.
- Sparse or no fur on the chest, abdomen, legs and sometimes over the whole body.
- May not be able to hold head up or crawl.
Can a premature kitten survive?
Yes, it is sometimes possible to successfully hand-raise a premature kitten. Having said that, looking after premature kittens is very time consuming and can be heartbreaking at times. These little beings are at a disadvantage from the moment they are born. Premature kittens are a real challenge to take care of and often don’t survive, despite the best of care.
What is different about premature kittens?
These kittens are very fragile and prone to infection. They gain weight, grow and develop more slowly than full-term kittens and will take longer to reach milestones such as opening their eyes, sitting up and walking. Premature kittens need to be kept warmer than full-term kittens. Their internal organs are often underdeveloped, as they haven’t had a chance to finish forming in the safety of the mother-cat’s womb. This is especially significant in the digestive system, which means that premature kittens often have problems digesting their food and having bowel movements.
How do I care for a premature kitten?
As well as following the advice about caring for newborn kittens, there are several things you must do when caring for a premature kitten. Remember, for every day that a kitten is premature, it is equivalent to one week in a premature human infant. For example, a kitten that is ten days premature is equivalent to a human baby being born at 30 weeks - 10 weeks premature.
Premature kittens need to be kept warmer than full term kittens:
Birth to 3 weeks: 95 degrees (35C)
3-4 weeks: 85 degrees (30C)
Over 4 weeks: 80 degrees (27C)
Because these kittens need to be kept very warm, it is important that they stay well hydrated. Give 1ml of boiled, cooled water after every feed using a syringe (without the needle), feeding slowly. Increase this to 1½ml at 10 days.
A premature kitten requires feeding as often as every 1-2 hours in his first week to ten days of life. This can be very tiring but it is the only way to ensure that the kitten receives the nutrition he needs. His formula needs to be diluted, as his immature digestive system cannot yet handle full-strength formula. Make up the formula as directed and then add another ¼ of the amount of boiled, cooled water to dilute the formula. The kitten will take only 1-2ml per feed, as his stomach is very small. As he grows, he will take a little more formula at each feed.
Often, premature kittens are too weak to feed or haven’t learnt how to swallow yet. Please go to this link and scroll to the bottom of the page to find out what to do in this situation.
Premature kittens sometimes experience problems having bowel motions, as their bowels are often underdeveloped and uncoordinated. Just as with full-term kittens, premature kittens should have a bowel motion at least once every two days. Sometimes, even a cotton ball can be too rough for the delicate skin around his bottom. Instead, get a small stream of warm water going at the sink, place his bottom in the stream and using your other hand, stimulate him with the index finger. Make sure your nails are short. Sometimes kittens will not produce a bowel motion if they feel that the cotton ball or tissue you are using is too harsh on their bottom. Your finger is the softest thing you can use to stimulate him. Dry him well and make sure he doesn’t become chilled.
If the kitten becomes restless and cranky or his abdomen looks distended or bloated, he may be constipated. Go to this link and follow the advice on what to do if your kitten is constipated.
You can also use a massage technique to try and get his bowels moving. After a feed, lay him on his back and gently massage his abdomen in small circles with your thumbs. Massage his tummy and sides, right up near his spine. What you're doing is mimicking the peristaltic (wave-like) motion that the stomach and bowels use to move the food along. You need to do this for as long as he'll let you. Make sure you massage close to his anus with your thumbs so it begins to connect with the messages from the bowels. Finally, take his little back legs and alternately straighten and bend each one in a cycling motion.
If the kitten still doesn’t have a bowel motion, he needs to see a vet. The vet can give the kitten an enema, which is often a successful way of relieving the blockage. Some kittens will need several enemas until their bowels start working properly. Never try to give the kitten an enema yourself.
Touch is an important factor in the development of all kittens and is especially important for premature kittens. Remain serene and calm around the kitten, as he will pick up on any anxiety you are feeling and it may translate into anxiety or illness in him. He needs lots of physical contact with you, as gentle contact stimulates his mental and physical development and calms him. A great way to keep an eye on him, as well as comforting him, is to use the Pouch Potato described on this page. Add a sock heater and he has a warm, safe place to be where he can be close to you.
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