Raising Weak Kittens



Sometimes a kitten is born weaker than its litter mates, or perhaps does not thrive as well as its siblings. This can be due to prematurity, poor suckling technique, a less competitive nature to fight for a share of the nipples, or other health issues that can be overcome with a little tender loving care.

We (a family effort) have hand raised a number of compromised kittens in the past 14 years: Cocoa and Gizmo, two very special kittens with big hearts and strong fighting characters fall into this category. Cocoa is featured here.

It is a difficult and often heartbreaking exercise attempting to raise a sick or weak kitten, but, Cocoa, made the effort very worthwhile. Here is his story.

Cocoa's Story


Koshka Cocoa was born  considerably weaker than his litter mates. He was pushed out of the way by his stronger brothers and sisters. By day 3, it was apparent that he was not thriving and would not survive without human intervention.

At this young age, the decision to remove a kitten from its mother is not taken lightly, firstly, because of the enormous responsibility and physical demands of maintaining round the clock demand feeding, care and temperature control, and secondly, because the kitten will miss out on the early bonding with mum and siblings. However, in Cocoa's case, the decision was easy as his chance of survival was nil without intervention and constant intensive care.

Cocoa, was therefore removed from Mum and sibs, and bottle fed on a special formula, at 1 hour intervals, to ensure he got the nourishment he was missing out on. The small, hourly feeds were continued for the first week, then he was switched to a regime of demand feeding (we waited until he howled for food), a programme that continued  until he was weaned, very early, at 4 weeks of age on a soft puree mix of formula, meat and high quality kitten dry food, fed through a course eye-dropper.

Bottle Feeding



  Note: Cocoa was fed with a marsupial teat from 3 days of age until he was 6 weeks old.  

Specialised kitten teats, bottles and formulae are available from most vets for those who are forced to raise an infant kitten. My personal experience, in general, has been that so called kitten teats, are not really satisfactory for very young kittens as the rubber is too firm, and the end of the teat too thick for new born kittens to get their mouths around.

In Australia, we have access to marsupial (kangaroo, wallaby & koala) teats, made from thin, pliable latex, that have a very narrow suckling tip to enable the baby animal to take in as much of the teat as is comfortable, while enabling it to bend and squeeze the tip to the shape of its mouth. Even kittens that are only hours old are able to manage these teats. A far better option than having to resort to tube feeding; a task that requires a fair degree of experience and nerve - one that should NOT be attempted by those who have not been well advised and assisted by a vet in advance as it is very easy to puncture the lining of the stomach, or if misplaced, fill the lungs with fluid.

Toileting is also an essential part of care at this stage of the kitten's development as this requires stimulation to make the bladder and bowel function properly. Veterinary advice and hands on tuition should be sought to ensure that this is done properly and in a timely way.

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At one week, not even the vet had any real expectations that Cocoa would survive.

As shown here, he was still seriously under-weight and visibly, very fragile


Maintaining Constant Body Temperature



For his first  two weeks of life, Cocoa slept against bare human skin, alternating between family members who happened to be free; this served two purposes. Firstly, his body was maintained at a constant mammalian temperature, and secondly, he slept close to the sound of a heartbeat and the normal body sounds that he would hear if snuggled up with his mother and siblings. An electric blanket in a corner of his bed was used when a human wasn't available, but this was not often as socialisation at this stage was as important as his physical care.


Later, he was moved to a nest on the electric blanket for longer periods to maintain warmth and enable him to rest and sleep more peacefully........he was definitely not impressed by this shift however. 


NOTE: Regulation of body temperature needs to be very carefully monitored especially when using artificial heat of any kind, as it can be fatal if the kitten becomes too hot. Dehydration and overheating are very serious conditions that are nearly impossible to reverse if the kitten is not able to get away from the heat source. Great care needs to be taken to ensure that not all of the kitten's bed is heated. The safest  way is to use the human body as the primary heat source.


Eyes Open


       Note the seal points beginning to develop on his nose and tips of the ears.

Looking into Cocoa's dark, bright eyes at 2 weeks of age, made all the late nights and lack of sleep worthwhile. He trusted us completely. He was still very weak at this stage and continued to be seriously under-weight for some time, but had a fair chance of survival. Although weaned by 4 weeks, he continued to demand a bottle for comfort until he was six weeks old. The bottle was withdrawn only when his teeth became so sharp that he chewed the end off the teat before finishing his feeds



Cocoa at 7 weeks of age. He was still a little underweight, but eating well, and starting to grow, gain more strength with every day, and was ready to go back to the rough and tumble of his brothers and sisters - a true culture shock for a little guy who had never been treated roughly.


Back With His Family



Twelve weeks

At home with his family and looking like a real cat. He was very social, settled quickly, and, integrated with his siblings as though he had never been away. He also learned good "cat manners" from mum who was very attentive to those needs and of course how to defend himself against bigger stronger brothers.

Cocoa the Adult

 Grown up

Cocoa has developed into a very handsome adult male (perhaps a little too heavy), and relates exceptionally well to everyone who has contact with him. He remains with us, and is a much loved and integral member of our family.

A final note: Cocoa does not have any instinct for fear. He doesn't seem to have developed a behavioural template for caution or danger. We believe this is due in part to the intensive, minute to minute human nurturing in his formative weeks and, the total lack of feline maternal input and competitive interaction with his litter mates. This can be a huge disadvantage in a world that is fraught with danger. As an example, he has had several rather nasty, close-up encounters with a running bath, but despite this, he continues to have an unhealthy fascination with water.