Care of Premature Kittens
Published September 2014
Spanish Translation / Traducción Español

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In the article titled Premature Births, we discussed the challenges and prognosis of kittens born prematurely. In the article The Premature Kitten we show what a premature kitten looks like.

If you have a litter born early, there are things you can do that will increase the kittens' chances of survival.

While relatively little research has been done on the care or causes of premature feline births, some anecdotal experience from breeders dealing with the problem can be used as a guideline.

Care of the Premature Kitten

It is possible to successfully hand-raise a premature kitten, depending on how many days early it has been born. Preemie kittens are a real challenge to take care of however, and despite the best of care, may not survive. Caring for a premature kitten can be both physically and emotionally exhausting.

As well as following the normal routine of caring for newborn kittens,
extra care may be necessary if a premature or "preemie" kitten is going to survive.

Extra factors to consider when caring for a premature kitten include:

  • Size: Premature kittens will be smaller than usual, and that means even if they are active, they may not have the strength to crawl out from under the mom cat should she lay or lean on them. You will need to be particularly attentive to where they are in the birthing box.
  • Respiration: If the lungs are underdeveloped, providing extra oxygen may be needed. A small supply of oxygen such as used in portable units for emphysema patients can be modified to provide an environment with enriched oxygen for the kittens by creating a "tent" over the birthing box. Oxygen is flammable, so use extreme care.
  • Humidity: Immature lungs are lacking in surfactant - the moisture which lines the airways in the lungs. Keep the kitten in a humid environment to prevent the lungs from drying out. NOTE: Some veterinarians suggest administering steroids and antibodies to help the immature lungs develop in preemies.
  • Warmth: Premature kittens need to be kept warmer than full term kittens, after all, if they had gone full term, their time in their mother's body would have remained at about 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Try to maintain the heat for a preemie at 95 ºF (35ºC) for the first few weeks, gradually reducing it to 85 ºF (30ºC ) by 4 weeks and then maintaining it at 80 ºF (27ºC ) until the kittens seem to have reached a typical state of development of a weaning kitten.
  • Hydration: Because premature kittens need to be kept extra warm, it is easy for them to become dehydrated. To avoid the problem, the preemie can be given sub-q fluids in addition to its regular feedings.
  • Nursing Reflex: Often, premature kittens are too weak to feed or haven't learned how to swallow properly yet. The preemie will need to be tube fed, with special care taken to use a small tube and to insert it to the correct length. Read the article titled Tube Feeding for detailed instructions.
  • Colostrum: If at all possible, the kitten should receive the Colostrum milk from its mother. If it is too weak to nurse, "milk" the mother and add it to the tube feeding formula. You may also want to consider supplementing with Bovine Colostrum.
  • Diluted Formula: A premature kitten has an underdeveloped digestive system that is unable to handle full-strength formula when supplementing. To prevent stressing its system, the first feeding can be a simple glucose solution. The kitten will metabolize the glucose quickly. For subsequent feedings, dilute the regular formula with 1/4 distilled water or unflavored Pedialyte solution.
  • Frequency of Feeding: A premature kitten requires feeding more often than a full term newborn - sometimes as often as every 1-2 hours in the first week to ten days of life. The kitten will likely take only 1-2 cc per feeding depending on its weight, as its stomach is very small. As it grows, it will be able to take more formula at each feeding, and you can gradually increase the time between feedings while reducing the number of feedings.
  • Elimination: Premature kittens sometimes experience problems having bowel movements because their intestines are underdeveloped. The kitten will have a tendency to become constipated. The kitten should defecate at least once every two days, and requires stimulation by rubbing a moist cloth or cotton ball over the genitals. Often the skin around the genitals of very premature kittens is too delicate to be rubbed with a cloth. If this is the case, hold the kitten's bottom under a stream of warm water from a tap, gently rubbing over the anus with your finger. Dry the kitten well afterwards to prevent chilling.
  • Tactile Stimulation: Touch is an important factor in the development of all kittens and is especially important for preemies. A gentle touch stimulates mental and physical development in the newborn, so handle the kitten often.
  • Mother Care: The mother cat may reject premature kittens. Be alert for signs of rejection, in which case you will need to intervene and take over all the kitten care.

Developmental Stages

While we still calculate the premature kitten's age from its actual birth date, because it has been born early, it is not unusual for its developmental stages to be delayed relative to its date of birth. A kitten born a week prematurely will be at least a week behind in its development.

So, for instance, while a full term kitten opens its eyes at about 10 days old, the premature kitten might not open its eyes until it is 2-3 weeks old.

A premature kitten must complete development outside of the womb that full term kittens complete inside their mother's body. One of the most obvious external signs of prematurity is a lack of hair. If the kitten is born with hair missing, it often doesn't gain weight at the same rate as a full term kitten because its body is using up to 30% of its nutritional intake to growing and maintaining hair, as well as completing the development of immature internal organs. Once the hair has grown in, it signals that this stage in basic development has been completed. After this stage, the kitten usually starts to gain weight rapidly, often catching up to the expected weight of an equivalent age full term kitten after several weeks.

In Conclusion

Caring for a litter of premature kittens can be a heart-wrenching experience. Even with the best of care, some preemies cannot be saved. The premature kitten is at a disadvantage from the moment it is born. The earlier the premature birth, the greater the risks, and the less the chance of survival of the kittens. You can only do your best.

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