Having a sick kitten can make any cat lover feel helpless and scared. One of the first things they want to know is how to care for a sick kitten at home.
To care for young cat that's under the weather, it is critical to know how to identify if your kitten is sick, how (and what) to feed him or her, and finally what kind of general care you can provide at home. In this article we will help you understand all of these points, so let's start with how you can tell if your kitten is sick.
What are the warning signs that my kitten is sick?
Kittens can become ill very quickly and for a wide variety of reasons. These reasons include parasites, low blood sugar, and respiratory infections, just to name a few.
Common signs of a sick kitten include: lethargy, weakness, decreased or lack of appetite, less interest in playing, sleeping more, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, trouble walking, and less interest their owners, companions, and toys.
The very first sign many sick kittens show is when they don't want to eat. If you have several cats, it may be difficult to tell who is eating and who isn't. For this reason, many veterinarians recommend that owners offer their sick kitten a small canned meal. Almost all cats love this kind of food, and it's typically a good sign that something is wrong if your kitten doesn't respond to it. This way, you will know something is wrong much sooner than if you free feed and offer dry food all the time (and you can't tell who is eating what).
It is also common for sick kittens to be lethargic. Signs can be subtle but you might notice that your kitten will be slower to respond and not want to play as much. They might ignore their toys or sleep much more than usual.
The diagnosis of sick kittens can be very challenging because kittens frequently get sick very quickly. It is not uncommon to hear about a kitten that ran around, playing, eating, and drinking normally in the morning but became horribly sick and stopped just 4 to 6 hours later. In adult cats this kind of rapid development of symptoms would be uncommon, but it happens regularly with young kittens.
If you have a kitten that you believe is sick, the best and safest thing to do is to call your veterinarian to ask for their recommendations and to make an appointment to evaluate your kitten.
What should I feed a sick kitten?
Depending on the age of the kitten, you can offer a milk replacement product or a high-quality canned or dry kitten food. The specifics of what you should feed a sick kitten depend on their age, so below are some guidelines for your kitten's life stage. Remember to always offer plenty of fresh clean water in a clean bowl. Sometimes providing extra water bowls can encourage a sick kitten to drink, so provide several spots to drink if you can.
Tips for feeding a sick kitten
When kittens feel sick and lethargic, convincing them to eat can be a challenge. If your kitten is very young (less than 4 weeks of age), you can attempt to bottle feed them using a milk replacement product. Older cats may be tempted by canned or dry food.
Here is a common age-based protocol used by many vets when a kitten won't eat:
Birth to 4 weeks: At this young age, many cats can't eat regular food, so you may need to offer milk replacement formula in a bottle or a small amount of milk on a plate for the kitten to lap up. The best milk replacement is called “KMR,” which stands for Kitten Milk Replacement. (Note that cow's milk contains lactose which many cats cannot digest and may cause diarrhea if offered.) To feed your kitten, heat the milk until it is warm (but not hot) to the touch. Place the milk in a kitten nursing bottle and turn the bottle upside down. The milk should gently dribble out when you squeeze. If it does not, you may need to enlarge the opening on the nipple with a needle. Gently offer the bottle of warmed milk to your kitten to suckle every 2-4 hours. The younger the kitten, the more frequently you should offer the food. Don't squeeze the bottle in the kitten's mouth; this can cause aspiration (inhalation of the milk into the lungs) and pneumonia. An alternative to bottle feeding is tube feeding your kitten. This involves placing a tube in your kitten's mouth which goes into the stomach and delivers the food directly into their body. To learn more about this method, go to: How to Tube Feed Sick Kittens.
Kittens 4 to 6 weeks old: Most kittens at this age can eat semi-moist food. You can create a mixture by crushing good quality dry food and mixing it with KMR. The younger the cat, the more liquid this mixture should contain. Cats closer to 6 week can generally eat a fairly solid mixture that we vets often refer to as “gruel.” A lot of what a kitten will eat at this age depends on whether a kitten has been weaned, how long they have been eating on their own, and what kind of food they have been eating. Kittens who are 6 weeks old might have no problem moving onto mostly solid food, while those that are 5 weeks old and have never seen solid kibble will be less inclined to eat it.
Kittens 7 weeks and older: By this stage, a kitten's body can typically handle canned or dry food easily. The problem then becomes getting kittens to want to eat. Encouraging a sick kitten to eat is best accomplished by offering canned food. Heating canned food or gruel in the microwave for a few seconds can bring out the aromas that may appeal to a sick kitten. (Fancy Feast is one brand that tends to have strong aromas that kittens love.) Make sure your cat's nose is clean; some cats with respiratory infections can't smell their food and may reject meals as a result. You might want to try offering small frequent feedings of a bland diet such as Hill's Prescription Diet Feline i/d or skinless boiled chicken. Another option for helping a sick kitten eat is to offer a small amount of canned tuna or chicken with the natural juices. You may need to hand feed your kitten to encourage him or her to eat. Sometimes placing a very small amount of food on your kitten's nose, on a spoon, or in his or her mouth will stimulate them to eat. You can also mush up canned food to the point it is soft enough to pull into a syringe barrel and gently squeezing a small amount into your kitten's mouth.
Here are more tips for feeding a sick kitten:
- Water can soothe an irritated stomach and stimulate hunger. Adding additional water bowls, topping off the water bowls, placing ice cubes in the water, or providing a fountain can encourage cats to drink. Some older kittens love to drink out of faucets or sip from other forms of running water. Offering a few spoonfuls of tuna juice in water can stimulate cats to drink.
- Don't overfeed as your cat; they may eat the entire bowl of food and could experience vomiting if their stomach is upset. For a kitten weighing about 5 pounds, try offering a piece of meat approximately one inch squared that has been sliced into smaller pieces. If your kitten does not begin vomiting, offer another small amount of food about one hour later.
- Another option is to tempt your kitten into eating by offering small amounts of chicken-flavored or other meat-based baby food. Make sure it is free of onions and garlic, which can be harmful to cats.
- Once your sick kitten has begun eating, gradually return them to regular cat food over the next one to two days. First, mix a little of your cat's regular food into the bland diet and feed that for one meal. Next, feed a 50/50 mix for one meal and feed ¾ cat food and ¼ bland diet for the meal after that. Finally, return to feeding your cat's regular food over the next week. If your cat stops eating again at any point, please see your vet.
Be especially aware of your kitten's whereabouts while they are sick and don't allow them to go outside until you know they are completely well again.
More home care tips for a sick kitten
Caring for a sick kitten can be a real challenge. They may need your attention and love for many things; if the kitten is very young, they may or may not be able to regulate their temperature or even simulate their own bowel movements. Here are some tips for caring for a sick kitten depending on its age:
The Newborn Patient (Birth to 6 weeks): Newborns are the most challenging patients to care for. Unable to fend for themselves, these kittens require feeding, bowel stimulation, and a controlled warm environment. If you are caring for a sick newborn kitten, be prepared with milk replacements, cotton balls, lots of towels, and a safe and reliable heat source. Kittens have a tendency to seek heat and will crawl towards or away from the heat source when necessary. Place a clean blanket or pad down on the floor for bedding. Many kittens of this age can be comfortable in a medium sized cardboard box with a towel on the bottom. A heating pad under part of their confined area is a reasonable option. After every feeding, very young kittens should be stimulated to encourage urination and defecation. You can do this by taking a warm, wet cotton ball and cleaning their genital area. This stimulation will often lead to urination and/or a bowel movement. If possible, ask your veterinarian to demonstrate the proper way to perform these actions during a visit.
The Pediatric Patient (6 weeks to 6 months): The age range for a pediatric patient is large because, for the most part, these cats will need a more sophisticated system of enclosure than newborn kittens and their cardboard boxes. A crate or kennel is often necessary for containing a larger kitten. Doing so allows you to monitor their output and to keep them (and your home) clean. Keeping sick cats clean becomes a bigger issue at this age as they can produce astounding amounts of urine, feces, and vomit. In order to avoid soiling areas of the house you wish to protect, be prepared to confine a young cat to a place where their nursing care can be easily managed. Keep the area clean and dry and put a litter pan nearby where you can scoop it often.
The Young Adult Kitten (6 months to 1 year): Kittens at this age are generally treated as young adult cats. Must like their younger counterparts, they will need to be confined to help you monitor and manage their care. Much of their care will depend on the severity of their symptoms and their illness. It is most important to keep their bedding clean, monitor their temperature, and provide heat support if necessary. Use the above tips to encourage your kitten to eat and drink, and provide a clean and easily accessible litter box for them to eliminate in.