Burma did not have a name, nor a home and, most important of all, no mum to feed her and give her warmth. She was tiny, younger than two weeks old, her eyes barely just opened but still blind. Some kids handed her to us in the dark, and Marta jumped back fearing she was a rat. But then she “miaoued”, clear and loud, crying for milk and life.
Everybody around us kept repeating that she would die, that kittens never survive without their mum. But she lived, and grew, learnt to hunt and travels with us. We have only managed to help a dying animal once, and are no experts in the matter, but this is what we did, while with little resources around, on the move and mixing up all the info and tips we could gather from the net. We share it simply because some other traveller may come across a little animal that wants to live, and with a bit of care with will survive to become a wonderfully wild companion.
1. Is the kitten really abandoned?
They are cute, extremely cute, and we want to save them all, help them, give them a chance and bring some good karma to our lives. But not all living beings need our help all the time, and although they may look cute, we cannot just take kittens (or any other little animals) away from their mums. If you find abandoned kittens make sure they are really abandoned before you disturb a nest. If the kittens are clean and quietly all together in a heap, they probably have a caring mum and should be left where they are. If they are abandoned, the kittens will be dirty, and they will be continuously because they’re hungry.In the case of Burma, she was alone and we were unable to find her mum for three days, so we took her along.
2. The kitten needs to be constantly warm
The first and most important thing is to keep the kitten warm. Imagine how it would feel to cuddle under the furry belly of mother cat with your seven siblings in a heap, and try to find whatever at hand to create a warm space as cozy as that. Kittens cannot control their own body temperature until they are at least three weeks old, they will not tremble and it will be your work to keep an eye out for signs of chilling (if the kitten feels cold at touch, get an extra blanket asap).
If you are travelling and do not have a winter wardrobe at hand, use your thermal clothes, sleeping bag or blanket, woolen scarf… and if you have nothing to wrap the kitten in,use your own body heat, and rub the kitten gently to aid circulation.
It’s very important to make sure that the kitten is warm enough before feeding, if her paws or mouth feels cold, warm her up.
3. Kittens’ emergency food
We all think that cats love milk, but in fact kittens die of malnutrition and dehydration because of feeding them with it. Cow’s milk is not nutritious enough for the kittens (imagine that a baby calf would drink litres, while the tiny kitten needs all the nutrients in just a few hundred millilitres) and also, they are lactose intolerant so it causes them diarrhea, which is a huge danger for little cats.
What did we feed her?
Cat milk replacement (powder milk special for kittens). It is the best option, if you are able to find a veterinary or pet store who has it. There are different brands and qualities, and blogs recommending one or the other. But while on the road, and in countries where such things do not abound, it might be difficult or next to impossible to get hold of such stuff straight away. For us it took a few days to find an open and well provided vet.
Kitten’s emergency formula (home-made). There are several recipes, and depending on what you can find around, you may try ours or search for other options online. They are indicated for 24 hours emergency feeding only, but Burma got fed this way for three or four days before we found cat milk replacement. This is the formula we used, mixing what we could find around from all recipes on the net:
1/2 cup of evaporated milk (Warmed to room temperature). 2 egg yolks (not the white). 1 spoon vegetable oil. 1 drop pediatric liquid vitamines (pet vitamins might be also difficult to find)
Goat’s milk can be used as replacement if nothing else is around. Apparently it’s more nutritious even than human milk and has less lactose than cow’s one, but it should still be mixed with egg yolks and vegetable oil to make a tolerable emergency formula (look for a recipe).
Human baby formula can be given to kittens, but making it double strength to increase the content of fat and protein.
How to feed a kitten?
The best way is using a bottle with a soft nipple, and you can read here how to use the nipple properly. We could not find one (no, not even in pharmacies, not even at the vet) so we used a small syringe (without the needle of course), introduced in her mouth, smoothly, from the side. She was so hungry the first time that it did not take her long to understand this is where food came from. We would let it drop and she would such the milk, stopping every few seconds to rest and swallow.
Kittens rescue handbook say that kittens are most comfortable in a position similar to how they would standing while nursing from their momcat. To imitate that we can simply to place the kitten on its stomach on a towel or cloth, and it will cling to it on instinct. Another option, we followed was to sit cross-legged on the floor with the kitten inside your legs, and let her kitten place its paws our leg.
How often and how much should the kitten eat?
Baby kittens eat round the clock, and that’s probably gonna be the hardest part of your job. For the first week we woke up and fed her every two hours.
1 week old – needs 6 – 8 feedings per day
2 weeks old – needs 6 feedings per day
3 weeks old – needs 4-5 feedings per day
4 weeks old – needs 3 feedings per day
It is both important to be flexible, letting her eat more often if she wants, but also not to overfeed her each time. When just born the kitten should be fed around 30 ml of formula per day, by the second week 55 lm, on the third week 80 ml and by the fourth 104 ml.
4. Cleaning and helping the kitten evacuate
After every meal we cleant her with a clean damp coth, very gently, as if imitating her mother’s tongue. This is important to keep her free from bacterias. But most important of all is to stimulate her to pass stool by imitating her mum. With a wet, lukewarm (not hot) smooth cloth or paper towel, gently massaging the anal region in a small circular movement. In addition, we gently massaged her tummy to help improve digestion and eliminate gas. It took Burma a few days to go to the toilet for the first time, and having read everywhere that is very important we were starting to get worried when she shat for the first time all over the clothes we used to wrap her in… and we congratulated her for it!
When she was consipated we gave her half a tea spoon of vegetable oil from time to time. We do not know if that is what worked, but in the end she vacuated. And slowly slowly she learnt to go to the toilet and keep herself clean, but that would be later…a couple of weeks later.
5. Taking the kitten to the vet
It is good to take the kitten to the vet as soon as possible to be checked for general condition, dehydration, parasites, and because the doctor can help you figure out questions you may have (am I feeding the kitten enough? is she alright? how long can she go on without shitting? etc.) It took us a while to find a vet, but when we did he attended us for free, and gave us discount on the medicines and cat’s milk, happy to see that one little stray kitten had found a family. In India, we would find out later on, state veterinary hospitals provide basic care, vaccines and de-worming pills for free. It might be similar in other places, so if you have the chance to help a stray animal, do not think it twice.
Kittens can easily and very quickly get dehydrated. It is easy to see if that happens by pulling gently the skin on her neck, if it stands in a little fold as if made of clay, it means the kitten is dehydrated. The vet gave her liquid glucose (orally) but we have read that sometimes she is injected subcutaneously, and the vet should show you how to do it.
When Burma passed a worm for the first time we were shocked. There are many different types of worms, and kittens get them even directly from their mums, so the chances are your furry friend is full of parasites. That explained the round and hard belly, the bad fur. But the vet had not wanted to de-worm her at a too early age. Some of the de-worming medicines Burma was given were contra-indicated in most websites, but when it was obvious she was really sick we could not do much more than giving her something we doubted about. Try to find, though, the best and safest de-worm you can, and always be very very careful about the dose.
At the age of two weeks the vet did not recommend using any anti-flea treatment, chemicals are not good for little ones. She did not have many fleas, and we just picked them with fingers from her skin. Gently cleaning the kitten with a towel may help, but do not make her wet (and remember that warmth is the most important thing of all).
Learn more about rescuing kittens (and other animals)
There are a million blogs and sites with very good advices and tips, and we made use of them all. But most sites and forums are written by western people who care for kittens while at home, so we had to surf around and combine solutions to issues while on the move and in places where no fancy pet stores were available. These are the main pages we used. If you have experience, good advices or links, please comment below, every little tip may help.
Orphan Kittens (old school look but pretty complete)