A newborn kitten, also called a neonate, is one who is in between birth to two weeks of age. This is the most critical, fragile period in a kitten’s life. At this age the kitten still has an underdeveloped immune system making her prone to catching all sorts of diseases. She cannot regulate her blood sugar levels and also cannot regulate on her own her body temperature.
This may seem daunting for those cat owners raising newborns for the first time. But stemming from experience with neonates, my golden rule is this: Take care of the mother and she takes care of her newborns. Usually no human intervention is needed in the raising of kittens in the first four weeks. Nursing from a healthy queen provides the kitten the complete nutrients in the first four weeks of life. You only need to keep the mother cat well fed, change beddings, keep the environment of the queen and her kittens clean. The only difficult thing you probably need to do is look for where mother cat moved her kittens if she decided to do so!
A Happy, Healthy Newborn
Let us first describe a happy, healthy newborn kitten. Her skin is warm and pinkish. She has a strong suckle reflex and will nurse every one or two hours. She is quiet and she cuddles and sleep contentedly with her littermates. She must be gaining weight steadily on an average of 10 grams per day and is developing good muscle tone. Kittens must gain weight and accumulate body fat so that they will be able to control their body temperature. When awake, she is active and responsive to her mom and littermates.
Why Does My Newborn Kitten Keep Crying?
Even healthy newborns cry occasionally. This is an indication of some minor discomfort and when that discomfort has been addressed the crying should cease. If crying does not stop or keeps happening again and again then check the kitten, the mother and the environment for clues as to what the cause of the problem may be. After some time of constant crying, the kitten becomes weak and not suckling enough that it will stop crying, will lie separate from the others and will be barely moving. Keep in mind that a weak kitten will be ignored by its mother. Do not wait for the situation to get to this point before checking and doing something because usually by then it will be too late.
A newborn kitten will cry when she is hungry. If she is constantly hungry then she will cry repeatedly. Try to find out why the kitten goes hungry. Sometimes a kitten becomes separated from her mother and could not find her way back to suckle. Probably a kitten becomes hungry because she was not able to suckle adequately because of crowding by littermates. Inspect the kitten also for congenital abnormalities. Inborn defects like a cleft palate, wherein there is a hole in the palate, causes the kitten to have difficulty nursing and may cause her to cough. At other times, the problem may not be with the kitten but with the mother. Some queens especially if they have not been properly nourished during pregnancy will not have adequate milk for her kittens.
Infections and Fever
Fever may be due to infectious diseases. Fever causes the body to release chemicals that brings about the feeling of general unease and discomfort making the newborn kitten restless and cry constantly.
Newborns can get infections from many sources. It may be an in-utero infection, meaning the newborn acquired it while still in its mother’s womb. For example, if the kitten was exposed to the Feline Panleukopenia virus in-utero this affects the newborn’s immune system and causes decreased resistance to infection with other diseases.
Infectious agents may also enter via the newborn’s umbilical cord stump if it was contaminated at birth. Poor management factors, like dirty bedding or environment, can also contribute to newborn kittens getting infections.
If the mother cat’s milk is sour, like when her mammary glands are inflamed, the newborn may get stomach infections. This causes pain in the abdomen which adds to the discomfort due to fever and the kitten will cry.
When the mother has inadequate colostrum or the newborn was not able to suckle within the first 24 hours then the newborn fails to acquire the important antibodies from its mother it needs to protect it from infections and become prone to respiratory infections and may develop a fever. This condition is what is called Failure of Passive Transfer.
When a kitten is crying, check for sources of pain. First check if the newborn has not been injured from the queen accidentally lying or stepping on the kitten.
Stomach infections, as mentioned above, can cause pain in the belly. This may also result to diarrhea and vomiting and later dehydration of the newborn causing the kitten to become too weak to nurse. Bloating, due to accidentally sucking air while nursing or swallowing air from crying, can also cause severe abdominal pain
Constipation can also cause abdominal pain. Remember that newborns cannot urinate or defecate by themselves. They need their mother to lick their belly and genital area for them to be able to move urine and feces. If you have a kitten that keeps crying, check if the mother is stimulating her newborns. Some queens, especially young ones whose mothering instincts are not yet fully developed may not be apt to do the job adequately.
Newborn kittens cannot control their body temperature and for the first week of life they cannot shiver. Therefore they are dependent on their mother for warmth. In case they wander away from their mother and littermates, their body temperature can quickly go down below normal and the newborn cries. Hypothermia is a dangerous condition for a kitten because it causes decreased gastrointestinal absorption and motility leading to malnutrition, weakness, increased susceptibility to infection and later cardiopulmonary failure.
Any condition that causes a kitten to have slow growth, progressive weakness and therefore inability to nurse sufficiently, gain weight and muscle tone should be considered also when you have a newborn that is constantly crying. One example is the Fading Kitten Syndrome, wherein the kitten fails to thrive and may result in death in between birth and weaning. Another example is Neonatal Isoerythrolysis, wherein antibodies from the mother attack and breakdown the newborn kitten’s blood. Flea infestation in a newborn is a critical situation too because it can quickly lead to anemia and weakness.
What Can I Do?
When raising kittens, always remember that nursing is very important because it helps build up muscle tone and fat reserves for the newborn to be able to control her own body temperature. Always establish that the kitten is nursing adequately.
If a kitten keeps wandering away from her mother and littermates, check if she does not have any other concurrent problems like fever. Sick kittens tend to be restless and wander. Then set up physical boundaries to limit the distance she wanders so she can always find her way back to her mother to nurse when she gets hungry.
If a particular kitten seems smaller or weaker than her littermates make sure to assist her during suckling or have her suckle ahead of the others. If doing this does not seem to solve the problem and kitten still keeps going hungry, talk with your veterinarian about advice on bottle-feeding the kitten with a milk replacer.
When you suspect a congenital defect like cleft palate, have the kitten seen by a veterinarian for proper diagnosis and get advice how to feed her while she is still too young to undergo surgery to correct the defect. Remember that a kitten with cleft palate cannot be bottle-fed like other regular kittens as this might cause her to have aspiration pneumonia if ever milk enters the cleft and goes to her lungs.
If the queen is in poor condition, take her to the veterinarian too for an examination and for advice on feeding and supplementation and possibly hormone injections so that she will be able to produce ample quality milk for her newborns.
Good management is always key to the prevention of the spread of infections. Make sure the beddings are clean, likewise the queen’s litterbox.
Check daily the queen’s nipples and mammary glands and milk. Signs of infection and inflammation include swelling, redness, and pain. Milk should be white. If milk is colored reddish, greenish or yellowish make sure the newborn do not suckle from that teat and take the queen to the veterinarian to check for mastitis and sour milk and for appropriate treatment. Kittens with upper respiratory infections may have clogged up nostrils and have difficulty breathing and nursing. Gently wipe the nose with warm cotton ball to remove debris.
Check on the mother cat and her kittens from time to time to see if she is not unknowingly lying on one of her kittens. Not a few newborns have been accidentally suffocated this way. If you sense the mother is not licking her newborns properly to stimulate their bowel movement and urination, assist her by wiping with moist cotton the genital and anal area of the kittens until they are 3 weeks old whereby they can already urinate and defecate by themselves.
Remember that newborn kittens cannot shiver to help control body temperature until they are about week old. So make sure they do not wander too far away from their mother and become cold, hungry and weak. When you have a kitten that is cold and weak, do not feed milk replacer because doing so will result in diarrhea from impaired digestive function as explained above.
A kitten that keeps on crying is best seen by a veterinarian. A thorough examination can be done and appropriate intervention taken. In case a diagnosis of Neonatal Isoerythrolysis is arrived at, the kitten will have to be separated from the mother and hand reared. Check with the veterinarian for the proper feeding of newborns. Likewise consult the veterinarian before treating newborns for fleas and other parasites, do not use products for adults.