St Paul's Veterinary Clinic

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Hand Rearing 

Over the years, I have hand-reared a number of kittens and puppies for various reasons. I would like to share the outcome of some of these missions with you and also explain how to do this to help anyone that is undertaking this task.

If the litter has had some time with it’s mother this is always an added bonus as they have received the first few days supply of milk which is called “colostrum”. This carries all the maternal antibodies to the offspring and helps give them immunity. Animals that do not have this initial milk have a lesser chance of survival. Fortunately now there are replacement colostrums. I use Collate Lifeline and most vets should stock it. I cannot stress strongly enough that, although this is not the cheapest replacement milk, it is imperative to give any hand-rearers a decent chance of survival. I then go onto use Cimicat for kittens and Welpi for puppies. These are the best, in my opinion, of the milk replacement substitutes on the market.

Kittens and puppies should be fed approximately every 2-3 hours for the first two weeks of their life. The feeding guide on the milk replacement will tell you how much. I use Shirley’s feeding bottles as I don’t like syringes as you can risk squirting milk into the lungs. Bottles and equipment must be sterilised between feeds. Made up milk can be kept in the fridge for up to 24 hours.

Do Not hold the bottle upright as milk can run straight down their throats. Let them suck the milk in their own time!

You should have a hot water bottle covered in Vetbed as a constant heat source (whatever the weather), as a newborn’s temperature can drop very easily. This bottle should be re-heated every feed-time but be careful not to make the puppies/kittens too hot. It is very important that they are kept out of drafts as this is a major cause of death in newborns. I normally drape a light-weight towel over them to avoid this. Bedding must also be clean at all times.

Scales are one of the most important pieces of equipment with any puppies or kittens as far as I am concerned. I own digital kitchen scales, I weigh my puppies and kittens every day until they are about four weeks old. This will show you that they are thriving and give you an immediate indication if they aren’t.

The mothers of the newborn normally stimulate their puppies or kittens to urinate and defecate. As we have no mother, we have to do this as well. After every feed, using a piece of cotton wool soaked in warm water then squeezed out, you should rub gently around the babies’ genital area. They will then urinate and defecate, then dry them up. Baby wipes are also invaluable to wipe them over with to keep them nice and clean.

Between 8-14 days the babies eyes will start to open. I love this bit, it is like your first proper introduction. Sometimes, they will need you to wipe over their eyes as they start to open with soaked cotton wool, just to clear any discharge.

So now our fit, healthy babies are 3 weeks old and you should have increased the amount of time between feeds. You should now be feeding every 3.5 to 4 hours.

Another major cause of death in hand-rearing is OVERFEEDING. I have seen this far too often. Even if the youngsters want more food, do not exceed the amount they should have as they can get diarrhoea and/or colic and die. If you have felt you have over-fed a puppy or kitten and their belly is hard, miss a feed. Remember, you are using a substitute milk not the real stuff so it’s much more concentrated.

At about 4 weeks old, I start introducing solid food, the quicker, the better. With puppies, I make scrambled egg with goats milk. I use nature diet and mush it with goats milk and I will use a good puppy complete like Hills Science Diet and soak the biscuits to a mush. For kittens, I use Felix Kitten Food and mush it to a paste and start leaving biscuits down, which, surprisingly, they will start to investigate. I use Hills Science Diet Natures Best Kitten. I generally start with four meals a day and then give them a bottle twice.

From about 5 weeks, I only allow them a bottle before bedtime as a comforter and I now expect them to go 7 hours clear through the night. At 7 weeks, they loose their bottle completely, they are now on 4 solid meals a day and will be ready to go to their new homes at 9 weeks old. I do keep my hand reared pups and kittens a bit longer than mother reared pups and kittens.

But they do get better!! Remember, they will need lots of toys and noise and sight stimulation.  They also need a safe box for when you are not around (and lots of newspaper!)