How to Bottle-Feed a Pet
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
If a mother is unable or unwilling to feed her young, it is important that the owners take over the responsibility of feeding the litter. This can happen for both behavioral reason, such as the mother rejecting the litter (which is more common in young mothers) or for medical reasons (the mother must be placed on medications that are unsafe for the young or she develops an infection which would put the litter at risk). Bottle feeding is offering a size-appropriate bottle to deliver nutrition through suckling on the bottle’s nipple. It is used until a kitten or puppy has the strength and coordination to eat and drink on his/her own. Both puppy and kitten formula and bottles can be purchased from most pet stores to provide the appropriate supplies needed to take over the feeding responsibilities from the mother.
The amount of each feeding and number of feedings to be given each day depends on the size and age of the pet. To get started, a kitten or puppy liquid formula will be needed. This is available both in powder and bottled/canned liquid forms. Powdered formulas are generally less expensive but have to be reconstituted with water. Carefully follow the instructions on the back of the container to reconstitute each meal just before feeding. A scale that weighs in grams is used for monitoring growth of the newborn and gauging how to increase the size of the meal (caloric intake). Gram scales are also available at most stores in the kitchen section if needed. A guide to providing the appropriate meal size according to the weight of the kitten or puppy is generally provided on the back of the formula container. Bottles with rubber nipples are available commercially at most pet stores. Neonatal formula (for puppies and kittens), are better accepted at room temperature or slightly warm and should be warmed (for example, holding the bottle against your body) for 5 to 10 minutes before feeding. You want to test the temperature of the formula before feedings by placing a small amount on your wrist to be sure it is not too warm, just like you would do with an infant.
The risk of aspiration (inhaling the fluid/food into the lungs by accident) and subsequent pneumonia exists with each type of feeding method; it is greatest with bottle feeding so you want to make sure to let the puppies or kittens nurse at their natural speed. The most commonly made mistake is purposefully or accidentally squeezing the bottle during a feeding, usually to try to “speed things up.” This is a potentially disastrous move because it can force formula straight into the lungs and cause choking, pneumonia, or suffocation. If a pet is wheezing or having trouble breathing at any time after bottle feeding or starts to vomit after feedings, an immediate visit to the veterinary hospital is in order. The way to prevent this is to allow a pup or kitten to suckle from the bottle on his/her own and never squeeze the bottle!
Use care when attempting to bottle feed a cat. Cats can easily develop food aversion, which is an acquired dislike for any food and is a step backwards, meaning a further decline in appetite. It can start when a cat refuses syringe feeding, and your response is force feeding. The result is often the cat’s complete unwillingness to eat anything. If a cat is refusing all food for more than 1 day, call a veterinarian to determine a course of action. Simple tricks (slightly warming the food or giving appetite stimulants) may be tried.
With bottle feeding, the goal is to allow the pet to suckle from the nipple and swallow normally. When a pet is nursing normally, a meal takes a while (10 to 30 minutes is possible). It is easy to get discouraged by how long bottle feeding takes. Avoid the desire to cut the hole in the tip of the nipple to allow faster meals, as this can lead to aspiration/choking. Holding the pet upright or allowing them to rest on their stomach is appropriate for feeding. Resist the temptation to hold them on their back like a human baby—this also can lead to aspiration. The number of bottle feedings per day depends on the age of the puppy/kitten and on the type of formula and can range from 3 to 8 feedings a day or every 3 to 8 hours. This information is available on the formula purchased.