Caring For a Newborn Puppy or Kitten
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
Elgin Veterinary Hospital
Caring for a newborn puppy or kitten is very labor-intensive and great care must be taken to ensure that you are providing the necessary aid to ensure they are able to sustain a normal body temperature, are urinating and defecating normally, and that they are getting all the nutrients they need while they are developing. The first thing you should do with any newborn animal whether it is found or whelped, is schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to be sure that they are healthy and there are not any issues that need to be medically addressed.
The best environment to keep a newborn in is an isolated plastic swimming pool so that you can ensure that there are no sharp edges they can hurt themselves on and if there is an entire litter, that there is no possibility that one of the puppies or kittens could be suffocated by being pushed up against a hard edge. You want to be sure that there are no other animals around the newborn(s) so that there is little to no risk of trauma and you can decrease the risk of the young pet being exposed to any parasites or illnesses. Using a plastic swimming pool also helps you to contain the animal, while making for easy clean up and allowing you to see exactly what the pet is producing (as far as urination, bowel movements, and vomitus). If you notice any abnormal diarrhea or any vomiting, you need to seek immediate medical care with your veterinarian. You also want to be sure that the newborn animals stay warm enough while caring for them. This can be achieved by placing heating pads in the environment. One of the benefits of using the plastic swimming pool is that it creates a good barrier between heating pads and the puppies or kittens. The thin plastic allows enough heat to transfer through to create an area that is warmer if the puppy or kitten needs supplemental heat to help maintain a normal body temperature. There should also always be unheated areas in the pool so that the animals can move away from the heat source and there is no risk of thermal burns. It is best to keep the heating pads under the pool so the animal does not have access to the cords and thus eliminating the possibility of electrocution. You want to check your newborn’s temperature several times throughout the day with a rectal thermometer. The temperature should be between 99.5 degrees and 101.5 degrees. If the temperature is any higher than normal or is not high enough, despite having an extra heat source, you need to seek immediate medical attention because this may indicate a severe medical issue.
Young animals cannot urinate or defecate on their own until two to three weeks of age, so you will need to stimulate them regularly to be sure they are urinating and defecating normally and do not run the risk of getting constipated. This can be done by using a warm moistened washcloth or cotton ball. You want to be sure to test the temperature of the cloth/cotton ball on your wrist before using it to ensure it is not too warm so that you do not accidentally burn such a sensitive area. You will want to rub the warm washcloth on their penis or vaginal region and anus lightly until urine and feces is produced after feedings (every 2 hours). By doing this, you are mimicking the mother dog or cat licking those regions on her babies. Kittens can begin to be litter trained at around four weeks. You will want to use either a litter that is dust-free or shredded paper/newspaper (just avoid the shiny ad paper) in order to avoid respiratory irritants, and you should clean the box every time that it is used to be sure that you are keeping track of bathroom habits. If you notice any changes in color, texture, or frequency, be sure to contact your veterinarian and question if medical attention is needed. It is also very important to have your newborns taken to your veterinarian every two weeks, starting at two weeks of age, to have them tested and treated for intestinal parasites. Additionally, it is important to remember that the vaccine series should be started at six weeks of age in order to fully protect each puppy or kitten from common diseases. Puppies and kittens are not fully protected from disease until the series of vaccines in completed (vaccines are done every three weeks for a series of four vaccines in total usually), so they should not have any contact with other animals or environments where other animals have been present and could be contaminated with serious, potentially fatal, diseases and parasites.
If you are raising a newborn, the most important part is the responsibility of feeding the puppy or kitten. Bottle feeding is essentially offering a size-appropriate bottle to deliver nutrition through suckling on the bottle’s nipple. It should be implemented 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 substitution needed to take over the feeding responsibilities from the mother animal.
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 should be used regularly to monitor the growth of the newborn and also to gauge how much to increase the size of the meals provided (caloric intake). Gram scales are 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 readily available commercially at most pet stores. Neonatal formulas (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 the greatest risk with bottle feeding, therefore 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 a veterinary hospital is in order. One easy way prevent this accident from happening is to allow a pup or kitten to suckle from the bottle on his/her own and never squeeze the bottle!
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 should take a while to be finished (up to 10- 30 minutes is possible). It is easy to get discouraged by how long bottle feeding takes, so be mindful of your technique during the process. 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. While feeding, you should also resist the temptation to hold them on their back like a human baby—this also can also lead to aspiration and/or choking accidents. The number of bottle feedings per day depends on the age of the puppy/kitten and on the type of formula. Feeding times can range anywhere from 3 to 8 feedings per day or every 3 to 8 hours. This information should be available on the formula purchased.
You should always use extra 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 needed and suggested by your veterinarian.
There is a great deal that comes with raising a newborn puppy or kitten, but hopefully these tips will help! Always remember that if you are worried or concerned about something, contact your veterinarian right away. Newborns do not have fully developed immune systems and can get sick very quickly and very easily. Ensuring that the newborn animal is not in contact with other animals, as well as keeping a very clean environment, can limit their exposure to unwanted illnesses. Taking care of a newborn is a big job, but it is also very rewarding. Remember to stay focused on the animal’s basic needs with a proper enclosure which allows them to be protected and maintain a healthy temperature, making sure that they are having normal bowel movements and urinating normally, and providing proper nutrition and medical attention so that they are able to grow and develop into amazing puppies and kittens!