Simultaneously adorable and fragile, newborn kittens can be a challenge for caretakers. It helps if you know what to expect in the first few days of life and what you can do to help the kittens maintain their body temperature and thrive in the outside world.
Newborn Kittens: The First 48 Hours
When they are born, kittens are tiny, weighing in at only three or four ounces each. Although they are so small, infant kittens are born with a sense of smell that enables them to find the mother's nipples to nurse. A healthy kitten begins nursing within one hour of its birth and quickly settles on a favorite spot to nurse. During nursing, besides nourishment, the newborns are also receiving important antibodies from their mother's milk. According to Glaven Veterinary Practice, these antibodies that provide immunity to certain diseases only remain in the mother's milk for the first couple of days. The kittens also received certain immunities from their mother before birth as antibodies entered directly into each kitten's bloodstream. However, it is important to know that the protection they receive from the antibodies only lasts for a few weeks, and proper vaccination is necessary.
A newborn kitten sleeps with its head tucked under its chest for the first 48 hours of life. During this time, in addition to nursing, the kitten will move around frequently, kicking, jerking and whimpering at times. This is called activated sleep, and it helps the kitten to develop muscle tone. Think of it as the newborn's way of exercising.
The Kitten's Body Temperature
When a kitten is born, it has the same body temperature as its mother. Although the temperature drops slightly at birth, it goes back up when the kitten snuggles against its mother, and this should happen within 30 minutes of birth. It is imperative that newborn kittens are kept warm with a body temperature of 96 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit during their first three weeks of life.
Newborn kittens stay close to their mother and litter mates as a form of warmth. They can maintain a body temperature that is about ten degrees higher than the temperature of the room. The room temperature where the kitten's box is kept should be between 85 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the first week of the kitten's life. It can then be lowered about five degrees each week until 70 degrees Fahrenheit is reached. Getting chilled is the greatest danger to a newborn kitten during this time.
The First Three Weeks of Life
During the first three weeks of life, kittens spend most of their time sleeping. They awake only for nursing sessions that can last up to 45 minutes. The mother cat, known as the queen, instinctively knows how to feed and care for her babies. She knows to keep her kittens and their nest clean, and she stimulates the kittens' elimination reflex by licking each kitten's rectum and belly.
Eyes and Ears
Newborn kittens are born unable to hear or see. At birth, their eyes and ear canals are both closed. Kittens' ear canals begin to open when they are between five and eight days old. Their tiny ears, which are folded down at birth, begin to stand up and are completely erect by the time they are three weeks old. Kittens' eyes begin to open when they are approximately eight days old and open completely over the next six days. Long-haired kittens' eyes take slightly longer to open than those of short-haired kittens.
When kittens are born, their eyes are blue in color and remain that color for the first three weeks. After this time, they gradually change to their permanent eye color, and it can take up 12 weeks to make the full change.
Standing and Walking
Generally, kittens begin to crawl and try to stand when they reach approximately 14 days old. It usually takes two or three more days for the little kittens to stand completely. Once they succeed, many kittens may try to climb out of their box. Within another week, the kittens are walking, playing and running.
Preparation Is Everything
Raising a litter of newborn kittens can be an experience that is rewarding and memorable. Knowing what to expect from the queen and her kittens, combined with knowledge of proper infant kitten care and an awareness of signs of illness helps to ensure a healthy litter.