Hand-raising kittens is difficult, and hand-raising premature kittens is even harder. If you have premature kittens, your best option is to have the mother cat care for them with your assistance. If that is not possible, prepare yourself for round-the-clock nursing, cleaning and care. Also, realize that even if you do your best, some or all of the kittens may not survive. Being aware of the signs that a premature kitten is in trouble will help you to realize when you need to change the way in which you are caring for the babies or when you need to seek a veterinarian’s assistance.
Oftentimes premature kittens are so underdeveloped or weak that they cannot nurse. If the mother is caring for the premature kittens, ensure they are strong enough to get to the mother’s nipple and suckle. If not, try holding the kitten up to the mother’s body for nursing. If the kitten is unable to nurse from the mother, a syringe or feeding tube may be necessary.
If your premature kitten’s abdomen appears to be distended or bloated, or if the kitten is restless or crying for no discernible reason, the kitten may be constipated. Premature kittens often have bowels that are not fully developed and they can easily become constipated, even if you or the mother cat is stimulating the kitten for bowel movements.
If your premature kitten is cool to the touch, you need to take immediate action. Kittens cannot control their body temperatures and must be kept warm. If the kitten has eaten and had a bowel movement but is crying, it is likely cold. However, premature kittens will quickly fall into hypothermia and be unable to cry. If the kitten becomes cold, warm it slowly. A good way to do this is to take a warm towel straight from the clothes dryer and wrap the kitten in it. Kittens should not be fed if their body temperature drops below 95 degrees. They cannot digest their food when cold. Work to raise body temperature before feeding.
It’s important to monitor premature kittens for signs of dehydration, which can occur quickly in these tiny creatures. Pinch the kitten’s skin near the shoulder blades and pull it upward, release and see how quickly it returns to normal. If it is not immediate, the kitten is dehydrated. You can also examine the kitten’s gums. Sticky gums are a sign of dehydration. In either case, the kitten may need injectable fluids.