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THE JOYS AND PERILS OF RAISING LITTLE KITTENS

August 18, 2014

If you follow this blog you will have noticed that it has been a couple of months since I last wrote anything. Well, I have been busy with the latest residents of the cat room. Nine weeks ago today my new foster family arrived. Meet Patsy and her three 13-day old kittens. Patsy is a sweet-natured and friendly young mum only 10 months old herself, and these are her first kittens, born in a shed. There are two girls and a boy, all dark grey and stripey on arrival but I was told they would become black like their mother, and so they have.

Born blind and deaf, as all kittens are, at 13 days old their eyes were only just beginning to open and were still a bit sticky, their ears not quite unfurled, and they were not venturing far from the comfort of mum. But otherwise they were feeding well and seemed contented and healthy.

I took a few photos of them and decided rather uncharitably that they ought to be called ET and Yoda. However, in the Cats Protection tradition, I gave all the kittens names beginning with the letter P the same as  Patsy so we could tell on the system that they are a family – the two girls are Poppy and Petal and the much smaller little boy I called Peanut.

Although I have had mums with older mostly weaned kittens, this is the first time I have had such little ones. Patsy feeds the kittens, washes and toilets them, and makes little grunting noises to them if they wander too far, and looks at me as if to say “Am I doing it right?”  It’s the blind leading the blind Patsy, but we will both just have to do our best!

Patsy was such a sweetie! I had to be careful at first not to make a fuss of her whilst she was feeding the kittens because she rolled over to have her tummy tickled, flinging suckling babies aside as she did it!

How to tell the sex of a kitten

When I collected the kittens and Alan was lifting their little tails and saying “girl… girl… boy…” it was obvious to me which was which. When I got them home and looked again, not so straightforward! Kittens are notoriously hard to sex. For the record, this is how to do it.

It is easiest to tell if you have a boy and a girl side by side to compare.

Lift the kitten’s tail and look at the openings. Females have the anus and urinary opening close together and the urinary opening is shaped more like a slit (one of our fosterers describes it as an upside down exclamation mark!);  males have the two openings about 1/2 inch apart, the urinary opening is a tiny round hole and often there is the tiniest bud of a scrotum between the two. My little boy kitten definitely had budding boy bits!

Creating the right environment

For older cats I usually put their bed up on the worktop as cats like to sleep high up where they are safe and have a good view of approaching threats. However this would be dangerous for little kittens who could easily roll off and injure themselves. So I created a makeshift bed by rolling a blanket into a doughnut shape big enough for Patsy to stretch out and give the kittens space to feed. I placed this in a private corner of the pen on the floor, and covered it with a couple of fleeces and a piece of fake sheepskin.

It obviously met with approval – Patsy went straight to it and brought the kittens with her.

At the other end of the pen I put her litter tray – an adult size one for now as they kittens’ toileting was taken care of by Patsy – and food and water bowls somewhere in between. I fed her Felix kitten food and Purina Pro Plan kitten biscuits to provide the extra nutrition nursing mums need.

Growing fast… and not so fast…

By 16 days old differences between the little ones were clearly emerging. Poppy, the biggest of the three, was a confident little monkey who was already wandering away from the nest to explore and liked to be stroked and have her tummy tickled. Conversely, Peanut was still wobbly and rickety and his eyes only just open and a bit sticky and gunky.

The Cats Protection co-ordinator suggested that I weigh the kittens regularly. For what it was worth, with my highly unreliable kitchen scales, at 16 days Poppy weighed around 300g, Petal 275g and Peanut only 175g. This made Peanut light for his age but I was told nothing to worry about. I had Poppy and Petal out to play leaving Peanut some time to feed on his own.

By 18 days old I definitely WAS worried about Peanut. He had gained another 20g but his sisters had put on a further 75g apiece. His eyes were closed a lot of the time and he was moving from teat to teat and only sucking for a minute or two and then crying quietly. Patsy kept looking at me for reassurance. I talked about his problems on Facebook – after all, a lot of my FB Friends are cat people – and got lots of advice from concerned Peanut fans.

First was to get him checked by the CP vet. Then to supplement his feeding, although I had been told this wasn’t necessary. And thirdly to keep him warm after feeding. All sound advice.

Kittens digest their food better if they are warm, and they can’t regulate their own body temperature until about 4 or 5 weeks of age. An odd piece of advice, which I didn’t follow but have stored for future reference, was to warm the tummies and backs of orphaned kittens with a hairdryer on a low heat after feeding. With this in mind though, and seeing that Peanut was often pushed away from Patsy whilst the girls continued to feed, I placed the bedding on a bigger blanket, with a heat pad under the blanket NEXT to the bed. It just gives out a gentle warmth and all the kittens liked lying on it.

The vet visit

The following day, when Peanut was 19 days old, I had the vet look him over. There was nothing measurably wrong with him, other than being underweight and having sticky eyes. I had heard of Fading Kitten Syndrome and thought he might have that, but Peanut didn’t seem poorly as such just very behind in development. He was very cross with the vet and tried to bite him (you’ve not got any teeth yet little man!) with quite a strong jaw grip! The verdict was that he may have had one of several enzyme-related conditions. I’m not sure I completely understood the explanation but I interpreted this as meaning it was preventing him from processing his mother’s milk. Some kittens overcome it and some don’t make it to 8 or 9 weeks, and unfortunately there is nothing you can do about it. If he was strong enough he might catch up a bit when he got to the eating solids stage. The vet didn’t think that it would help much to supplement feed.

We had some Fusithalmic for Peanut’s sticky eyes – an eye gel to be applied twice a day for a week.

Over the next couple of days Peanut managed to suckle a bit, he put on the requisite 9 or 10g a day and his eyes were less stuck up, although they still needed to be washed morning and night.

Then he just stopped putting on weight.

Supplement feeding

Both the vet and the CP co-ordinator had said they didn’t think there was much benefit to be gained from supplementing his feeding, but neither would it hurt him. Baby Peanut was now 4 weeks old and had put on zero weight in the previous week. Having said that, he was still enjoying exploring his surroundings and playing with his now quite big and boisterous sisters. I decided there was nothing to lose by giving him some kitten formula.

But easier said than done!  First I tried a bottle, but I couldn’t persuade him to suck. Then we tried to syringe it into his mouth but he clamped his jaws shut and refused to swallow. More ended up on me than in Peanut’s mouth. Eventually in desperation I made up 15 ml in a saucer – I dipped my finger in it and wiped it on Peanut’s mouth – he licked his lips. Then he licked my finger, then tried to chew my finger, and suddenly got the hang of lapping it from the saucer. Eureka!

We supplemented his mum’s milk with 15ml in a saucer 4 or 5 times a day and it seemed to be working well. He gained 50g in about 48hrs (which I would say suggests he had been rather dehydrated) and then put on steadily over the next couple of days.

July 5th was Tour de France day – a massive event for Yorkshire! – and Peanut was 4½  weeks old. He had a lovely day sitting on my lap, watching the race on my Kindle with me and batting at the cyclists as they moved across the screen. He drank milk, snuggled up and went to sleep.

July 6th he seemed a bit flat and his breathing was laboured after feeding.

July 7th he had a visit from a friend of mine (someone who adopted one of my foster cats last year as it happens).  She gave him his saucer of milk. He played and had a cuddle with her.  She commented on the fact that his breathing was difficult and that his gums were very pale.

A privilege to have known you little man…

On the morning of July 8th when I went into the pen with their breakfast, I saw straight away that Peanut was sat on his own, listless, heaving with every breath. I was mindful of the advice “You give up when he gives up” and looked at him struggling.   I called the vet.

One thing I will say about our vet is that he is a good “rescue animal” vet. He gives our animals EVERY chance but is clear about the decisions we have to make. They are not always easy decisions. He spent quite a lot of time thoroughly examining baby Peanut, listening to his heart and his breathing, observing the blue tinge to his gums and the whites of his eyes, carrying out an ultrasound examination of his chest. There was a sound in his lungs, and some issue with his heart (either enlarged or malformed).  His growth was not sufficient to sustain the development of his tiny organs and at that moment he had a severe problem with his breathing. His outlook was very poor. We could have spent money carrying out further investigations, and we would have done if there had been a fighting chance that they would have saved his life, but they wouldn’t have changed his outlook. Every penny spent on Peanut would have been a penny we couldn’t spend on a cat with a better chance of survival. The decision to let him drift peacefully off to sleep was hard but clear.

I have to say this is a low point in my time as a fosterer. This isn’t what you sign up for. It happens to all fosterers at some time and as the vet said, if you aren’t upset when something like this happens you probably shouldn’t be doing the job. Grieve for the loss but then think of all the cats and kittens you HAVE helped, and often against the odds.

So life goes on…

It was sad to visit the kitten pen and not to see Peanut’s little face. But for Poppy and Petal life goes on and is full of fun! Now 5 weeks old, they were drinking water from a bowl, using a baby litter tray for both liquids and solids, but not yet interested in solid food despite me smearing it round their mouths and offering it mashed up with a bit of kitten formula.

They learnt to scale the wire mesh door in front of the washing machine and could now get on to the worktop in the pen with no problem. Getting down not so easy! I put a chair covered in a blanket for them to clamber down, and pillows on the floor in case of accidents.  They were spending a lot of time practicing wrestling, chasing, posturing and pouncing, and everything except kitten food was going in their mouths!

Tags: bereavement, kittens, weaning

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