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BIRTH TO FOUR WEEKS OF AGE
Ginger Meeker, RN, Ph.D.
Newborn kittens are fat and sleek, nursing frequently and sleeping contentedly. From birth on, weights should be carefully recorded and monitored at birth, twelve hours after birth and daily for the first two weeks of life using an accurate scale. A battery operated kitchen gram or ounce digital scale are available at most kitchen stores. Many breeders continue daily weights until kittens are beyond 2 weeks of age and this is a personal preference. At birth, kittens can be identified by their color/pattern or by using narrow colored ribbons or tape. A growth chart should be kept on each kitten so variation can be quickly spotted. Failure of weight gain often is the first sign of illness in a newborn animal
A newborn kitten weighs 110_120 grams (3.5_4 ounces) depending on the breed and nearly doubles the weight by the end of the first week. Weight gains also depend on the litter size. Without supplemental food, a kitten from a litter of 2, on average, reaches a body weight of 350 grams in 12 days whereas 27 days are needed for a kitten from a litter of seven.
NOTE: To convert grams to ounces divide by 30 and to convert ounces to grams multiply by 30.
At birth the kittens heart rate is above 200 beats per minute and the respiratory rate is 15_35 breaths per minute in kittens younger than 2 weeks of age. Normal body temperature is 96_97 degrees F. and when the kitten is 4 weeks of age the temperature has gradually increased to 100 degrees F.. Newborn kittens should never be left unattended or warmed on an electric heating pad as their neuromuscular reflexes are not present until about one week of age and severe burns can result. Warm water heating blankets, rubber gloves filled with warm water or small cardboard boxes lined with blankets and infant diapers are better choices for maintaining warmth or warming a cool kitten. A very cold kitten may also respond to the warm air, on low setting, from a hair dryer_ again being very careful not to burn the kitten. One helpful technique for warming a kitten is using a bag of unopened IV fluids warmed in the microwave and covered with layers of fabric to prevent burning the kitten. Be aware that kittens do not generally need external warming if mother is present.
Once the process of birth is completed and the kittens are warm, dry and settled they should be fully examined. While, in an ideal world, all newborn kittens would be examined by a veterinarian, in the majority of cases this simply isn't practical _for many reasons. If you have an excellent working relationship with your veterinarian, set up a house call for kitten exam and work with the vet and learn to examine kittens for yourself. As you develop your observation and assessment skills you will then only ask for veterinary assist if you are uncomfortable with an observation or see a serious problem needing further intervention. Any kitten that requires euthanization should receive veterinary service. When assessing the newborn kitten be certain to work on a heated surface and be aware that the kittens body temperature needs to be maintained.
NEWBORN PHYSICAL ASSESSMENT
Kittens should be plump, round and free of any gross abnormalities of size or shape. Working with your breeder or veterinarian, you should be aware of the common congenital abnormality problems your breed may present you.
Develop a system of observation and inspection and then carefully follow it for each kitten. Generally, the exam starts at the head and proceeds to the feet/tail. At all times you are looking for normal and abnormal findings. The head should be mobile and the kitten should exhibit a rooting reflex (pushing of the head into warm objects like your hand). Look closely at the skull for evidence of an open fontanel ("soft spot") harelip or cleft palate. Check the ears for size and position and check the nose for the presence of accumulated fluid in the nostrils. Gently open the mouth and inspect for evidence of a cleft palate (incomplete closing of the "roof" of the mouth). The mouth should be pink and membranes in the mouth should be moist. Sucking reflex should be present and strong.
Now look at the body in general to assess the completeness of the hair covering. The kitten should be fully coated with fur and the amount of hair may vary with some breeds. Check the entire skin surface for wounds and signs of dehydration. If the skin is pinched it should return to normal position almost instantly. "Sticky" skin or skin that "tents" signals significant dehydration and veterinary intervention is needed. The coat should be shiny and clean.
Breathing should be regular and not labored. To assess the chest a veterinarian would use an infant size bell and diaphragm on the stethoscope to assess for abnormal heart and lung sounds. These sounds are very difficult to hear in the infant kitten (neonate).
Muscle tone should be strong but a newborn kitten can't support its own weight until age 16 days. Look at the limbs for position and any deformity. Gently palpate for (feel) the presence of the long bones in the limbs. Look at the number and position of the toes and foot pads. Move the limbs to make certain full joint mobility is present.
After nursing, the kitten will have an enlarged abdomen and should be calm and resting. If the abdomen is enlarged but the kitten is restless, weak, limp, screaming or fully silent seek veterinary evaluation as serious injury or illness may be present.
Observe the area of the umbilical cord carefully for any signs of infection or abnormality of the abdominal wall around the cord. Daily checking of the cord and surrounding area is recommended and it any signs of infection occur notify the veterinarian for antibiotic therapy. The cord generally drops off 2_4 days after birth.
Finally, check the tail, anus and genitals to determine all are present and appear normal. Using a moist cotton ball rub the anal area in a circular motion to stimulate urination and defecation. Observe for any blood in the urine, diarrhea or constipation. Blood in the urine will be evident because the urine will be pink , red or very dark amber. Normal urine is clear straw yellow. Stool should be soft and mustard color. Meconium (the very first stool) is dark brown_black, shiny and very sticky. For the first stool this is normal.
At birth, the testes of the male kitten have descended into the scrotum but may move up and down the inguinal canal for a period of time. Sex differentiation is not difficult if one remembers that the distance from the anus to the preputial orifice (urethra) in the male is greater than the distance from the anus to the vulva in the female. With a millimeter ruler, this distance can be measured and at birth the distance between landmarks on the male is 12.9mm (+/_ 1.5mm) and in the female 7.6mm (+/_ 1.0mm).
Generally, the care the queen gives the kittens at the time of birth is crucial to the kittens survival and a topic of some controversy among breeders. Most queens are attentive to their kittens_ at birth they cut the cord, consume the placenta and clean up the kitten. The queen then stimulates toileting and then encourages the kitten to nurse. Some queens spend hours with their kittens attending to every detail while other mothers leave the "nest" for a stroll once all the kittens are clean, dry, fed and sleeping. First time (primiparous) mothers are more likely to need help but even first time moms develop good mothering skills in a day or two.
Knowing what to look for in kitten behavior will help you know if you need to intervene or if mom is meeting kitten needs.
After birth, the next critical period of time is between birth and 2 weeks. During this neonatal period (the kitten is technically known as a neonate) disease contracted in utero or during the birth process manifest. Since infectious diseases are often very closely linked with cattery design or management, high neonatal kitten loss can well point to a serious problem within the cattery requiring veterinary intervention.
Unfortunately, most kittens that die at birth or during the first few weeks of life are seldom necropsied and the REAL cause of death is seldom determined. If "why" isn't known, corrective steps can't be taken. Disease that occurs in kittens 2 weeks of age and above are the most easily prevented by good cattery design and management. If, in the past, you have not had very young kittens that died necropsied (posted) due to cost, please consider that the procedure might well have SAVED you money in the long run. If the kitten died of an infectious process perhaps the littermates could be started on antibiotic therapy early and increase their chance of survival. Also consider that a kitten born dead and appearing grossly normal may conceal congenital problems internally that should alert you to a problem breeding you might not wish to repeat. Death of any kitten is traumatic and why not gain all the information possible from the event.
Although newborn kittens have glycogen stores in their livers at birth, these kittens need to be fed within 12 hours of birth to avoid hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and hypothermia (below normal body temperature).
Ideally, the queen stays near the kittens after birth to provide a source of warmth as well as the 2_3 ml of milk they nurse every 3 hours. (Note: ml=cc) By age 2 weeks, a kitten suckles 5_7 ml of milk per meal and the queen may stay out of the box for longer periods of time. Colostrum is the antibody rich milk produced the first 24_72 hours after birth. The intestinal tract of the kitten can absorb the antibodies directly into the blood stream from the gut during this time frame and acquire what's known as "passive systemic immunity". If ,for whatever reason, the kitten does not ingest this colostrum during the first few hours of life the kitten is left without blood antibodies. Kittens without these antibodies are very susceptible to infections that enter the blood through the skin or mucous membranes of the respiratory, digestive or genitourinary system. Passive local immunity is established for as long as the kittens are nursing. Even after the queen is no longer producing the colostrum, her milk still contains appreciable levels of antibodies. Though these antibodies are no longer absorbed into the kitten's bloodstream they act locally within the oropharynx, esophagus, stomach and intestines to prevent local invasion by microorganisms ingested with the food. Passive local and systemic immunity are both essential for survival of the newborn kittens.
After each meal, the queen licks the kittens perineal region to stimulate urination and defecation with the queen ingesting the urine and feces. At age 3 weeks the kittens are more active, playing and learning to eliminate "away from the nest". By imitation they learn to use the litterbox.
At age 4 weeks, the kittens may be offered some supplemental food such as small pieces of meat, canned food or baby food but weaning is NOT started at this time. Kittens do however learn to "lap" liquids at about 3 weeks of age and this is a skill they need to posses before they can begin to bite and eat.
The composition of the queens milk varies during the nursing period. During the four week period we are reviewing, the protein content increases from 6.5 to 10 % and the fat content decreases.
With newborn kittens artificial feeding may be necessary to supplement queens milk in the case of a large litter or to fully feed a kitten(s) if the queen becomes ill or dies. There are many recipes available to replace queens milk but most texts recommend the use of a commercially prepared queens milk replacement due to the complex nutritional needs of the kitten.
If a kitten is hand_raised the feeder also has to assume the toileting responsibilities. Once the kitten is fed, urination and defecation are accomplished by stimulating the perineal area with a moist cotton ball. Once the kitten toilets, clean up the kitten and replace the kitten in a properly warmed "nest". Environmental temperature should be about 90 degrees for the first 2 weeks and 80 degrees after that. Care to maintain the kittens body temperature is most important as hypothermia (below normal body temperature) is the primary cause of death in infant kittens.
To assess kitten growth, weigh kittens daily on the most sensitive scale you can afford. A weight increase of 10 grams or more daily is ideal.
The kittens visual system needs time after birth to develop. At birth the kittens ocular (eye) development is about equivalent to that of a 5 month human fetus. At birth the eyes are sealed until age 4_15 days. At first the eyes open slightly and may appear slit but by day 17 both eyes are fully and completely open. Early handling can speed up this process by about 24 hours. If the eyes open and then close again be very observant for signs of infection.
Some reflexes associated with vision are present even before the eyes are open:
(A) palpebral reflex_ starts at about 3 days of age and by 9 days is a fully adult level reflex. This reflex stimulates closure of the eye when the eyelid or cornea is touched
(B) light blink reflex disappears about age 21 days of age probably because acute pupil control develops at this time. This reflex stimulates the kitten to turn its head away from a light source. This might be an important point to remember if using flash to photograph young kittens. Pupil response to light normally appears within 24 hours of the eyes opening and takes 2_3 days to develop normal speed.
Visual acuity develops independently of the eye opening. Visual pursuit first happens as an eye with head turning movement about 11 days of age when a kitten will first follow people or a moving object. Angles and arcs of vision continue to develop for the entire first month. Visual placing of the forelimbs first occurs between day 22_28. This development is significantly related to good visual acuity in the kitten. Depth perception is well developed in the kitten by 4 weeks of age. As the kitten grows and its vision matures it then learns to avoid running into objects and can visually find its food.
Eye color starts to change at about 3 weeks of age although early handling can speed this slightly.
Adult cats respond to a silhouette of their own species as they would an actual animal. Adult cats are apparently threatened by the shadow on first sight and react by standing hair on end (piloerection). Kittens at age 4 weeks show no piloerection to the same shadow.
Smell is highly developed at birth and by age 2 days a kitten will react to and avoid offensive odors. Smell (olfaction) is well developed at this early age because of its importance in guiding the young animal to the mammary glands for nursing. By age 3 days each kitten establishes a preferred nipple position and primarily uses odor to identify and follow previous paths to the specific nipple.
Distress caused by removing the young kitten from its home area can be quieted by providing the smell of the area even without physical contact. If placed near the home area, a tiny kitten will crawl to it, guided by smell, and fall asleep. When a kitten begins to explore outside areas it's the odor cues for home that provide orientation for its return. At about the age of 3 weeks, vision develops and the smell cues become less important.
The sense of touch is fairly well developed at birth again because this sense plays such an important part in orienting the kitten. At birth, a kitten does not have the ability to maintain body heat so huddling is necessary for survival. For this reason, Rooting behavior (pushing of the head into warm objects) is present until the kitten is about 16 days of age. Many touch reflexes are present at birth and include:
(A) auriculonasocephalic reflex which determines that the kitten will turn it's head to the stimulus side when the face is touched
(B) Galant's reflex which determines that the kittens head and trunk will turn to the stimulus side when the flank region is touched. Take some time and watch how a queen uses touch with her paw to direct her kittens. Physical contact with the queen has a calming effect on the young and they will often bury their heads in her fur. This behavior may even be carried over into the adult cat that can be calmed by having it's face covered with a hand.
Hearing development in the kitten is not fully developed at birth with the external auditory canal beginning to open between days 6_14 (average day 9)and completely open by day 17. A kitten's hearing startle response to a sharp noise is highly variable from kitten to kitten and appears within a few days of the ear canal opening. Kittens will begin orienting to a sound as early as day 7 and will investigate a sound by age 13_16 days. Sound recognition of littermates or people develops by age 3_4 weeks.
By age 2 days a kitten can purr and this act actually functions as a form of communication between queen and kittens. The communication is vocal for her and tactile for the kittens as they only stop nursing to "purr" and swallow.
Studied less than any other sense since it's very hard to evaluate but by one day of age a kitten can detect NaCl (table salt) in milk and by 10 days of age shows definite response to salt and bitter tastes with possible responses to the tastes of sweet and sour. The sweet taste response is minimal at best but some cats do develop strong liking for foods with a high sugar content. In testing tastes, it was found that maximum sensitivity to taste happened at 30 degrees C., the normal temperature of the tongue.
Learning is defined as a change in behavior as the result of an individual's experience. Kittens can learn immediately after birth and by age 10 days the kitten has learned to locate a preferred teat for nursing, primarily through trial and error, but that's learning. Also by age 10 days, kittens have learned to avoid or escape offensive situations. Handling kittens daily for the first month may improve the kitten's learning ability.
Malnutrition can have an especially strong influence on a kittens ability to learn and there is evidence the nutritional deprivation may result in food_related emotional behaviors. In severe nutritional deprivation in early kittenhood can result in a negative permanent affect on neuron development and learning ability. Runts in a normal litter may suffer neurologically because of nutritional problems in addition to possible psychological difficulties induced by intimidation from normal size littermates. Early separation from the mother can affect a kitten in multiple ways. Commonly there is an increased amount of random non_goal directed movement or activity, these kittens are more emotional in various situations and the kittens are slow to calm down later.
Of all the developmental behaviors, play is the most familiar and generates the most outward responses from humans. Kitten play can be expressed through a wide variety of patterns. Self play starts at about 2 weeks of age when a kitten will begin to bat moving objects (like mom's tail). This batting play develops with muscle coordination and age 3 weeks finds more social play aimed at pawing with occasional biting. Leaping is a real variable play skill and will show between ages 17_43 days. "Belly_up" play is first seen about day 21_23 and describes kittens on their backs with front limbs making a pawing motion and back limbs treading in the air. In this posture, teeth are also exposed. "Stand_up" play also appears about day 23 and this posture is where one kitten is standing over a second kitten in the "belly_up" position. In stand_up play both kittens may paw and bite each other.
Now, as you hold that tiny kitten be aware that you are increasing his ability to learn and survive in the world, you are speeding up his eye color change, and may be generally experiencing an extreme sense of awe at the miracle Nature has shared with you.
Beaver, Bonnie V. DVM, MS; Feline Behavior: A Guide For Veterinarians; WB Saunders, 1992
Christiansen, Ib J, DVM; Reproduction in the Dog and Cat;
Siegal, Mordicai, DVM editor; The Cornell Book of Cats; Villard Books, NY, 1989
Hoskins, Johnny D, DVM; Veterinary Pediatrics: Dogs and Cats From Birth to Six Months; WB Saunders, 1990
Pederson, Niels C., DVM; Feline Husbandry: Disease and Management in the Multiple_Cat Environment; American veterinary Publication, Inc., 1991
Murtough, Robert J., DVM; The Cat_ Chapter 55: Pediatrics: The Kitten From Birth of Eight Weeks
11 1996, Castlkatz, Ginger Meeker, RN, PhD
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