Many shelters are not set up to care for animals younger than 8 weeks old. Fosters and caretakers like you are vital. Thank you so much for saving little lives!
The first thing you should do is find out whether the animals were actually abandoned. You can read about that here.
If the animals are really orphaned, under 6 weeks of age and your local shelter is unable to care for them, you can foster them yourself if you’re able to commit the time and resources. Here is everything you'll need.
- Keep them warm – This step is essential. Orphan baby animals cannot thermo-regulate their own temperature and may become hypothermic. You can make sure they’re warm by placing a heating pad on low setting under a thick towel or a blanket and placing the baby animals on top. Be careful to place adequate padding between the kittens or puppies and the heating pad to avoid burns. Tuck the towel or blanket under the pad so the kittens and puppies cannot crawl between the towel and the pad. Leave an area where the kittens or puppies can climb off of the heating pad if desired to avoid overheating. The body temperature of a neonate is vital because if their temperature is not maintained the body begins to shut down and they cannot digest.
- Give them the appropriate environment – Very young animals (0-3 weeks) can be kept in a smaller space such as a clear plastic tub (NO LID), animal carrier or a cardboard box. All of these environments should include a heat source (heating pad) and plenty of padding. For older animals (4-8 weeks), get a playpen so they have more space to explore and play.
- Provide proper nutrition – Kittens and puppies have very specific nutritional needs. In order to provide the best care and help them grow up healthy, they need a species-specific milk replacer that closely matches mother’s milk in carbohydrates, proteins, fats and vitamins. KMR® is the best choice for kittens and Esbilac® is the best choice for puppies. Milk replacers are available in ready-to-feed liquid formulas or powdered formulas. They are fed according to the kittens’ or puppies’ body weight.
It's imperative you weigh the animal each time before and after feeding to properly assess the amount of feeding as well as their weight gain progress. Young orphan animals should be fed frequently, and the frequency will depend on their age. Very young animals (0-3 weeks) should be fed about every 2-3 hours. This includes overnight! Older animals (4-6 weeks) can be fed every 4-6 hours. View the feeding schedule and frequency and watch this instructional mixing video.
Both kittens and puppies need to be fed on their belly, never on their back. This is the proper position for feeding as it simulates the same way they would nurse on their mom. Feeding kittens or puppies on their back can result in aspiration or death. Orphan animals should NEVER be fed goat’s milk, cow’s milk, almond milk or DIY formulas. All of these are missing essential nutrients and do not match mother's milk in fats and protein. Feeding these milks and DIY formulas leads to deficiencies, malnutrition, development issues and sometimes death. Always choose a species-specific, commercially produced milk replacer. For more detailed feeding instructions, watch our How to feed a puppy and How to feed a kitten videos.
- Assist them with elimination – Young kittens and puppies (under 3-4 weeks of age) cannot eliminate waste and urine on their own. This would normally be done by their mom. Since you’re taking on the role of their mom, you will have to do this after every feeding. Take a cotton ball or tissue that has been moistened with water and gently stimulate the neonate’s genital area in circular motions to help them go. Be sure to monitor the kittens’ or puppies’ bowel movements closely as it says a lot about their health. Bowel movements should be well formed. Diarrhea or very hard stool can be an indicator of gut health issues or improper feeding.
- Wean at the appropriate age – Kittens and puppies should begin the weaning process around 5-6 weeks of age. This is the time when they start transitioning from a fully milk diet to solid foods. Weaning can be done a number of ways as every kitten or puppy is different, so assess what is the best way to introduce solid food into their diet. You can use KMR® or Esbilac® 2nd Step™, which mixes with either water or reconstituted KMR®/Esbilac® (depending on the species you’re feeding) and lapped from a dish. Another way you can wean a kitten or puppy is by mixing a little bit of wet food into the formula, then bottle feeding it or offering a slurry of wet kitten or puppy food and reconstituted KMR®/Esbilac® in a shallow dish. Some may go straight from a bottle to wet food, then dry food. Others may need a transitional slurry and then dry food. During this process, make sure to supplement with bottle-feeding if you’re unsure the kitten or puppy is eating enough (this may be difficult to determine if you’re caring for a litter who share the food dish). Once the kitten or puppy is confidently eating a slurry on their own, switch to only wet food. During this time, make sure to introduce fresh water in a shallow dish.
- Adopt them out – Once a kitten or puppy is 8 weeks old and at least 2 lbs of weight, they can be spayed or neutered and adopted!