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Syringe feeding (force feeding) and hydration of kittens and cats – reasons and techniques
When is force feeding or nursing needed?
There are two instances wherein force feeding and/or hydration is necessary – feeding a sick cat that won’t eat/ drink or won’t eat/ drink enough and hand nursing unweaned kittens when the mama cat is unable or unwilling to nurse.
Today we will discuss the first instance – feeding and/ or hydrating a sick cat.
One very common situation that calls for force feeding and hydration is caused by fairly common respiratory infections or colds. A cat with a respiratory condition often gets a stuffy and clogged nose, just like we do. They don’t understand about blowing their noses, they get clogged up and can’t smell. Cats don’t understand not being able to smell their food, they rely on their sense of smell to tell them whether something is food and good to eat. Also, as we all know, if you can’t breathe through your nose, it is difficult to simultaneously eat and mouth-breathe. Your cat may try, take a bite and then get confused and afraid of choking when he tries to eat and breathe together.
As a result, a cat that is being medicated and should get better, stops eating and drinking and the situation becomes life-threatening. Remember, your cat can get much sicker very fast if he or she doesn’t eat. Not eating for just a day or two can cause serious or even life-threatening problems with their liver, kidneys (including renal failure), etc. – and it’s easily preventable.
Aside from respiratory infections, there are many conditions suffered by cats that are treatable and/or curable that cause cats to stop eating, due to weakness, lack of appetite, confusion, nausea and many other reasons. However, your cat stands a much better chance of recovery if his caloric intake is maintained and dehydration is avoided. After all, kitty needs his strength!
In addition, we should concern ourselves with situations with cats that are eating normally but, for a variety of reasons, may be becoming dehydrated. If your cat has diarrhea, for example, he may become dehydrated very quickly. Cats with infections, taking antibiotics, need lots of fluids as do cats with constipation. A cat that has been outside in hot weather, especially in direct sunlight, can quickly become dangerously dehydrated (you might see panting, loss of balance or weakness) and be unwilling to drink water on it’s own. Lots of conditions can cause or be caused by dehydration, so it is useful to know how to give your cat water.
Some cats don’t fight, actually enjoy the taste of the liquid food and just relax and swallow. Other cats, with the same illness, will get scared and fight. We will discuss techniques to control your cat while feeding him, if need be.
Foods to use with syringe feeding – and foods not to use:
Firstly, never use regular milk. Cats and kittens are typically very sensitive to lactose, which is found in milk. Lactose causes varying degrees of nausea, diarrhea and vomiting in most cats – we don’t want to make a sick cat sicker (or damage a nursing kitten). In a pinch, you can use a product called Lactaid, which is lactose-free milk sold at most grocery stores. I don’t recommend relying on this, but temporarily, if you have nothing else, it will at least get some calories into kitty until you can get to a pet store or vet’s office.
Milk-replacer sold at pet stores is a good option, especially for a cat that is ill, but will get better, as opposed to a cat suffering a chronic illness . It is sold as a supplement for feeding sick cats as well as for replacing mother’s milk for nursing kittens and for supplementing the diet of pregnant cats (called queens), who don’t generally require force-feeding and show cats (which is not a subject that I am dealing with today). I often recommend KMR milk replacers (esbilac stage 1, petlac, etc) , which is a liquid or a powder that you mix with water. It works well in syringes, cats and kittens love the taste and it seems to be very effective nutrition – I have fed it to several cats that couldn’t or wouldn’t eat on their own and they all stayed strong and got better. However, for a cat that is more seriously ill or chronically ill, you should have a liquid food prescribed by your vet. There are a great many types of veterinary diets, formulated for your cat’s specific illness and dietary needs. It is very important that your cat receives the right balance of nutrients, fats and lipids, fiber, protein, water, etc. KMR and similar brands make excellent products for nursing orphan kittens, but you would do well to discuss product options with your vet. Tiny kittens have very delicate digestive systems that can be damaged easily.
Just as a side note: If your cat requires extra hydration, but is eating and is not really sick, one alternative to giving water with a syringe is to supplement your cat’s diet with meat flavored baby food (which is largely water). Your cat should be eating canned food along with dry, in part for hydration as cats just don’t drink enough water even at the best of times to maintain a proper hydration percentage. However, if your cat needs extra liquid right now, baby food will provide a good hydrating supplement and cats tend to love it, in which case no forcing is necessary. Remember, though, that baby food does not constitute a nutritional supplement for cats, its only use is for hydration.
When you buy the food, you will need a feeding syringe as well. These are plastic, needleless, with measuring marks along the side. They are available in varying sizes, a larger one is appropriate to a larger adult cats, smaller for kittens
So, now that you have determined that your cat needs to be force fed and you have acquired a liquid food and syringe (s), the next step is to feed your cat.
Start out by mixing the food powder with water in a small bowl or, if you are using liquid pour into the bowl. Start with about 1/3 cup. Place the bowl in a larger bowl of hot water. You want to warm, not heat the food and keep it warmed at least to room temperature throughout the feeding process.
Make sure you have a towel for your lap and small towel (s)or washcloth(s) for cleanups. Wet one side with warm water and keep one side dry or use two.
I usually force feed in the bathroom, as it’s the smallest room in the place and if the cat gets away, we don’t have to pull him or her out from under the furniture! I sit cross-legged on the floor, but you should just get comfortable. Cover your lap with the larger towel.
Pick up your cat. I don’t know any cats that like to be placed on their backs, but you must be able to get at his face comfortably. See what works. I usually try a sort of on the side and half-upright position for kitty.
Fill the syringe with the food and insert the tip into the side of the cat’s mouth. This is important, because if you come in from the front, you can accidentally squirt the food into the cat’s throat and cause choking.
Hopefully at this point your cat will take the food in small amounts, swallow and be ready for more in a moment. Some of the food will drip down the cat’s face. This will always happen but is especially true if the cat is struggling. Wipe the food fairly carefully with the warm cloth. If you allow the food to dry on the fur, it will be difficult to get off and, after a few feedings, cause the fur to come off in clumps along with the dried food while you are attempting to clean it. Inevitably, if you have to syringe feed your cat more than a couple of times you will see some redness around the mouth. Try to vary the position of the syringe so it doesn’t rub too much in one place.
If your cat does fight, try wrapping him in another towel. Do it gently but firmly enough that he can’t flail around or scratch and run away. If your cat really protests you might want to wear gloves to save your hands. Most cats, even fighters, will relax somewhat when they realize that the food tastes good and their not being hurt.
Keep the process up until you have fed the amount given on the label of the food product as appropriate for your cat’s size and weight. At least do your best! A bit more or less is ok, give or take. We just want kitty to get some food in and get used to it. It should get easier with each successive feeding session.
If you are using this technique for hydration, it should be easier. You don’t have to do it as long, you don’t have to mess with food products, you just have to pull some lukewarm water into the syringe and go from there. You should check with your vet regarding the amount of water to give your cat in your individual situation. But you can’t really over-hydrate. If at a loss, try one syringe full given several times each day until your cat’s dehydration condition clears up and/or your cat transitions to a new diet that provides sufficient hydration.
Force-feeding and Syringe-feeding are scary sounding terms. But really, this is pretty easy and can save your cat’s life. Think of it somewhat like feeding a baby. Good luck!