Copyright 1996, 2002, 2003 Sarah Hartwell

This article is part of a series looking about cats and cat care in Britain from the late 1800s through to the 1970s.


Cox-Ife, Grace; "Questions Answered About Cats" (1947)
France, Sydney W; "Siamese Cats" (1949)
Soderbergh, P M; "Your Cat" (1951) (using 3rd edition; 1959)
Soderbergh, P M; "Pedigree Cats, Their Varieties, Breeding and Exhibition" (1958)
Tenent, Rose; "Pedigree Cats" (1955)
Mery, Fernand; "The Life, History and Magic of the Cat" (1966) (originally published in French)
Cats Protection League (various leaflets from 1960s & 1970s)

Other sources are as credited in the text with additional personal information and commentary.


Cox-Ife notes that tiny kittens developed sore or "gummy" looking eyes due to exposure to draughts, infected premises or possibly indigestion. The treatment for unweaned kittens was to give the mother a daily dose of milk of magnesia, and to carefully regulate her diet regulated since she might be getting too much food and be unable to digest it properly i.e. souring her milk. If so, a few drops of lime-water should be added to her milk meal and the same treatment in suitably smaller proportions should be given to the kittens. To treat the eyes themselves, the eyes should be bathed night and morning with warm water in which a few boracic crystals have been dissolved, after which Vaseline or eye ointment should be smeared on the eyelids.

Hand-rearing was a more hit-or-miss affair than it is today, but evidently was worth attempting if the kittens were sufficiently valuable. Cox-Ife instructs the reader to use a patent dried milk food specially prepared for animals and mixed according to the manufacturer's instructions. For the first three weeks the kittens must be fed every four hours day and night with the milk. The milk could be fed using fountain pen fillers or an eggspoon since kittens soon learn to suck the milk from the tip of the spoon. She recommended wrapping an old towel round each kitten during feeding, otherwise it will spill milk all over itself. The kittens also require warm bedding and, in rooms which got cold overnight, a hot bottle under the blanket. Bowel activity in the early days should be assisted after each feed by gentle massage under the tail with wads of cotton wool.

Later on, "The cutting of the permanent teeth may cause soreness of the gums, capricious appetite, restlessness and occasionally fits. Kittens are more susceptible to infection at this time and extra care should be taken not to expose them to unnecessary risks. For sore and inflamed gums gently rub with cotton wool moistened with neat T.C.P."

Cox-Ife also wrote of fits in kittens, something rarely noted in more modern kitten care books: "A fit is usually brought on by fear or over-excitement at a period when the system is already disturbed. The kitten may rush about wildly, bumping into furniture, etc., or it may howl in a hysterical fashion. Rest, warmth and quiet are usually all that is necessary in the way of treatment. Put the kitten in a basket containing a warm blanket, close the lid and place the basket in a quiet, darkened room for an hour or two. In cold weather a hot-water bottle should be placed under the top blanket. Half a tablet of bromide may be given if it can be got down without undue difficulty, but if the kitten becomes too excited and struggles wildly it is better to withhold the dose than to aggravate its condition."

Not all kittens were wanted and cat care books of the day sometimes contained advice on disposing of unwanted kittens. Cox-Ife wrote that the common method of "drowning, even of newly born kittens, is cruel and prolonged. Disposal should instead be done as soon after birth as possible by gently pressing the kittenís nose and mouth into a pad of cotton wool on which a little chloroform has been sprinkled. The chloroform will take effect in a very short time." Readers unable to obtain chloroform were instructed to get the vet to dispose of the kittens.

Regarding a kitten's first solids, fresh fish was considered the most suitable if finely mashed with a little of the liquor in which it is cooked. An alternative to fish was well-cooked rabbit mixed with brown breadcrumbs or a teaspoonful of finely scraped lean raw beef or mutton. The meat or fish meals should be given once a day up to the age of eight weeks, then two solid meals a day up to nine or ten weeks. Milk meals should be given as well, making a total of four meals a day, but owners were warned to never give milk and meat together and to allow four hours between each meal.

Chopped cooked carrot or greens, barley porridge, any cereal food, brown bread, cooked tripe, cooked liver, milk pudding, meat gravy, eggs either raw (beaten up) or cooked could be added to the diet for the sake of variety and convenience once the kitten was fully weaned (from about four months). She cautioned that potato should not be given, and any starchy food should be given in small quantities only. Biscuit food should be fed moistened.


Soderberg assigns most kitten care duties to the mother cat , advising observation for the first ten days. While the mother cat should be given extra nourishment, the kittens are best left undisturbed.

"Contented kittens during the first fortnight rarely cry. If, however, they are noisy for long periods, this is an indication that something is wrong and you will have to try to ascertain the cause. It is most unusual for trouble to occur, but sometimes there is a weakling in the family who is neglected by the mother. This kitten is restless and noisy and the mother knows by instinct that it is not worth rearing. When this happens and the kitten looks different from the others, you should accept the motherís judgment and destroy it."

Then, as now, kittens were prone to gummy eyes: "A form of infectious conjunctivitis which occasionally appears in a litter, and then all the eyes are affected. Stuck up eye-lids must be attended to or there may be damage to the eye itself. Gentle bathing with warm water and cotton wool is helpful, and if the edge of the lids is lightly smeared with neoprotosil ointment, the queen will usually lick the kittens and thus help the eyes to open. A few minutesí attention each day should soon effect a cure, but it is essential to continue treatment until the eyes remain open quite normally. No young kitten will open its eyes in bright light, so do not jump to false conclusions."

All going well, It is not until weaning time that the owner really needs to become involved with the kittens themselves. For the first month, the mother is able to cope with feeding if she is well fed and healthy, however after four weeks Soderberg writes that the mother cat may be feeling the strain of feeding a litter.

"From the end of the fourth week the first attempt should be made to start the kittens feeding themselves. This is a task which always requires considerable patience. The first food offered to kittens must be liquid and as similar to the motherís milk as possible. A little of this food is placed in a teaspoon and attempts are made to persuade the kitten to lap. Experience usually shows that this method of feeding is not instinctive, and such a new method of acquiring nourishment has to be learned. It sometimes helps to smear a little of the liquid round the lips, for a pleasant taste is likely to produce a keenness to obtain more. After three or four days the kitten shows an eagerness for its food and can take it from the spoon without difficulty. Half a teaspoon twice a day will be enough for the first three or four days.

The next step is to put the food in a saucer, but only in small quantities, for a kitten who feeds its nose instead of its mouth often becomes terrified and hesitates to make a fresh start. Gradually the quantity of food may be increased until after about ten days the daily intake will be as much as three teaspoons divided between the two meals. When once her kittens are beginning to feed themselves, the strain upon the mother is considerably relieved. To achieve the best results you must always try to feed the kittens before they have fed from the mother."

Weaning onto solids is the next step and "Various forms of semi-solid food can be used from the sixth week onwards, and some kittens will appreciate small quantities of mashed fish or scrambled egg. Meat is best withheld until the kittens are over eight weeks. It must be remembered, however, that no two breeders see eye to eye on the question of kitten feeding."

Weaning was helped by physically separating the mother from her kittens during the daytime. While Soderberg suggests it is a case of breeder being wiser than nature, wild cats spend long periods of time hunting in order to feed themselves and their families.

Soderberg wrote "The weaning process starts when the kittens begin to feed themselves and ends when they are finally removed from the mother. She herself helps in this process, for as they grow older she leaves them for longer periods. From the beginning of the seventh week, the breeder must take a hand by enforcing longer periods of separation, and by the end of that week it is a good plan to keep her away all day and merely to return her to the family at night. By adopting this method the queenís milk will gradually diminish, and as a consequence the youngsters will be the more anxious to feed themselves. Certainly by the end of the ninth week separation should be complete. Neither mother nor kittens will appreciate the change at first, but this is one of those occasions where the breeder knows better than the cat."

This certainly seems an odd approach by modern standards. Most kittens have graduated onto solids by eight weeks without the necessity of enforced separation from their mother.

"No kitten should be sold until it is completely weaned. From the point of view of the breeder it is much less trouble to keep the kittens with the mother until they go to their new homes, but such a course is not fair to the purchaser. Minor troubles are much more likely at the time of final separation than they will be a week later, and the novice who buys a kitten should be able to expect to be off to a fair start. It is the duty of the breeder to see that the kitten goes to a suitable home, and he should not be prepared to part with a kitten unless he feels assured in this respect. With each kitten, too, should be sent a diet sheet, so that feeding similar to that to which it has been accustomed can be continued. Sudden changes of diet always cause internal disorders which result in a setback in development. This is a bad start for the new owner to say the least of it."

Regarding the homing of kittens, Soderberg wrote "The safest age to sell a kitten is ten weeks, although many are sold when they are barely eight weeks old. If the kitten is to be sent abroad by sea or air, it should definitely not be less than four months old, and many breeders would consider even that to be too young."


In "Pedigree Cats", Tenent gave advice on how to choose a healthy kitten. "Make sure that ii is at least eight weeks old, thoroughly weaned, and house trained. If you can persuade the breeder to keep it until it is ten or even twelve weeks old, so much the better. Unless you are looking for a future prize-winner or brood queen, there is no need to worry overmuch about what arc known as show points. As a novice you may not recognize them anyway. What you should look for is stamina, i.e. a lively kitten that scampers about the room; and, if it is one of a litter, pushes its little brothers and sisters aside at mealtimes for the biggest share of the rations [...] Make sure you are given the kittenís pedigree. Although this may not seem important just at first, remember it is a record of your petís ancestry, and, as such, is a key to many of its characteristics and also to its health."


The 1960s CPL leaflet also contained advice on the hand-rearing of kittens, no doubt much more of a hit-and-miss business than it is today: "This may have to be resorted to if the mother cat dies or is unable to feed her kittens. The kittens must be fed every two hours, day and night, on warm milk or fine oatmeal gruel, or any well recommended branded food suitable for this purpose. A fountain pen filler with a small piece of rubber tubing (valve rubber) attached to the end to act as a teat, is best for this purpose and the kitten should be given as much of the milk food as it will take. Do not squirt the liquid down the kittenís throat. Hand feeding is very difficult and entails a great deal of time and patience. One cannot lay down hard and fast rules regarding the feeding of kittens or cats. Owners will soon find out what their particular kitten or cat likes and what suits it best, from the foods suggested. The simpler the feeding the better, and provided common sense is used and the food is fresh and given with discretion, the kitten should thrive."

(Note: Dates of CPL leaflets are approximate since the earlier leaflets are undated).



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