During their first four weeks of life, kittens need their mother's milk. If both the mother cat and her kittens are happy, healthy and well-cared for, there should be no problems. Unfortunately, if the mom becomes ill and can't produce enough milk to feed her kittens, she may reject them.
A cat's pregnancy and the birthing process are very stressful for her to handle, especially if she is suffering from a medical condition. Any number of illnesses can affect your mother cat, which can make her feel unwell and unwilling or unable to nurse her kittens. Symptoms of illness include lethargy, weakness and lack of appetite. Bring both mommy and baby kittens to the vet for a checkup to diagnose and treat any possible illnesses, including a post-pregnancy infection. Your vet can also give you advice on bottle-feeding the babies in lieu of mom while she recovers from her illness. Mastitis is a medical condition that can sometimes affect a nursing mother. It results from a bacterial infection of one or more of her mammary glands, making her unable to nurse. If you notice that your cat's teats appear swollen, red or irritated, or that they emit a colored discharge, bring her to a veterinarian for treatment.
Nutrition for a pregnant and nursing mother cat is an important part of keeping her healthy and able to nurse her kittens after their birth. If a mother cat doesn't get proper nutrition, she will be unable to produce enough milk to feed her litter and will refuse to nurse them. To keep up their weight and strength, pregnant or nursing cats need an average of 2 times to 2.5 times the amount of calories per day than an average adult cat needs, according to the National Research Council of the National Academies. A normal, lean cat needs about 30 calories per pound of weight per day, so a pregnant and nursing cat will need between 60 and 75 calories per pound of weight per day. Purchase only foods for your mama kitty listed as "for growth" and meet the nutrient profiles of the Association of American Feed Control Officials. This ensures that your cat's food is properly balanced for her. These foods contain higher amounts of proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals needed for a mama cat.
Fading Kitten Syndrome
Unfortunately, some kittens are born with congenital defects and won't develop properly. If the mama cat senses that a baby is weak or fails to thrive, she will refuse to nurse that kitten or other affected kittens as well. Healthy kittens are born weighing about 3.5 ounces, and they gain 1/4 ounce to 1/2 ounce per day if nursing properly, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. If you notice that one or more of the kittens fails to gain weight, this may indicate a possible genetic, medical or parasitic problem and that mom is failing to nurse them. She may also place them outside of her nest. This condition, known as fading kitten syndrome, encompasses a wide variety of causes for a kitten that just won't thrive, according to DVM360. Bring any such kittens and mom to the vet for an exam, treatment and advice on bottle-feeding them. Don't place rejected kittens back in the nest, because this could cause her to reject the entire litter, warns Purrfect Companions.
Too Many Kittens
Extremely large litters of kittens may be too much for some mother cats to handle. If there aren't enough teats for all the kittens to nurse from, the stronger and larger kittens may nudge the smaller ones out of the way. The mother may also fail to produce enough milk to satisfy all the kittens. Without proper nutrition, a young kitten can quickly become dehydrated. If you notice that the mom cat isn't nursing all of her kittens equally or at all, you may need to step in to bottle-feed some or all of the kittens.
During the first week after birth, it is vital that mom spend quality time with her babies in a safe, warm and secluded spot -- her nest. Keep your interaction with her and the kittens to a minimum during this time, the ASPCA recommends. Constantly bothering mom or her kittens during the first seven days after birth will stress her out, something that can cause her to stop nursing them. Check their health and keep the brood's nest clean, but don't cuddle the kittens excessively, especially if you see it upsets the mother. After the first week, feel free to handle them gently so you can socialize them to people.
Once kittens reach between 3 weeks and 4 weeks old, mom will naturally begin to wean them for up to four more weeks. During this time she will refuse to nurse them as often, if at all, because they are growing teeth, making it very uncomfortable for her. This is completely normal behavior and just means that the little kittens are growing up. Help her out by providing solid food, the same food you've been feeding mom, mixed with kitten milk-replacement formula in a shallow dish to slowly wean them onto solid food.
- VetInfo: Mastitis in Cats
- PetPlace: Fading Kitten Syndrome
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Selecting Nutritious Pet Foods
- National Research Council of the National Academies: Your Cat's Nutritional Needs
- A Safe Haven for Cats: Caring for Newborns
- 2ndchance.info: Bottle Feeding Orphaned Kittens
- 2ndchance.info: The Stages of Feline Labor -- When Your Cat Gives Birth
- 2ndchance.info: Breeding and Caring for Your Pregnant Cat
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Newborn Kitten Care
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Nutrition Tips for Kittens
- kittens nursing / mother cat image by Katrina Miller from Fotolia.com