What to Do if a Mother Cat Won't Nurse Her Kittens

Mother cat with kittens

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Your cat has gone through pregnancy, and she has delivered her kittens. Now the time has come for her to take care of her kittens, but for some reason, she won't nurse them. Perhaps she has completely rejected one or more of her kittens or you're simply not sure she is nursing adequately. What is a concerned cat owner to do?

In most cases, mother cats give birth to kittens and take care of them with little or no human intervention. However, there are times when nature does not take over. That's when humans need to step in and offer assistance.

Why a Mother Cat Won't Nurse Her Kittens

There are several potential scenarios for a mother cat refusing to nurse her kittens. In some cases, the mother cat will start nursing and then stop. Or, the mother cat may never begin nursing in the first place. The mother cat may reject some or all of the kittens. Not only will she refuse to nurse the kittens; she may ignore them altogether or act aggressively when approached by a kitten.

If anything like this happens, your first step should be to take the mother and kittens to the veterinarian as soon as possible. If you can discover the reason why a mother cat won't feed her kittens, you may have a better chance of getting her to start nursing them. Or, you may need to step in and care for the kittens yourself. Either way, your vet can help. Remember: When going to the vet, make sure you take the mother and all of her kittens along, regardless of which ones do or do not appear sick.

Illness in the Mother Cat

If the mother cat is experiencing a health problem, she may be unable or unwilling to nurse her kittens. In some cases, she will not produce enough milk for her kittens. Or, an issue such as mastitis may be affecting her ability to nurse comfortably. Dehydration and malnourishment will also affect milk supply. Any health issues that causes your cat to feel unwell can make her unwilling to nurse her kittens. Even if the mother cat appears healthy, it's best to take her and the kittens to the vet right away if she won't nurse.

Sick or Deformed Kittens

The mother cat may detect or suspect a health problem in one or more kittens and refuse to nurse that individual. She may put the sick kitten out of the nest in an instinctive attempt to protect the other kittens. The problem may be an obvious congenital disability or a major illness or something more subtle. However, this can happen even if there is nothing wrong with the rejected kitten. Do not attempt to put a rejected kitten back into the nest. This is unlikely to be successful and may stress the mother possibly leading her to reject more kittens, maybe even the whole litter. Instead, bottle-feed and keep the rejected kitten warm as you make arrangements to take mother and all kittens to the vet as soon as you can.

Large Litter of Kittens

Some litters can be so large that the mother does not have enough teats to feed all of her kittens. She may also not produce enough milk to feed everyone. The mother may favor the stronger ones and reject the smaller, weaker ones. Once again, do not put rejected kittens back in the nest. Mother and kittens should see the vet as soon as possible. Rejected kittens should be bottle-fed and kept warm in the meantime.

Immature Mother Cat

Very young cats often lack the maturity to be good mothers. They may also lack the energy reserves to produce milk since they are still growing themselves. A female cat may be able to get pregnant as young as four months of age. In most cases, this is much too young for her and her kittens to thrive. If you have a young cat who has rejected some or all of her kittens, you will need to step in and help. Take them to the vet to be examined and talk to your vet about how you can best help the mother and kittens.

Finally, some cats are just not very maternal in nature and don’t make good mothers. If this is the case with your cat, she should not be bred in the future as this trait can be passed on to her offspring.

How to Bottle Feed Kittens

If the mother cat won't feed her newborn kittens at all, it's important to get both the mother and the kittens to a veterinarian as soon as possible. In the meantime, you must find a way to feed the kittens since they need to eat every few hours with the exact frequency depending on their age. This is usually done by bottle-feeding kitten formula. It is also essential to provide motherly care to newborn kittens. Keep them warm and help them urinate and defecate. 

The most commonly available type of kitten formula is called KMR, which stands for "kitten milk replacer." KMR comes in cans or cartons and is available to buy in most pet supply stores and on websites that sell pet supplies. There are other brands of kitten formula available as well. Avoid cow's milk or human baby formula as they are not nutritionally appropriate for kittens and can lead to health problems and even death if fed for a prolonged period of time.

You can use a small kitten feeding bottle to administer formula to the kittens. However, many people find that an eye dropper works best at first. Newborn kittens will need to be bottle-fed about once every two hours. Warm the formula gently and feed about 1 teaspoon (5 mL) to each kitten. This amount is for kittens that were just born. Ask your veterinarian about the proper amounts to feed as the kittens grow.

If your cat is expecting kittens, it's a good idea to have some kitten formula on hand in case the mother has trouble nursing. If you don't end up needing the formula, you can always use it later. Adding kitten formula to moist kitten food may help when the kittens begin to transition to solid food. Or you can donate the kitten formula to a cat shelter or rescue group.

Once you have seen your veterinarian and addressed any issues, you may want to try to get the mother cat to nurse again (only if recommended by your vet). If the mother cat still cannot or will not feed her kittens, then ongoing bottle-feeding will be necessary. Kittens should be bottle-fed kitten milk for at least the first four weeks of their lives. You may begin to introduce kitten food around three weeks of age and once the kitten is eating on its own, gradually start reducing the amount of milk you offer.

Remember that your veterinarian is the best source of information when it comes to kitten care. Ask your vet for information about the amount and frequency of feedings, how to help the kittens urinate and defecate, and how to keep them clean and warm.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.
Article Sources
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  1. Wilson, Courtney R. Feline gangrenous mastitisThe Canadian veterinary journal = La revue veterinaire canadienne vol. 54,3 (2013): 292-4.