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. What is a concerned cat owner to do?

In most cases, mother cats can 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 reasons why a mother cat will refuse 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.

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 milk for her kittens. Or, an issue such as mastitis may be affecting her ability to nurse. Dehydration and malnourishment will also affect milk supply. Other health issues may cause your cat to feel unwell and uncomfortable, making 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 a health problem in one or more kittens and refuse to nurse. She may put the sick kitten out of the nest in an instinctive attempt to avoid spreading any disease to the other kittens. The problem may be an obvious congenital disability or a major illness. 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. The mother may determine that there is a problem with the other kittens and reject more of them, possibly even the whole litter. Instead, bottle-feed and keep the rejected kitten warm. 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 all the kittens. 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
    Young cats and older kittens often lack the maturity to be good mothers. They may also lack the physical capacity to nurse kittens. 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 kitten or 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.

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. This is usually done by bottle-feeding kitten formula. It is also essential to provide motherly care to newborn kittens. Keep them warm, groom them, and help them urinate and defecate. 

The most common and convenient 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 may be other brands of kitten formula available as well. Avoid cow's milk or human baby formula. Small amounts may be used temporarily in a pinch, but too much can cause gastrointestinal issues and lead to malnourishment.

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 three hours. Warm the formula gently and feed about 1/4 tablespoon (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 kitten food may help when the kittens begin to transition to kitten 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 the first three to four weeks of their lives. You may begin to introduce kitten food around three weeks of age. 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.