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 can't nurse them. Perhaps she has rejected one or more of her kittens or you're simply not sure if her milk supply is adequate. 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 human intervention may be needed to support the kittens. What is a concerned cat owner to do?
Why a Mother Cat Can't Nurse Her Kittens
There are several potential scenarios for why a mother cat can't adequately 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 may she refuse to nurse a kitten; she may ignore them altogether or act aggressively when approached by a kitten. Sometimes the problem is not with the mother cat, but with a particular kitten, or multiple kittens. Kittens that are smaller or have other medical issues may have more trouble latching and getting adequate milk from nursing. These problems can be exacerbated in especially large litters of kittens when there is more competition for time and space to nurse.
If anything like this happens, your first step should be to contact your veterinarian. You may need to take the mother and kittens in for an exam, however, this can be stressful to a new mom, so it may be best to contact your vet first and find out what she recommends. If you can discover the reason why a mother cat can't feed her kitten, you may have a better chance of getting her to successfully nurse. Or, you may need to step in and care for the kittens yourself. Either way, your vet can help.
Illness in the Mother Cat
If the mother cat is experiencing a health problem, she may be unable 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. Dehydration and malnourishment will also affect milk supply. It is important to ensure that pregnant and nursing cats have access to high quality, nutrient-dense cat food at all times. Especially while nursing newborn kittens, mother cats often will not even stand up, let alone leave the kittens alone, so they need to be able to keep hydrated and eat without leaving the nursing area. Any health issues that causes your cat to feel unwell can make her unable to nurse her kittens. Additionally, mother cats who feel very stressed or unsafe can have difficulty nursing because they are focused on guarding their kittens. It is important to ensure new mothers and their litters have a warm, private and quiet place to bond. This could be as simple as a large box with soft, clean bedding and easy access to food and water. The kittens should be handled minimally as it can be very stressful to the mother when they are out of her sight. Even if the mother cat appears healthy, it's best to consult your vet if she seems to be having trouble nursing, or if any kittens seem especially weak, slow to gain weight or if they have infrequent urine and bowel movements.
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 nesting box in an instinctive attempt to protect the other kittens. The problem may be an obvious congenital abnormality or a major illness or something more subtle. Putting a rejected kitten back into the nesting box is unlikely to be successful and may stress the mother further. Instead, consult your veterinarian on the proper way to bottle-feed and keep the rejected kitten warm as you make arrangements to have the kitten examined by your vet.
Large Litter of Kittens
Some litters can be so large that the mother does not have enough teats to feed all of her kittens at the same time. She may also not produce enough milk to feed everyone. The larger, stronger kittens may outcompete the smaller ones and/or the mother may reject any that are ill or become too weak. In this case, the best option would be to bottle-feed any kittens that seem small, to be nursing less often, or are separated from the rest of the litter. Keep them warm and be sure to contact your veterinarian right away.
Immature Mother Cat
Very young cats may lack the energy reserves to produce enough milk if they are very thin and/or they are still growing themselves. A female cat may be able to get pregnant as young as four months of age. In most cases, young cats will face more challenges in maintaining their own health while also caring for a litter of kittens. If you have a young cat who has kittens who are not nursing well or gaining weight, 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 can't feed one or more of the newborn kittens at all, it's important to get 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 after each feeding.
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.
Cow's milk or human baby formula are not nutritionally appropriate for kittens and will lead to serious health problems and death if fed to newborn kittens.
You can use a small kitten feeding bottle to administer formula to the kittens. Kittens should be bottle fed while laying on their bellies, not their backs. Newborn kittens will need to be bottle-fed about once every two hours. Warm the formula gently and feed about 3-5mL (up to 1 teaspoon) per kitten per feeding. Most kittens will stop suckling when they are full so if a kitten unlatches from the bottle, it is most likely full. Additionally, you should stop a feeding if you notice formula coming out of the nose, or if you can feel that the belly is distended. Ask your veterinarian about the proper amounts to feed as the kittens grow as their needs will change quickly. Additionally, it is very important to monitor the kittens' weights, so they should be weighed daily using a gram scale.
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 to bottle-feed, you can always use it later to moisten kitten food when the kittens begin weaning onto solid food. Or you can donate the kitten formula to a cat shelter or rescue group.
What to Do After You Visit the Vet
If you have seen your veterinarian and determined that ongoing bottle-feeding will be necessary, it is important to plan ahead for the coming weeks. Kittens should be easy to identify from one another so you can accurately keep track of which kittens have been fed, how much they eat, as well as monitoring their weights and any other signs of illness. The easiest way is to place collars on them to tell them apart. Make sure to use collars that are small enough so as not to interfere with nursing or mobility and ensure a proper fit so tiny paws can't get stuck in them. Kittens should be bottle-fed kitten milk for at least the first four weeks of their lives. You may begin to introduce canned kitten food around three weeks of age in additional to bottle-feeding 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.
Wilson, Courtney R. Feline gangrenous mastitis. The Canadian veterinary journal = La revue veterinaire canadienne vol. 54,3 (2013): 292-4.