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How to Tell If a Mother Cat Has Abandoned Her Kittens

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Dr. Paola Cuevas

MVZ, Veterinarian

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In some cases, a mother cat will refuse to care for a particular kitten in her litter; she may even reject the entire litter and refuse to care for it. There are many reasons a queen may reject her litter; it doesn’t mean she’s evil.

However, if you’ve found kittens that you think may have been abandoned or noticed your queen is not caring for her kittens, you may need to step in and care for them yourself. But before you do that, take these steps to ensure that the queen has actually rejected the litter and isn’t just out for a visit to the litter box.

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What Is Rejection? Why Do Cats Do It?

Litter of newborn kittens in the bush
image credit: Alberto CB, Shutterstock

Rejection is a biological impulse that cats and other animals experience when they feel that their young will not thrive. In some cases, a cat that rejects their litter may actually eat the kittens to prevent them from imposing undue stress on the mother.

Rejection can occur for many reasons. One of the primary reasons a kitten may be rejected is because they were born with an illness or anatomical defect. Since this kitten may struggle to survive on its own, the mother may reject it so that she has more time and energy to care for her healthy kittens.

Cats who give birth to large litters containing six or more kittens may also be unable to nurse all the kittens effectively. In this case, she may reject some of the kittens so she can more easily care for the kittens she has.

Additionally, if the queen is suffering from an illness or poor nutrition, she may be unable to care for kittens because of her own health, leading to her rejection of them.

How to Tell If a Queen Has Rejected Her Kittens

hiding litter of kittens
Image credit: Thomas Nord, Shutterstock

Kittens need to be nursed roughly every one to two hours. If your queen has just given birth, she should begin nursing her kittens. If you see that she is ignoring certain kittens and refusing to allow them to nurse, she is rejecting them. The queen may also move rejected kittens outside of the nest to isolate them from the rest of the litter, hiss, and try to bite them.

If you find a litter of kittens without a queen, don’t take them with you right away. The queen may leave the nest from time to time and return after she’s eaten and taken care of her own needs. Check back in an hour or so to see if the queen has returned for the kittens. If the queen has not returned to the nest after a few hours, she may have rejected the litter, and taking them with you may not be a bad idea.

One way you can tell if a kitten is rejected is if the kitten is cold to the touch.

Kittens rely on their mother for warmth. Rejected kittens have a low body temperature and are at risk of hypothermia. Kittens who are not gaining weight and growing may also have been rejected by their mothers.

If a mother cat has rejected her kittens, you may need to bottle feed them. If you’ve touched a kitten, you must take it with you. Placing it back in the nest could cause the mother to reject the entire litter. This is why it’s critical to ensure that the queen has actually rejected the kitten before touching it.

bottle feeding kittens
Image Credit: Adina Voicu, Pixabay

Important Notes

Kittens are weaned off milk and move to solid foods between four and eight weeks of age. It is normal for a mother cat to refuse to nurse kittens that are four weeks old and is not a sign of rejection.

If you suspect that your cat has rejected one or more of her kittens, take the rejected kittens and the mother to the veterinarian to diagnose any illnesses or after-birth health defects. Bottle-feed and raise rejected kittens by hand.

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Final Thoughts

It can be scary to think that a kitten has been rejected by its mother, and it’s natural to want to intervene and help. But you have to ensure that the kitten was truly rejected by its mother, or you could put the entire litter in danger. If you’re unsure of a kitten’s status, wait a few hours to see if the queen begins to nurse and care for the kitten herself. Just like humans, cat moms can be unpredictable, and they may just be frazzled from having just given birth.

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Featured Image Credit: Alberto CB, Shutterstock

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