Weaning is an important part of kitten care. Whether the kittens are being cared for by their feline mother or are being orphan raised, the method and timing of weaning can have lifelong effects on the babies. Learning how to wean can help the kitten develop emotionally and socially.
Timing is Everything
About 4 weeks after birth, the mother cat normally begins to evade the kittens and discourages nursing. At this time, the kittens also naturally begin to show a decline in the length of time they nurse. More of their time is spent exploring their new world.
At this point, it is time to start offering food for the kittens to sample. Even if the kittens are being orphan raised, begin offering food around 3 to 6 weeks of age, when the kittens weigh over 500 grams. At this point, increased gentle human handling can improve the kittens' physical and social development, and make them more accepting of people.
At around 3 to 6 weeks of age, begin offering food to the kittens. Canned food, semi-moist or even dry kitten food moistened with water are all acceptable. Offer the kittens small amounts of soft food in a shallow dish. Up to this point, the kittens have been suckling to get their nourishment. Now, they need to learn to open their mouths and bite in order to get food into their mouths to be swallowed. Learning to do this results in some messy feeding times. Kittens will typically walk and fall in the food dish. They may even try to nurse on the food, resulting in some pretty messy kitties. Eventually, they learn normal eating behavior. Some people will place the food on a cookie sheet and place it in the bathtub and let the kittens learn. This allows for easy clean up.
Offer the food several times a day for about 30 minutes at a time. When the kittens no longer seem interested in the food, clean them up and put them back with their mother. During this time, allow the mother to stay away from the babies for longer periods of time. For some mothers, you may have to be persistent. Some mothers and some babies may not wean properly. Mothers that do not begin to push away their kittens by 4 weeks of age will need help. Weaning should progress slowly, to reduce the incidence of anxiety and mammary gland inflammation in the mother.
Several times a day, remove the babies for 1 to 2 hours at a time. Food should only be offered for short periods of time, but keeping the babies separate from the mother can encourage natural weaning. As the kittens age, more and more time should be spent away from the mother until finally, the kittens are on their own.
By the time the kittens are 8 to 12 weeks of age, they should be eating solid food and no longer nursing. For most kittens, separation from the mother should be delayed until the kittens are 12 weeks of age, to allow normal socialization and bonding.