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How Mother Cats Take Care of Kittens

By: Kitty Angell

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Mother cats and their kittens have a very special relationship.

This article will address how a mother cat cares for her kittens. For information about the normal development and growth of kittens, please read Developmental Milestones in the Kitten. Another article that might be helpful is Care of the Orphaned Kitten.

A newborn kitten is born blind. Its eyes normally do not open until it is 10 to 12 days old. Kittens' ear canals, also, are not patent for a few days after birth, though these neonates still do have some ability to appreciate sounds. Mother Nature has provided these little creatures with a wonderful "rooting reflex," which enables them to find the source of their food. Finding the "milk source" is accomplished with help from mom, who encourages her young kittens to feed a few minutes after birth by licking and nuzzling them and guiding them toward her nipples. The mother cat will also attend to her kittens' toiletries, too, by licking their hindquarters to stimulate the release of urine and feces, and by cleaning up after them.

It is imperative that newborn kittens have milk within 24 hours of birth. This first milk, called colostrum, is an antibody-rich substance that will protect the kittens from illness during their first weeks of life.

Mother Should Care for the Kittens

Care of newborn kittens should be left to the mother (called the queen) if at all possible. Keep human handling of newborns to a minimum, and discourage small children from handling the kittens until they are around 3 weeks old.

Once a day, the kitten should be picked up and checked for purulent discharge (pus) coming from the eyes or nose. Clear mucous forming in the mouth area can be a sign of pneumonia. Other than a health check, leave the kittens to their mother. Over-handling will cause a nervous mother to carry the kittens by the neck (sometimes injuring them) as she tries to find them a secure haven.

Research has shown that after the kittens reach 3 weeks of age, it is beneficial for them to receive a small amount of handling by humans. This beginning stage of the human relationship will produce a more emotionally stable, outgoing kitten that is better able to handle stress. Children should be closely supervised while handling kittens that are this young, however.

Many people want to buy or adopt a 6-week-old kitten. This is a big mistake because kittens need more socialization time with their mothers and siblings than dogs and other animals.

Until a kitten is 3 weeks old, the mother cares for every aspect of her kittens' well being.. Following this infantile period, the mother nurses her kittens for shorter periods and encourages them to learn to walk and venture out of the nest. As the kittens' mobility increases, many mother cats will invent a "call sign" to signal the bolder kittens that they have strayed too far.

Three-week-old kittens cannot retract their claws, and kittens are not steady on their feet until they are around 4 weeks old. At 6 weeks of age, a marvelous transformation begins to take place. The kittens begin to run, jump, and climb.

This is when the mother cat teaches them many important lessons. These lessons would be especially crucial if the kittens were to going to have to survive in the wild. First, the mother trains the kittens on the noble art of "taking care of business", demonstrating to them how to cover up feces by scratching around in the litter. Then she teaches the rudiments of hunting. Domestic or pet cats will actually teach their kittens how to go for the kill, if prey is available. But even at 8 weeks of age, most kittens do not exhibit enough coordination to master a mouse hunt.

Mother Gradually Weans Kittens

During the 6- to 8-week age period, the mother cat will gradually wean her kittens onto solid food. This stage is very important for sibling play. The kittens will jump at and run from one another while simultaneously arching their backs and hissing. They practice their social and hunting skills by playing games. The mother usually moves to an elevated spot where she can find some peace and intervene when the playing gets too rough.

Human Relationships at 12 Weeks

By the time kittens are 10 to 12 weeks old, they have had enough sibling play and have also learned crucial lessons from mom. This is the age for a good human relationship to develop. Kittens should also have received one or two vaccinations by this time and will have pretty mature immune systems.

While most cats are good mothers, being separated from their kittens does not upset the queen as much as one might expect. Moms are only upset for a day or two, following the loss of their kittens, and then they go back to their normal behavioral patterns. On the other hand, some kittens take the separation much harder. Three-month-old kittens may appear distressed and may eat less for a few days following separation from their mothers and siblings. However, successfully incorporating kittens into their new homes is less stressful at this age than if they were separated at a younger age.

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