There are few things cuter than a pack of newborn kittens but in some cases, the mother can’t or won’t take care of them. In those situation our help is needed to give those kittens a fair chance to survive.
Why does a mother cat abandon her kittens and what can you do to help?
A mother cat can sometimes abandon her nest of newborn kittens. This could be due to illness of in the kittens or their mother, something might have happened to the mother, or the size of the litter was too overwhelming for the mother cat. Cats also intentionally leave their kittens alone for a while to train them so we should never assume abandonment.
Reasons why mother cats abandon their kittens
Cats are usually good mothers who are very dedicated to caring for their offspring. Cases of cat-mums abandoning their litter are quite rare.
However, it does happen, and there can be several reasons why a mother might abandon her newborns. Sometimes it might be her own choice, either forced or not, and other times something could have happened to mummy cat that made her lose her babies.
Feral and stray cats versus domestic cats
Many cases of abandoned kittens happen with feral or stray cats when a mother has to fend for herself without the care of a human.
In most cases as listed below, abandonment would not be necessary when a human owner takes car of the mum and her babies.
Of course, in some cases, some heartless humans do not wish to care for their cat babies and leave the newborn kittens somewhere in a box or bag alongside a road.
In those cases, we hope and pray that a loving human caretaker finds these kittens to save them before it’s too late.
The kittens are sick
Sometimes when kittens get sick or are born with a birth defect, a mother may decide to abandon the sick kitten and focus her energy on the healthy kittens in the nest.
It’s the hard reality in nature where, in the wild, it is unlikely that the weaker kittens will survive. This happens with feral cats who do not have a human take them to the vet.
Something happened to the mother
It is not always the mother’s choice to abandon her nest. In the wild, many unfortunate things can happen to the mother when she needs to leave the nest.
The mother might have been involved in an accident, gotten sick herself. In an area with many stray or feral cats, mum might have been caught for spraying or neutering programs.
In rare cases, the mother cat might have gotten injured while giving birth, which forced her to leave her kitties.
Under-developed mother instinct
Although cats generally have a powerful mother’s instinct, just like with humans, some of them don’t have motherhood in them.
It is very unusual, but in some cases, a new mother cat might abandon her nest when she feels she’s not up for the task. This happens when a female got pregnant at a very young age.
A kitten got lost or separated
When kittens get a bit older and start to move around carefully, kittens can fall out of a nest and get lost.
Usually, the mum would then grab them and bring them back to the nest, but in this stage, it’s normal for mummy cat to spend more time away from her babies. This process is called ‘weaning’ and is meant to prepare them for a life independently.
There are too many kittens
In nature, the needs of the many always outweigh the needs of the few. This may cause a mother cat to abandon one or more kittens if there are too many to take care of.
It’s rare, but the mother might not have enough milk to feed all her babies to ensure others’ survival; she sometimes needs to make a heartbreaking decision to starve the weaker children.
The natural process of weaning
As the kittens get older, the mother starts the process of weaning. When her babies are about 6 to 8 weeks old, mummy will start to spend more extended amounts of time away from them.
Usually, she will be close by, overlooking the nest from a comfortable place while her babies snooze. These periods may last up to a few hours at a time. The purpose is to teach her kitties to be away from their mother.
During this time, she also starts teaching her kids to hunt, use a litter box, and/or bury their feces and many other skills they will need in the wide world.
When the time is right, usually around 8-10 weeks, the time has come for them to part ways. At this point, her children are young adults and able to take care of themselves.
The mother will abandon them at this point; otherwise, they will keep following her around.
Be careful – Is the nest really abandoned?
If you think you found a nest of abandoned kittens, do make sure they are really abandoned.
In some cases, it is pretty clear when a nest of kittens is abandoned in a box or bag outside by a careless human owner. If that is the case, act fast and take care of these poor kittens.
Other times, it might not be as clear-cut. When the babies are all together in a place that clearly looks like a nest, and they’re peacefully sleeping, it is doubtful that the nest is abandoned.
In those cases, leave the nest alone. If you’re not sure, you can observe then nest for a couple of hours to see what happens and if the mother comes back. Just imagine the horror and stress when the mother cat comes back to find her nest gone…
Especially when the kittens are a couple of weeks old, the mother will leave them alone for periods of time to find food and teach her babies to take care of themselves.
What you should do if you find abandoned kitten(s)
When you are confident that you’ve found an abandoned nest of kittens, there are a couple of essential things you need to do to take care of the babies.
Especially if you have no experience with caring for newborn kittens, caring for them might be overwhelming. In essence, you will need to take over their mother’s role and care for them 24/7.
It’s not an easy task but very rewarding.
Assess the situation
Don’t assume that a litter of kittens is orphaned just because you don’t see the mom.
It’s common for the mother to leave her babies, giving the kittens a bit of distance and seeing if the mom returns. If she does – great! The mom is the best suited to care for them, so leave them with her (unless you’re able to take the whole family in and care for them.)
If the mom does not return within an hour or two, it is time for you to step in and help.
Do not bring them to a shelter
Unless the shelter has a special care program for (abandoned) kittens, leaving them in a regular pet shelter can be a death sentence for newborn kittens.
Shelters are overwhelmed as it is, and they often don’t have the time or resources to take care of newborn kittens. Often, they will choose to euthanize them.
That means that if you want these kittens to have a chance, it is going to be you who takes care of them. Or, find someone who will.
Act quickly when you have to (but don’t rush)
Depending on how young the kittens are and how long they have been alone, you must act quickly.
Especially at a young age, the kittens need constant care of their mother. Newborns cannot keep themselves warm, so there is a real risk of hypothermia, which can kill them in hours.
On the other hand, do not make rash decisions. Make a plan and a to-do list in order of priority. The tips here will help you. Also, don’t overthink it; you can always change your plan later. It’s important to take care of the most important needs of these babies.
Check on their health
One of the first essential things to do is check the kitten’s health. As you don’t know how long they have been left alone, they might already have been exposed to life-threatening dangers.
Be sure to check at least the following:
Overall vital signs
Are they breathing regularly? Do they have any visible or invisible injuries? Can they move their limbs freely? Are they visibly in pain?
Keep them warm!
Kittens cannot keep themselves warm. With their small bodies, the risk of hypothermia is real. To quickly warm them up, you can hold them in your hands and rub them carefully. To keep them warm in the nest, without their mother, a breeding lamp, a cloth bag filled with rice and heated in the microwave, or a hot water bottle used for babies.
Consult a vet
To be sure everything is okay and to give these cat-babies the best chance for survival, visit a vet to check up on them.
Gather the appropriate knowledge and supplies
For most of us, taking care of abandoned kittens is not something we do every day. Even if we have the best intentions, we might make mistakes because we simply don’t know.
Luckily there is a wealth of information available on the internet about how to care for kittens. Members of specialized cat forums will be eager to help you out as well. Here is a great resource from the Kittenlady on fostering kittens.
However, one of the first things to do is to consult a vet if you’re not experienced in caring for kittens. They will be able to give you valuable information and supplies and offer advice along the way.
Be ready for the commitment
Although it can be super-rewarding to care for a nest of kittens, it is a full-time job. Being a surrogate mother cat is a 24/7 commitment that should not be taken lightly.
If you decide to take on this task, make sure you have the time and the will to see it through. It is great if you can do this together with your partner or family so that each of you can do your part. This is also helpful if you want to take shifts feeding the kittens.
Create a schedule or roster to help you keep track of what needs to be done when. This is especially helpful if multiple family members each have their own caretaker tasks.
If it’s your first-time bottle feeding, don’t panic! You can do it, but you’ll want to know some tricks, so you don’t hurt them.
Watch this YouTube video on How to Bottle Feed a Kitten for tips on proper preparation and feeding posture.
And please, never feed cow’s milk to a kitten, as this is extremely dangerous to their health and can lead to death. Instead, you will need to purchase kitten milk replacer, sold at most pet stores or feed stores.
Stimulate kittens to go to the bathroom
Unknown to many people, kittens don’t go to the bathroom themselves. Their mother stimulates their genitalia to help them relieve themselves. She also keeps them and the nest nice and clean.
As a surrogate cat-mother, you will need to take over this task. Unlike the mother, you won’t have to use your tongue but a warm damp cloth instead.
The video below will help you visualize how to do this.
Set them up for success
Nurturing kittens is intense but it’s also a fun and rewarding process. If you’ve never done it before, don’t fear, you will get the hang of it. When your cat-babies reach the age of 8 to 10 weeks, they’re ready to go into the wide, wide world. Spend some time looking for the purrfect forever home for your babies ahead of time to make sure they have a place to go.
Enjoy the process and the best of luck!