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Caring for Kittens Until They Are Weaned

Source: Canadian Veterinary Medical Association Updated on August 12, 2016

Care at Birth

At the time of queening, or birth, it is important not to bother the mother cat. Let her settle her new charges in and do her clean up without a lot of interruptions. There is no need to rush her onto clean blankets, etc. By not handling the newborns (except for a brief examination for birth defects) in the first 24-48 hours after a normal birth you provide a calm, peaceful environment that enhances her ability to bond with the newborns and complete her birth process undisturbed.

The queen does an excellent job of raising her litter, and apart from socializing the kittens to gentle handling, very little input is needed by the human family. She takes care of cleaning up after them, grooming them, teaching them to use a litter box, and provides nursing and nurturing. Checking them every one to two days on a weigh scale to assess growth is valuable, but try to avoid taking them away from the mother for prolonged periods because both kitten and mother may become stressed.

The First 4 Weeks…

In the first 4 weeks the mother provides all the nutrition that they need. If for some reason she is not producing enough milk, you will hear the kittens crying, they will be restless or weak, may have a weak suckle reflex, and will not be gaining weight. One should expect a weight gain of 10 grams per day. A small kitchen scale can be used to track growth of each kitten in the litter.

If the kitten is very weak, nursing and activity will drop off and it will become malnourished and dehydrated quite quickly. In advanced cases, the body temperature will be low. Kittens that are not gaining weight normally or that show any abnormalities should be examined right away by your veterinarian because they have very minimal body reserves and will go downhill quickly.

If any of the mothers' milk glands appear red and swollen, if they are discharging abnormal secretions, if there is prolonged discharge from the birth canal, or if the mother cat is not eating well and nursing the kittens well, have her checked immediately. Cats are usually healthy and vigorous around the birthing time but sometimes intervention is needed.

…and Beyond

Offer some food starting at 4 weeks of age. High quality kitten kibbles moistened with water, or a canned formulation should be fed. Use a shallow bowl to help them access the dish. If a kitten does not venture to taste the food, place a very small amount on the lip margin and place the kitten next to the dish so that he can follow up. Up until weaning, the kitten can digest milk just fine, but water or kitten formula is preferred over cow’s milk for softening kibbles for the kittens. Provide their food free choice. In nature, cats are nibblers, and will eat many times throughout a 24-hour period.

Make sure that the kittens are not weaned before 6 weeks of age because hand raising young kittens is demanding, and they are much more likely to develop health problems, including poor cat social skills.

It is important to handle the kittens regularly, or daily if possible once the mother has settled into her routine. This is especially important between the time their eyes open until they are weaned to help them accommodate to human contact. Gentle holding, soothing talk, and petting is a great way for the kittens to get to know and trust humans.

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