What to Do When a Cat Refuses to Feed Her Kittens

Not all cats have maternal instincts, and some may not want to nurse their young.

What happens when a cat refuses to feed her kittens? By: get_together
Would you know how to handle a cat that won’t nurse? By: get_together

One of my favorite cat paintings is a watercolor of a brownish mother cat with her 2 kittens snuggled up against her belly.

The painting reflects the love that artist Ruth Spoor had for animals (she founded the Cape Ann Animal Aid in Gloucester, Mass., in 1964). But it also speaks to cat lovers everywhere of the tenderness between a queen and her kittens.

We think of cats as being excellent mothers. By and large, that’s true. But occasionally, a cat does come along who won’t nurse her kittens.

The Wherefore and the Why

There are a number of reasons for a cat not nursing. A first-time mother might be overwhelmed. Or, if the litter is large, she might not have enough milk for all those squealing fuzzy bundles of joy.

Sometimes a female cat, just like a human mother, comes down with mastitis (mammary gland inflammation). Or the problem could be, as breeder Susan Graham points out, a retained placenta. “You have to look at everything and not forget mama cat,” she says.

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Occasionally, it is a behavioral thing. Like Winifred Carriere’s Siamese SuziTu, she might be focused on just 1 or 2 of the kittens. SuziTu seemed to think that “the first baby was the only one,” Carriere recalls in her book Cats, 24 Hours a Day, “for as each of the 5 was born, she industriously licked the first (comparatively) big bruiser…while he eagerly sought and found his first meal.” His siblings could, as far as Mama Siamese was concerned, “shift for themselves.”

Except for Kitten No. 5, whom SuziTu clearly regarded as “excess baggage.” Carriere had to come to the rescue with an eyedropper filled with milk. (Note: Carriere’s book was published in 1967, and vets today strongly advise against giving cow’s milk to newborn kittens on a long-term basis.) In time, however, SuziTu got a handle on being a mom and accepted the “little-last-on-the-list.”

Not Prime Mom-Cat Material

Graham, whose Aksum Cattery is located in Atlanta, has heard plenty of stories about cats who have fallen off the mommy track. She herself had one queen who had no intention of getting on that track in the first place: a blue Persian who wanted nothing to do with her offspring.

“I had to literally hold her down so that the kittens could nurse several times a day,” the breeder recalls. “She had plenty of milk, but she wouldn’t stay with them at all.”

Graham ended up “petting out” the Persian. “That kind of thing tends to be hereditary,” she remarks. “At least, I’ve noticed that really good mothers tend to have kittens.” And she suspects that the same holds true with the less-than-stellar mother cats and their daughters.

What You Can Do

Sometimes you can find another female cat to pinch-hit. “If they’re here, a lot of times, we’ll have a nursing female that will take care of them,” remarks Dr. Thomas Morganti of the Avon Veterinary Clinic in Connecticut.

If that’s not an option, he recommends KMR Milk Replacer For Kittens (affiliate link) every 2 hours for the first 2 weeks. Graham favors tube-feeding her kittens a “formula that I make myself from concentrated goat’s milk, unflavored Pedialyte, and a few other things.” Cow’s milk and human baby formula can be used but only in a pinch.

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Smaller, more frequent feedings will keep the kittens’ digestive systems and kidneys from being overloaded. Diarrhea is a sure indication that you’re over-feeding them. Conversely, you need to step up the feedings if your kittens are shivering and not gaining weight. Underfed kittens tend to be listless and — big surprise — cry incessantly.

Once They’re Off the Bottle

Kittens are usually weaned by 4 weeks. Their human caregivers often start leaving them on their own, and that’s a problem because the 4 to 7 week period is a “critical time” in their socialization, says Morganti.

“The danger is, by the time they’re weaned, you don’t want to deal with them,” he says. “You have to fight that tendency. You can’t just ignore them. You have to give them lots of handling and play. If they don’t get that, they can be worse than feral.”

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, which received a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has also received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association, ByLine and The Writing Self. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Single Parent’s Soul and A Cup of Comfort for Women in Love, and T.J. has worked as a stringer for the Associated Press, as an instructor for the Writer’s Digest School and as a columnist.

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