Pregnancy problems

Why a Mother Cat Rejects Her Kittens

Josie F. Turner
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. July 9, 2020
Why a Mother Cat Rejects Her Kittens

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By their nature, cats are very good mothers. This can be seen by the fact most cats will know exactly what to do with their kittens, even if it is their first litter. So strong is the feline instinct to care for their kittens that they do not normally need any help from their human guardians to do so. In fact, intervention from us can be detrimental to a young cat's development.

However, there are times when a mother cat will reject her kittens. This could be limited to only one kitten, but it is possible she will reject the entire litter. When we witness this happening, it can be very worrying. This is why AnimalWised explains why a mother cat rejects her kittens. We explain the reasons behind abandoning them and provide some help on what you may need to do in this situation.

You may also be interested in: Why Do Cats Eat Their Babies?
  1. Is your cat a bad mother?
  2. Mother rejects kittens to their health
  3. Mother rejects kittens due to her health
  4. Abandonment due to inability to care for the kittens
  5. Mother cat rejects kittens due to stress
  6. What to do if a mother rejects her kittens

Is your cat a bad mother?

Many people who see their cat rejecting her kittens jump to the conclusion they are a bad mother. They may think the cat has simply chosen not to care for her kittens on a whim or because they lack love or empathy. However, there will always be some reason behind this behavior, even if it is difficult to determine.

Although cats are capable of developing a very deep affection for other cats, animals and even humans, we cannot forget they are felines. They have cat instincts, behaviors and limitations which are not comparable to that of a person. Even if we are tempted to treat our cat as if they were human this is both unfair and unhelpful to the cat.

The factors which lead to a mother cat rejecting her kittens are related to one of the following factors:

  • Health of the litter
  • Health of the mother
  • Ability to care for the kittens
  • Stress

In the following sections, we explain these reasons further. However, it is also important to note that every mother cat will eventually appear to reject her kittens. After they have been weaned, the kittens will have to leave the mother so they can fend for themselves. This is not rejection, but a necessary part of feline development.

Mother rejects kittens to their health

In animals, what they rely on most is their survival instinct. Domestic cats are no exception. By using this instinct, the cat is able to detect if the kittens are well. This includes whether they were born with an infection or disease. They can do this using various methods, but one of the most important is their sense of smell. Remember, a cat's sense of smell is much more acute than a human's. It is likely they can smell the pathogens which cause a disease.

In very rare occasions, the entire litter may have a disease. In these cases, the mother cat may reject her litter because she does not think they will survive. In these cases, there is little point in the mother providing care.

More commonly, the disease or problem may only affect one of the kittens. When problems happen during the gestation of the kitten fetus, they may develop improperly. A cat may give birth to a deformed or diseased kitten, but what to separate them from the rest of the litter. This could result in rejection, ejection from the nest or even eating the kitten. They separate them because they do not want the other kittens to be infected with the disease. Another reason a mother will eat her kitten is because they have already died and eating them provides her with additional nutrients.

This may sound cruel to us, but it is something essential in the animal kingdom. It is better for the mother to protect the rest of the kittens than to keep a diseased kitten in the nest. Since kittens live in such close proximity and share milk from the mother, transmission is easy.

As a human guardian, it may be possible for us to intervene by looking after the kitten. Taking them to a veterinarian means we may be able to treat the problem, something the mother is unable to do. After this point, we will have to take care of the feeding and rearing of the kitten.

Why a Mother Cat Rejects Her Kittens - Mother rejects kittens to their health

Mother rejects kittens due to her health

While the majority of cat pregnancies will pass without major incident for their duration, complications can arise. Cats can have miscarriages for one or more of the litter, but the reasons are varied. It is possible some cats will develop a disease during the pregnancy or have an underlying medical issue which is exacerbated by the process. Some will be healthy, but complications during the birth can cause them significant harm.

An example might be if one of the kittens becomes twisted while being born. In these occasions, the mother can become injured, even if the kitten is otherwise birthed safely. When these instances happen, it is possible the mother will leave the kittens because she is too weak to care for them. If the problem is an infectious disease, she may appear to be rejecting them to protect them from becoming infected.

If you see the mother has rejected her kittens, but she herself is weak or displaying symptoms of trauma or disease, you need to take them to a veterinarian immediately. You will also have to take over the care and feeding of the kittens, unless the mother cat is restored to health quickly enough she can resume her parenting. Even in the latter case, she may not do so.

Abandonment due to inability to care for the kittens

Although most cats have the instincts to take care of her kittens, there are some cases where they do not know how to care for them. They may not know how to feed or look after them, choosing to abandon them due to this inability to care.

The reasons for this may be difficult to tell, especially if we do not know the history. If the mother cat was herself abandoned as a kitten, she may not be able to know what to do. Even trauma or previous bad experiences can mean they lack the ability to properly care for their kittens.

If this occurs, you can try to show them what to do by pulling the kittens closer to her teats to feed. Mother cats will move their newborn kittens for various reasons, often to keep them secure from perceived danger. These can be difficult to teach the mother cat, but you may be able to ‘jump start’ her instinct and she takes over. It will likely require some patience.

There are some instances where a mother will have a very large litter. A large litter depends on the size of the cat, but anything over 5 or 6 is considered large. While some cats will have no problem, others may feel as if they cannot take care of all of them or have enough milk to feed them. In these cases, she may reject one or more of the kittens she believes are weak.

For these reasons and more, it is essential we provide the mother with a safe environment with everything they need.

Mother cat rejects kittens due to stress

At the end of the duration of the cat's pregnancy, the cat will know she is about to give birth. Instinctively, they will find a safe and comfortable place to give birth to her litter. This place is somewhere away from potential dangers and secluded.

As with humans, the mother cat may become anxious or stressed due impending birth. This is a sensitive time and our behavior can affect their well-being. If we try to overwhelm them with attention or physical manipulation, their stress can be exacerbated. If we try to change their chosen birthing place, create needless noise or otherwise impede their sense of security, we can inadvertently contribute to the cat abandoning her kittens.

You can help by providing some blankets, reducing noise and ensuring the temperature is comfortable. Other than this and observing from a distance, you should leave the mother cat alone. You should only relocate the nesting place if there is a danger of which you are aware, but the cat is not.

Once the litter is born, we also need to give the mother space and time. Her instinct will take over and she should look after the kittens easily. Although they may be cute, if we come in and try to pick the kittens up too much, it can cause the mother serious stress. Cats which show signs of stress before the birth are perhaps more likely to be stressed when rearing their kittens. We should only interfere if one or more kittens has actually been rejected or there is an obvious problem.

Why a Mother Cat Rejects Her Kittens - Mother cat rejects kittens due to stress

What to do if a mother rejects her kittens

As we have explained, if the mother cat rejects her kittens, it could be for various reasons. If the problem is a health problem with either the mother or kittens, you will need to take them to the veterinarian. If the problem can be treated, they will know what to do.

If the mother rejects the kitten or kittens and does not take them back, it may be possible we need to feed them. Our article on how to feed a newborn kitten will tell you everything you need to know. Eventually the kitten will need to be weaned on to solid food and our kitten weaning guide can help you with this.

Finally, if you want to know some more general advice on how to care for a kitten, the following video might help:

This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to Why a Mother Cat Rejects Her Kittens, we recommend you visit our Pregnancy problems category.

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Why a Mother Cat Rejects Her Kittens