Cats are generally excellent mothers. We often come across heartwarming stories of queens fostering the kittens of other cats or even the young of other species. Typically when cats give birth, you need not worry about the kittens. You only have to take care of the mother and she instinctively takes care of the little ones herself.
Maternal behaviour comprises a set of responses displayed by a female that specifically support the development and growth of their offspring. Such responses include acts like nursing, retrieval and grooming the kittens. Indirect responses include nest building, increased food intake and maternal defence.
After giving birth most queens spontaneously display this maternal behaviour. They stay close to their kittens during the first two weeks from giving birth, nursing and grooming them. The mother’s milk can provide everything that kittens need during this critical time in their life up until the fourth week. Queens are also alert guarding their offspring, sometimes even showing maternal aggression towards other housemate animals and humans. They leave the kittens only for short periods to feed and use the litterbox.
It is not normal for a mother cat to leave her newborn kittens unattended for extended periods of time. More so ignoring them completely and refusing to nurse them. It is important to understand the reasons why a queen would reject her young because it will help cat parents to prevent it from happening and be better prepared if it does. Abandonment is the most common cause of illness and death in newborn kittens.
Why Do Some Queens Abandon Their Kittens?
There are a number of reasons why a mother cat will ignore her newborns. They may be behavioral and behavior is partly affected by hormonal influences. Sometimes it is due to some disease state of the mother which renders her unwilling or unable to take care of her young.
Some mother cats think the first kitten to be born is the only one. They become focused on this one kitten and ignore the succeeding ones. On the other hand, when the queen is still actively in labor she may ignore the kittens already born. Sometimes a cat will ignore her kittens who were born by Caesarian Section.
Some cats have nervous or irritable personalities. They can easily get distracted and distressed by a variety of things which then cause them to abandon their young. Even the newborn kittens themselves may confuse and overwhelm a first time mother especially when she is very young. Foot traffic and people constantly checking in on her are the most common sources of stress for a mother cat. A prolonged and physically difficult or painful birthing process may stress the mother enough that she may want to have nothing to do with her young.
Sometimes a mother cat will instinctively abandon and stop nursing a kitten that is weak. Usually the kitten rejected is one that has an inborn defect, an illness, has parasites or a fading kitten. This may seem heartless and cruel but this is a normal phenomenon in the wild to conserve limited resources and prevent the spread of disease in a litter. Some domestic cats have strongly retained this instinct and queens still reject a kitten that is weak even when adequate food and resources are available to her. Poor environmental conditions will also lead a queen to abandon her young even in a domestic setting.
Hormonal Influences on Maternal Behavior
Maternal behavior is believed to be influenced by the interaction of multiple hormones and neurochemicals. The hormones prolactin, estrogen, progesterone, oxytocin come from the endocrine glands. The neurochemicals serotonin and dopamine come from the nervous system. Norepinephrine is both a hormone and a neurochemical.
Studies have shown that hormones and neurochemicals can stimulate and maintain a mother’s caregiving behavior. Any perturbation in the endocrine and nervous system may impact a queen’s behavior causing her to ignore her young. Hormonal changes occurring during and after pregnancy may also cause anxiety in the mother. Medically induced birth like during Caesarian section can disrupt hormones and influence maternal behavior.
Prolactin and estrogen stimulate the rapid onset of maternal care at parturition. Suckling enhances their production and effect. Prolactin’s primary role is in milk production but it is also found to be important in generating nurturing behavior.
Progesterone is the hormone responsible for maintaining pregnancy. Its concentration decreases near birth and this promotes an increased sensitivity of the queen to stimuli from her young.
Oxytocin can reduce anxiety and enhance maternal motivation to respond to the young. It can also activate the so-called “dopaminergic reward pathway” which can further stimulate positive maternal behavior. Suckling, vocalization and physical contact with the kittens stimulate oxytocin production in the hypothalamus. Stress during pregnancy may reduce oxytocin receptor binding in brain areas involved in maternal behavior and increases maternal anxiety.
Serotonin is a neurochemical that is generally thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness. Studies have shown that a decrease in the amount of serotonin causes a corresponding decrease in maternal care and young-oriented responses like kitten retrieval and nursing. Suckling is believed to stimulate the social reward center in the brain through serotonin making it a motivational link to enhanced maternal care.
Dopamine is another neurochemical that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. It is involved in reward-motivated maternal behaviour mediated by oxytocin as mentioned above. Decreased dopamine activity in the brain results in disrupted young retrieval and decreased mother-young interaction.
Norepinephrine is both a hormone and neurotransmitter. Its general function is to mobilise the brain and body for the so-called “fight-or-flight” response when there is danger. Its levels normally increase at the time the mother gives birth. This serves to increase alertness, promote vigilance and focused attention on the young. When a mother’s norepinephrine levels are low due to some problem in the endocrine or nervous systems, it results in poor nest building and offspring retrieval. When levels are elevated too much by continuous exposure to stressful conditions, norepinephrine increases restlessness and anxiety which has negative effects on maternal behaviour.
Disease Conditions Affecting Maternal Care
Agalactia is a condition wherein the mother has no milk causing her to reject her kittens. This problem may result from some defect in the pituitary gland. It leads to low levels of the hormone prolactin resulting to lack of mammary gland development during pregnancy, hence no milk production.
Agalactia can also be due to some physical defect in the mother’s nipple or teats and no milk can come out. This may also occur when kittens are born prematurely and the mammary glands have not developed enough to be able to produce milk.
Another major cause of agalactia is malnutrition. Normally, a pregnant cat will need to eat 2-2.5 times more calories per day than a normal adult non-pregnant cat. This is because the growing fetuses and subsequent lactation presents great nutritional and caloric demand. If adequate food and water is not available or not accessible, the mother cat will experience weight loss and dehydration and this will affect her lactation. She will not have enough milk for her kittens and may abandon them.
Sometimes a mother cat may not want to eat even when food is available. This is a normal occurrence during last few days of pregnancy and immediately after giving birth. A mother eating her newborn kittens’ placenta at birth is a protective mechanism in the wild which domestic cats have instinctively retained. Research have shown that the placenta is a rich source of hormones that appear to facilitate milk production. However, consumption of the placenta may cause slight digestive upset in some queens and they may temporarily lose their appetite but this should return as lactation progresses.
In a normal lactating cat, the mammary glands should be symmetric and slightly firm. It should not be red or painful to the touch or have hard masses. When expressed, normal milk is white and not sticky. Sometimes mammary glands may become inflamed and this condition is called mastitis.
During mastitis there will be swelling and pain in the affected glands. The milk becomes yellow, thick and occasionally blood tinged. The queen will develop fever, become lethargic and experience loss of appetite. This leads to a caloric imbalance and dehydration. She will then refuse to let her kittens nurse. Mastitis, in most cases, is caused by bacterial infection gaining entry through a trauma in the nipple and ascending through the teat canal to the mammary gland. The risk for mastitis is increased when the queen is in an unsanitary environment.
Prolonged periods of milk accumulation in the mammary glands without removal is called “galactostasis”. This happens when some mammary glands become unused because the litter is small or the kittens have died. The unused mammary glands become engorged and a firm mass develops causing pain and discomfort. This mass may become infected and mastitis develops.
After giving birth, there is a discharge seen from the queen’s vulva called “lochia”. Normally this is brick red in color, has no odor, and its amount should diminish within days. If the discharge persists and has bad odor, this strongly indicates an infection in the uterus or “metritis”. Worse than metritis is when a tear has occurred in the uterus and cause an inflammation of the abdominal cavity called “peritonitis”.
These inflammatory conditions are always accompanied by fever, lethargy and poor appetite which all contribute to decreased lactation and poor mothering.
Signs That Kittens Are Being Rejected By Their Mother
Kittens that are well cared for by their mothers are round, pink and clean. When awake they are alert and moving around. When resting, they are contentedly sleeping, nestled close together.
You will recognize that the mother cat is rejecting her kittens when you frequently do not see her with them. When forced to be with the kittens, she hisses and steps on them. When the queen is not letting her kittens nurse, the little ones are thin and not gaining weight. They are hungry, cold, and are constantly agitated and crying. The kittens are weak, lethargic, pale, and have a low respiratory rate. The kittens will also appear unkempt because the queen does not stay with them to groom them.
Consequences When Mother Cat Ignores Her Kittens
Poor mothering and inadequate milk are two of the most common causes of neonatal illness and death. It is of utmost importance that newborn kittens are able to nurse from their mother within the first 24 hours after birth. This is because the milk at this time has colostrum which is rich in antibodies. These antibodies protect the newborn from diseases during this early stage in their life when their own immune systems are not yet fully developed. With insufficient colostrum, they will be at risk for catching bacterial and viral infections.
A healthy kitten will be gaining between 7 to 10 grams per day. Rejected kittens will be malnourished and therefore will fail to gain weight in this normal range. They will eventually become weak and cold. These coupled with being dirty because their mother does not groom them, their susceptibility to infection will increase. Their physical and social development are both compromised.
What To Do When A Mother Cat Rejects Her Kittens
If the queen will initially refuse to nurse her kittens, she may just be confused especially if she is a first time mother. Hold her down gently and guide the kittens to her nipples. Suckling will cause a release of hormones in the mother which should enhance her maternal behavior. Sometimes this guidance is all that she needs to understand what she is supposed to do. Most mother cats figure out how to take care of their kittens as they go along.
Place the new mother and her kittens in a quiet, secluded area in the house with low foot traffic to lessen her stress. You can still check on them regularly but keep some distance so as not to upset her. Place her food, water and litterbox nearby so she can get to them without having to leave her newborns for long. If you have a cat with a clingy personality, you might need to be there beside her most of the time talking to her softly to ease her anxiety.
Understand that sometimes a queen’s lack of maternal behavior may be due to perturbations in her hormones and neurochemicals. Provide her adequate nutritional support and a stress free environment.
Observe the queen for any signs of illness like fever, lethargy and loss of appetite. Check her mammary glands for any hard masses and for any of the abovementioned signs of inflammation. Check if there is milk when the nipples are expressed and if the milk appears normal. Look for any abnormal vaginal discharges which may indicate infection of the uterus.
If you are not sure whether your queen is ill or not, it is best to take her to the veterinarian early for a check-up so that any problems she may have can be identified and resolved before they get worse.
Mastitis should be treated because otherwise the tissue of the teats may die and a generalized infection can develop. Metritis if left unchecked, it may also lead to infection of the blood and cause death. Prolonged bleeding from the uterus will lead to anemia and blood coagulation disorders.
Check each of the kittens for any signs of disease or inborn defects which can be the reason for their mother rejecting them. If you find kittens that seem weak remove them from the group and bring to the veterinarian. It is important that weak kittens are given adequate intervention to maintain breathing and circulation, administered fluids for nutritional support and given temperature control support. The veterinarian can also identify and treat any illness the weak kittens may have.
Ask your veterinarian for advice on how to hand-rear abandoned newborn kittens at home. Know how much and how often to feed them. These parameters change as the kittens grow older so it is best that you work closely with your veterinarian throughout the critical period. Intake is limited by the size of the newborn stomach so feeding should be in small increments so as not to overload the organ. Diarrhea can be a sign that you are feeding too much. Excessive intake may also overload and damage a newborn’s still functionally immature kidneys. Shivering, feeling cold to the touch, constant crying and lack of daily weight gain is indicative that you are feeding too little.
Generally, newborn kittens are fed milk replacer formula every two hours using a small nursing bottle. If possible, use a milk replacer containing colostrum. If there are no commercially prepared milk replacers readily available near you, ask your veterinarian for information on what to feed the kittens. An incorrect diet can cause diarrhea and likely death in newborns. It is also important that you know how to properly bottle feed otherwise milk can get into the newborns’ lungs resulting to pneumonia. Feed newborn kittens in the same position that they nurse from their mother. Start weaning the kittens from formula to mush at approximately four weeks old.
Aside from feeding the kittens, you will have to take over their mother’s role of providing them heat. Newborns cannot control their body temperatures as well as older kittens so at this stage in their life they will need their mother to warm them. You can use a heating pad, lampshade with bulb, bulb, rubber hot water bag wrapped in cloth, rice in socks heated in the microwave, or water bottle with heated water. Gently massage each kitten for circulation. Massage their belly after feeding to simulate their mother licking them to help them urinate and pass stool.
If the mother cat is physically well and has no diseases affecting her then you can try to coax her gently into caring for her kittens by patiently guiding her. But in case your queen is sick, try to find another lactating queen who can foster the kittens. If you cannot find one then you may have to hand rear the kittens yourself. Hand-rearing newborn kittens, as described above can be a daunting task when one is inexperienced. In case you feel unsure if you can take on this responsibility, do not feel guilty about it and try to find a foster human with more experience than you have in raising newborn kittens. Avoid hand-rearing weak kittens. It is best for these kittens to be placed under the care of professionals. Queens who have exhibited poor maternal behavior should not be bred anymore and spayed.