As a new cat owner, finding that a mother cat refuses to feed her kittens can be distressing. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: There are several potential reasons why a mother cat may reject her kittens, including health issues, stress, poor maternal instincts, or lack of milk.

With veterinary care and proper interventions, the mother cat can often be encouraged to accept and feed the kittens.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll cover the details around why mother cats may refuse to nurse their young, symptoms to look out for, potential medical and behavioral causes, and what steps you can take to encourage maternal feeding and bonding.

Signs That a Mother Cat Is Not Feeding Kittens

Poor Weight Gain or Weight Loss

One of the most obvious signs that a mother cat is not feeding her kittens properly is if the kittens are not gaining weight or are losing weight. Healthy kittens should gain around 4-8 ounces per week in the first 4 weeks of life.

If the kittens are not steadily gaining weight or you notice they seem to be losing weight, it likely means the mother is not producing enough milk or not allowing enough nursing time.

Age Weight Gain Per Week
0-2 weeks 4-8 ounces
3-4 weeks 5-8 ounces
5-8 weeks 3-5 ounces
Weigh the kittens daily with a kitchen scale to monitor their weight gain.

Lack of weight gain is a red flag the mother cat needs help caring for her kittens.

Constant Crying and Restlessness

Kittens that are not getting enough milk from the mother will often cry constantly due to hunger. They will seem restless and have trouble settling down, even when placed on the mother to nurse. Healthy, well-fed kittens will nurse vigorously for a few minutes, then fall asleep contently.

Kittens that cry inconsolably even when given access to the mother likely are not getting adequate milk, and the mother cat should be examined.

Lethargy and Weakness

Since kittens are growing rapidly, they need huge amounts of energy from nursing. Kittens that do not get enough milk quickly become lethargic, weak, and uninterested in nursing. They may have trouble crawling to the mother to nurse. Lethargic, weak kittens often stop nursing altogether.

This dangerous situation requires quick intervention to save the kittens’ lives. If you notice the kittens cannot crawl well, seem too weak to nurse, or are generally inactive, check with the veterinarian immediately.

Medical Reasons a Mother Cat May Reject Kittens

Mastitis or Other Mammary Gland Issues

Mastitis, or inflammation of the mammary glands, is a common reason mother cats may reject their kittens. The inflammation is often caused by bacterial infection, usually streptococcus or staphylococcus bacteria. It results in painful, swollen mammary glands that make nursing difficult or impossible.

Other mammary issues like tumors or cysts can also make nursing too uncomfortable. If treated quickly, mastitis is often reversible, but neglecting it can lead to abscesses or other serious complications. Some signs of mastitis include:

  • Swollen, red, or hot mammary glands
  • Unusual discharge from nipples
  • Loss of appetite and lethargy in the mother cat
  • Crying or protesting when kittens try to nurse

Veterinary care with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories is necessary to treat mastitis. Warm compresses can also help soothe inflammation. Once treatment allows comfortable nursing again, rejection behavior often resolves.

Systemic Illness

If a mother cat is suffering from a systemic illness, disease, infection or condition, it can understandably make her uninterested or unable to care for kittens. For example, high fever from an infection will leave a cat feeling miserable.

Chronic conditions like kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, cancer or FIV/FeLV may sap a cat’s energy and appetite. Diseases that cause pain or mobility issues also understandably deter a mother from proper kitten care.

In many cases, treating the underlying disease or condition restores a mother’s motherly instincts. But severe, debilitating or end-stage illnesses may prevent her from being able to raise the litter.

Pain and Discomfort

Separate from mastitis, milk letdown and nursing can simply be painful for some mother cats. Sore, cracked or bleeding nipples are not uncommon, especially in large litters with voracious nursing. First-time mothers often struggle with getting used to the sensations of nursing.

Some cats are also sensitive to the oxytocin hormone released during letdown. If a mother associates nursing with any discomfort, it can understandably make her uninterested. Providing a comfortable space, applying nipple cream, and pacing feedings can help relieve discomfort for the mother.

If pain persists, medication may be needed so she can nurse comfortably.

Stress and Anxiety

Psychological factors like stress, fear or anxiety are another potential reason for maternal rejection. Motherhood is an enormous responsibility, especially for a first-time mom. The demands of a large, lively litter can simply be overwhelming for some cats.

Insufficient privacy in the nesting area can also deter nursing. Exposure to loud noises, unfamiliar animals or people, or abrupt environmental changes adds to a mother’s burden. She may cope by avoiding the source of her anxiety – the kittens.

To help reduce stress, allow the mother ample alone time in a quiet, stable environment. Feliway pheromone plugins can also have a calming effect. In extreme cases, anti-anxiety medication may be prescribed by a vet so nursing can continue.

Behavioral Causes of Maternal Rejection

Poor Maternal Instincts

Some cat moms may simply lack strong maternal instincts, especially if they are very young or old when giving birth. Young first-time moms under a year old may not know how to properly care for kittens.

Senior cats over 10 years old having late litters can also struggle with meeting all the demands of their kittens. Genetics likely play a role here, so spaying a poor mother is advisable.

Too Young or Too Old

Kittens that are born prematurely or are undersized are at higher risk of being rejected. Their mom may not accept them if she feels they are too weak or abnormal. On the flip side, kittens that are still nursing but nearly adult size can trigger rejection.

A mother cat may start viewing them as competition for resources instead of dependent babies.

Litter Too Large

Some cats simply become overwhelmed by too many kittens. The average feline litter is 4-6 kittens. But litters of 8 or more can stretch a mother cat too thin when trying to nurse, groom, and watch over so many babies. She may end up abandoning some of the kittens, especially weaker ones.

Environmental Stressors

Anything that causes stress, fear, anxiety or pain for a mother cat can lead to kitten rejection. Common environmental stressors include:

  • Loud noises like construction or traffic
  • New people or animals in the home
  • Insufficient space away from other pets
  • Change in location like a move
  • Lack of privacy from people
  • Unclean and cramped living conditions

Minimizing stressors and providing an optimal birthing/nursing area are key to preventing rejection issues.

Encouraging a Mother Cat to Feed Kittens

Address Any Underlying Medical Issues

If a mother cat is refusing to feed her kittens, there may be an underlying medical issue causing her discomfort or lack of milk production. Some common reasons include infections like mastitis, illness, pain, stress, malnutrition, or hormone imbalances after giving birth.

Consulting a veterinarian to diagnose and treat any conditions is important.

A vet can check for mastitis, uterine infections, fever, dental disease, etc. Pain medication, antibiotics, fluids, vitamin supplements, or hormones may be prescribed. Getting the mother cat healthy again will help encourage natural feeding behavior.

Minimize Environmental Stressors

Sometimes improper nesting sites or too much noise/activity causes a mother cat stress that inhibits nursing. Providing a quiet, comfortable, and safe nesting area away from other pets and children allows her to relax and focus on feeding kittens.

The area should contain soft bedding, nesting boxes, food/water nearby, and adequate temperature control. Slowly integrating the mother back with the family over a few weeks also minimizes disruption to nursing. Reducing stressors gives her natural instincts the best chance of kicking in.

Assist with Feeding

If a mother cat continues refusing to nurse kittens despite medical care and a low-stress environment, assisting with feeding is crucial. Very young kittens can die within 24 hours without nutrition.

Bottle feeding kitten formula or milk replacer provides vital calories and antibodies. Feed expressed milk from the mother if possible. Feed kittens every 2-3 hours, ensuring milk is warm and proper hygiene protocols.

Gently rub their abdomen or use damp cotton balls to encourage urination/defecation after eating.

Be patient and persistent when bottle training kittens. Check weight often and adjust intake based on growth. Consult a vet regularly until weaning age around 4-6 weeks when solid food can be introduced.

Use Behavioral Interventions

Sometimes medical issues and stress may be ruled out, but a mother cat continues refusing to nurse due to lack of experience or confusion. In these scenarios, behavioral interventions may help trigger her maternal instincts.

Placing kittens near the mother’s nipples encourages suckling reflexes, releasing oxytocin to boost nursing/bonding. Stroking the mother’s back while kittens feed or using nursing encouragement pheromone sprays/diffusers also promotes feeding behavior.

Offering treats, praise, playtime rewards after nursing sessions gives positive reinforcement.

If no improvements, regularly restraining the mother for forced nursing may be a last resort if done carefully under supervision. Behavioral training takes persistence but pays off by getting kittens fed while allowing the mother cat’s hormones and responses to adjust.

When to Seek Veterinary Care

Kittens Showing Signs of Starvation

If the kittens appear thin, dehydrated, or lethargic, it’s crucial to get them checked by a vet right away. Malnourished kittens can develop serious health issues like organ failure, so fast action is needed. Some signs of starvation include:

  • Thin appearance, visible ribs and spine
  • Sunken eyes and abdominal tuck
  • Crying persistently from hunger
  • Weakness, inability to stand or very low energy
  • Dehydration – dry gums, lack of tears

The vet will assess the kittens’ condition and may hospitalize them for intensive nutritional support. Fading kitten syndrome can happen fast, so don’t delay seeking help if the kittens seem underfed.

Mother Cat Appears Ill

If the mother cat seems unwell and unable to properly care for her kittens, it’s also important to get her examined right away. Some concerning symptoms include:

  • Lethargy, weakness, or breathing issues
  • Loss of appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Fever, discharge from eyes/nose, or other signs of infection
  • Mastitis (breast infection) causing pain, swelling, and discharge
  • Lameness or obvious injury/trauma preventing her from nursing

The vet will try to diagnose the mother cat’s condition and provide appropriate treatment. She may need to be hospitalized. Orphaned kittens would need emergency foster/feeding care in this situation.

No Improvement With Interventions

Sometimes a mother cat may reject her kittens even after interventions like stress reduction, appetite stimulants, or moving the litter. If the mother continues refusing to nurse or lack milk supply despite your efforts, veterinary assistance is recommended.

The vet can evaluate both the mother and kittens to identify any underlying medical conditions inhibiting nursing. They may hospitalize the kittens and utilize other techniques like tube or syringe feeding.

If the mother cat’s issue can’t be resolved, the kittens may need to be removed permanently for hand-rearing.

Don’t wait too long before involving a vet if a mother cat is struggling to feed her babies. Early intervention gives the kittens a better chance of survival. But even in dire cases, intensive nutritional and medical support can sometimes pull starving kittens through.


While it can be worrying to find that a mother cat is rejecting her kittens, in many cases the cause can be addressed with proper veterinary care, nutrition, and a low-stress environment. By understanding the potential reasons behind maternal rejection, new cat owners can take steps to encourage normal feeding behaviors.

With patience and the right interventions, the mother cat-kitten bond can often be rebuilt for a happy, healthy litter.

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