One of the most heartwarming things to see is a mother cat caressing and feeding her little ones. Even in shelters, abandoned kittens are sometimes put with a nursing mom who will accept and nurture the motherless babies as her own. So what would make a mother cat reject or abandon her babies? The reasons are many, and it’s helpful to understand them:
First of all, many people come upon litters of kittens outdoors and assume they have been abandoned when in fact mom is nearby, probably hunting. Outdoor or stray moms sometimes scatter their kittens to avoid predation. If the kittens seem well fed, are in a safe place, and fall asleep after crying for a short while, mom is probably around. It’s best to monitor a nest for a couple of hours to see if she comes back. If she doesn’t, she may be ill and unable to come back, or she may have been killed. Kittens can also wander away and get lost or stuck in places where mom can’t get to them. This can happen indoors or outdoors. So if you see a mom prowling around nervously, or find a kitten crying somewhere, they may be trying to find one another.
Sometimes a mom will reject a sick kitten to avoid spreading the illness to the others. It’s not always the “runt” who is ill, and a physically deformed kitten, such as a “Janus” cat, may also be rejected, even though, despite some physical difference, the kitten is perfectly healthy. Experts recommend removing any completely rejected kittens so mom doesn’t reject others in the litter.
Some nursing moms develop mastitis, an infection of the mammary gland. This can happen spontaneously, or from kittens scratching the tissue during nursing. The nipple becomes swollen, hard, and hot to the touch. So it may look like mom is rejecting her babies, when it’s actually just too painful to let them suckle.
Too large a litter can also lead to rejection. If there is not enough milk for all her kittens, mom may reject a few to save milk for the others. A careful observer will probably notice this behavior within the first 24 hours of birth.
A very young mom who hasn’t developed maternal skills may act confused or disinterested. Some moms start out his way and then figure it out. Some don’t. A disinterested mom may also have been traumatized during the birth if she was, for example, not in a safe place, or had difficulty physically. Her hyper-vigilance and nervousness make it difficult for her to relax and lie down so the kittens can suckle.
Motherhood can be a challenge for any species. Give these moms compassion, consideration, and help if they need it, just as you would for each other. Call your local shelter, rescue group, or veterinarian for help if you need it, and remember; even though kittens are adorable, over 4 million animals are euthanized annually in the U.S. due to overpopulation — please spay and neuter your pets.