Do Cats Reject Kittens If You Touch Them?

Does Handling a Kitten Cause Its Mother to Reject It?

Bringing a new kitten into your home is an exciting experience. As you watch the mother cat care for her litter, you may be tempted to pick up and cuddle the adorable kittens. However, a common myth is that handling newborn kittens will cause the mother to reject them or even harm them. This simply isn’t true in most cases.

In this article, we’ll explore the facts around mother cats and their litters, including how scenting and stress can impact her behavior. We’ll discuss when and why rejection actually happens, proper handling techniques, and the benefits and risks of human contact. Read on to learn when it’s safe to touch newborn kittens and how to do so without disturbing the mother-kitten bond.

Mother’s Instinct

Mother cats have an incredibly strong bond with their kittens and a powerful instinct to nurture and protect their offspring. As soon as kittens are born, the mother cleans them and stimulates them to breathe and nurse. She licks them constantly to prompt urination and defecation and keeps them warm by curling her body around them (

A mother cat’s instincts drive her to care meticulously for her kittens in their first weeks of life when they are completely helpless. She grooms them, feeds them milk, keeps them safe and warm, and teaches them behaviors they need to survive. A mother cat is very attentive to the location of her kittens and will promptly retrieve any that wander off. Her protective instincts are strong, and she will defend her kittens fiercely from any perceived threat.

As the kittens grow older and become more independent, the mother cat’s instincts adapt. She will encourage the kittens to explore and play, while still monitoring them closely. She begins weaning them off her milk and bringing them small prey to eat. The mother cat’s instincts strike a balance between protecting her kittens and promoting their development and independence (


Mother cats use scent to identify their kittens in the early days and weeks after birth. A mother cat will sniff and lick her kittens regularly to pick up on their unique scent signature [1]. Even if humans touch the kittens, the mother’s scenting allows her to determine which kittens are hers [2]. A kitten’s scent does not change just because a human has held it. Studies show that cats can distinguish between the scents of their own kittens versus unrelated kittens [3]. So while a human’s scent may temporarily overlay a kitten’s natural scent, it does not override or erase it.


While handling newborn kittens can cause some stress, it does not cause enough stress for the mother cat to reject her offspring. Kittens have a strong bond with their mother, and the maternal instinct to care for her kittens is very powerful. As explained in this article from Quora, it’s best to minimize handling newborns because extra stress can potentially lead to rejection in extreme cases. However, brief, gentle handling will not cause the mother to abandon her kittens.

According to the DoveLewis pet hospital, the mother cat forms a strong maternal bond immediately after birth. Her instincts drive her to nurse, groom, and care for the kittens. While handling the kittens causes some stress, the mother will not abandon healthy kittens due to human touch alone. As long as the kittens are quickly returned to the nest, the mother will continue caring for them.


There is a common myth that mother cats will reject or abandon their kittens if humans touch them. This myth claims that the human scent on the kitten will cause the mother to not recognize her kitten and reject it. This myth has been around for a long time and is still widely believed today.

This myth likely originated because kittens that have been handled too early or improperly can become separated from their mother. Newborn kittens have limited mobility and navigation skills and rely heavily on scent to find their way back to their mother. So if kittens are removed from the nest for too long or taken to areas away from the mother’s scent, they can become lost and unable to locate her to nurse. When this happens, people mistakenly assume the mother has rejected her kitten due to human scent.

When Rejection Happens

Cases where a mother cat rejects her kittens are rare, but they can occur for various reasons.

One cause is if the mother cat has certain illnesses or conditions that interfere with her maternal instincts and ability to care for offspring. For example, conditions like mastitis (inflammation of mammary glands), metritis (inflammation of the uterus), or eclampsia (low calcium levels) could make nursing painful and lead a mother to reject her young. Underlying infections, fevers, pain, malnutrition, stress or hyperthyroidism may also contribute to rejection.

Sometimes inexperienced or very young mother cats lack strong natural maternal behaviors needed to bond with and nurture kittens. Those with suppressed maternal instincts may neglect or fail to nurse, groom and stay with their litters. Trauma, difficult births, large litter sizes, or poor health may further inhibit a mother cat’s innate drives to care for newborns.

Per Celia Haddon, cat expert and author, as quoted in this Newsweek article, “It’s normal for a mother cat to reject her kittens. Indeed, she should be allowed to reject kittens that are too weak to thrive.” In rare cases when maternal rejection occurs, human intervention is needed to save the kittens. Consulting a vet and finding a foster mother cat are recommended steps.

Proper Handling

When handling newborn kittens, it’s important to be very gentle and minimize separation from the mother cat. Here are some tips for safe handling:

Wash your hands before and after interacting with the kittens to prevent transferring scents or bacteria. You can also wear gloves.

Handle the kittens gently and avoid sudden movements that could startle them. Support the kitten’s body fully when lifting, especially their head and neck since they cannot hold them up on their own yet.

Only handle the kittens when necessary for feeding, weighing, or health checks. Limit handling to 5-10 minutes at a time.

Allow the mother cat to observe while you handle her kittens. This will help prevent her from becoming stressed or protective. Do not remove kittens from her sight.

Return kittens to the nest or mother immediately after handling. Separating newborns from mom even for short periods can be detrimental to their growth and survival. (Source)

Avoid handling newborn kittens in the first week of life unless urgent. Their eyes and ears are still sealed shut, so separation from mom is very stressful. (Source)

Benefits of Handling

Kittens that are handled at a young age gain numerous benefits. Handling and gentle socialization from an early age leads to improved socialization and bonding with humans. According to the American Animal Hospital Association, “Research shows that kittens untouched by humans until seven weeks of age are less responsive to people in general.” Interacting with humans early builds trust and eases handling for vet exams, nail trims, and other care throughout their lifetime.

It’s ideal to begin gentle handling starting from 2-3 weeks of age if the mother cat is socialized to humans. Short, positive handling sessions help kittens acclimate to being picked up, petted, having their paws or ears touched, and being around human sights and sounds. As described by the American Animal Hospital Association, “Gentle, respectful handling will prepare the kitten for a lifetime of positive handling.” Early handling forms a foundation for a confident, calm, trusting cat.

Risks of Separation

Prematurely separating kittens from their mother can be very dangerous and lead to health complications. Mother cats provide essential care in the first 8-12 weeks of a kitten’s life. During this time, the mother nurses her kittens, keeping them warm and helping them eliminate waste. She also teaches them important cat social skills through play and discipline. Kittens separated too early are at higher risk for illness because they miss out on nutrients from nursing and antibodies from their mother’s milk.1

Kittens taken from their mother before 8 weeks may experience stunted growth and developmental issues. They are more likely to have health problems like upper respiratory infections, diarrhea, and flea infestations. Premature separation can also lead to behavioral problems such as inappropriate elimination outside the litter box, aggression, anxiety, and difficulty socializing with other cats.2 It’s best to keep kittens with their mother and littermates for at least 12 weeks for proper socialization and growth.


Some people believe that mother cats will abandon or reject their kittens if humans touch them, but this is actually a myth. The reality is that most mother cats will not abandon their kittens due to human touch alone. Mother cats have a strong maternal instinct to nurture and protect their young. Their bond with their kittens is not so fragile as to be broken by handling alone.

That said, it’s best not to disturb mother cats and kittens unless necessary. While brief handling is unlikely to cause rejection, extended separation could stress the mother and disrupt bonding. Kittens also need their mother’s care in the first weeks for nourishment, warmth, socialization and more. If you need to handle newborn kittens, do so gently and return them to their mother as soon as possible.

The main takeaway is that healthy mother cats will not abandon their kittens if humans touch them. But it’s still wise to minimize unnecessary handling to keep mom and kittens comfortable and content.

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