Why Do Mother Cats Refuse To Feed Kittens?

It’s not uncommon for mother cats, known as queens, to refuse or stop nursing and feeding their kittens. While the exact prevalence is unknown, veterinarians report regularly seeing cases of maternal rejection.

When a queen rejects her kittens, she will stop nursing them and refuse to allow them to suckle. This can have serious impacts on the kittens’ health and survival. Kittens under 4 weeks old rely completely on their mother’s milk for nutrition and passive immunity against disease. Without this source of food and antibodies, rejected kittens can quickly become malnourished, dehydrated, and ill.

Newborn kittens only have around a 10% chance of survival if the mother refuses to nurse them (https://www.petcarerx.com/article/why-a-mother-cat-may-abandon-her-kittens/3257). Even kittens over 2 weeks old are still very vulnerable without maternal care. Understanding why maternal rejection occurs and how to respond is crucial for giving unfed kittens their best chance at health and life.

Reasons for Refusal

There are several potential reasons why a mother cat may refuse to feed her kittens:

Birth defects or health issues in the kittens can cause a mother to reject them. According to The Spruce Pets, kittens that are visibly deformed, have cleft palates, or seem weak and underweight may be rejected. The mother’s instinct is to focus her energy on kittens that seem most likely to survive.

Lack of maternal instinct can prevent nursing. Some cats, especially young or first-time mothers, may not have a strong natural maternal drive. This can lead them to ignore, avoid, or even be aggressive towards their kittens according to veterinarians on Quora.

Stress, discomfort, or anxiety can also interfere with nursing. Cats can easily feel overwhelmed by factors like noise, lack of privacy, changes in routine, or introduction of new pets/people. The stress affects milk production and mothering behaviors. Pet Care RX notes that pain from delivery complications or mastitis may also prevent nursing.

Finally, very large litters can overwhelm a mother cat. She may be unable to produce enough milk for 8-10+ kittens or struggle to care for so many. The kittens she rejects are often the weakest or latest born according to vets on Quora.

Evaluating Kitten Health

Evaluating the health of newborn kittens is critical to identifying issues early on. There are several key things to look for:

First, check for any obvious birth defects, like cleft palate or umbilical hernias, which may impact the kitten’s ability to nurse (source). Carefully inspect the mouth, eyes, limbs, tail, and anus.

Weighing kittens daily can reveal inadequate intake or failure to thrive. Kittens should steadily gain weight in the first few weeks. Sudden drops or plateaus warrant attention. Target weights vary by breed but kittens should roughly double their birth weight in the first week (source).

Look for signs of dehydration like sunken eyes or tacky gums. Healthy gums will be moist and pink. Lethargy, crying, cool body temperature, rapid breathing, or foul odors may indicate sickness. Kittens should be routinely active and nursing (source).

Encouraging Nursing

There are a few techniques you can try to encourage a mother cat to nurse her kittens if she is initially refusing them. Keeping the nesting area quiet, calm, and comfortable is important, as loud noises and too much activity can stress the mother and inhibit her nursing instincts. Make sure she has soft bedding, easy access to food and water, and a space with minimal disturbances.

Gently placing the kittens near the mother cat to nurse can help prompt her caretaking behavior. Hold each kitten up to her stomach, allowing them to nuzzle and knead to stimulate milk production. Repeating this regularly, especially when the kittens seem hungry, may get the mother to accept them. Be patient and keep sessions brief to avoid overwhelming her.

If the mother still refuses to nurse, using a supplemental milk formula is recommended until she cares for them herself. Feed underweight kittens every 2-3 hours by bottle or syringe to provide nutrition. Make sure milk is warm, not cold from refrigeration. As you encourage nursing, listen for suckling sounds to ensure the kittens are properly fed.

With patience and care, many hesitant mother cats can be nurtured into accepting nursing responsibilities. But if she remains unresponsive after attempts to assist, contact a veterinarian for guidance on next steps.

When to Seek Veterinary Care

Sometimes a mother cat’s refusal to nurse her kittens is an emergency situation requiring immediate veterinary care. According to The Spruce Pets, you should take the kittens to the vet right away if the mother cat is aggressively rejecting them or they are showing signs of illness. Kittens that are crying nonstop, cold, or unable to stand may need urgent medical intervention.

The following symptoms indicate that veterinary care is needed immediately for unfed kittens:

  • Low body temperature (under 95°F)
  • Crying or meowing excessively
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Trembling or unable to stand
  • Not urinating or defecating

Kittens deprived of their mother’s milk can quickly become malnourished, dehydrated, or hypothermic. According to Shelter Medicine, newborn kittens need to eat every 2-3 hours and can deteriorate rapidly without proper nourishment. Don’t hesitate to seek emergency vet care for kittens showing any signs of distress.

Long-Term Solutions

If the mother cat continues to reject the kittens even after trying various techniques to encourage nursing, long-term solutions may need to be considered for the well-being of the kittens. Some options include:

Fostering or adopting out the orphaned kittens. Kittens that are consistently refused or unable to nurse from their mother will need an alternative caregiver to bottle-feed them until weaned. Working with local cat rescues or foster networks can help get the kittens into experienced foster homes. Kittens under 4 weeks old have the best outcome when paired with a nursing foster mother cat.[1]

Cooperating with a veterinarian or foster organization. If you are unable to foster the kittens yourself, contact a veterinarian, shelter, or rescue organization for assistance. They can evaluate if the kittens are healthy, provide supplies and guidance on proper care, and help with eventually homing the kittens.[2]

Considering re-homing the mother cat. In some cases, a mother cat may display repeated rejection of litters. If she has had sufficient time to bond and shown no signs of improvement in maternal behavior, re-homing with a new owner who will not breed her may be kindest for both her and future litters.

Preventing Future Occurrences

There are steps cat owners and breeders can take to help prevent occurrences of mother cats refusing to feed their kittens in the future:

Only breed healthy cats. Kittens born to a mother with health issues like malnutrition, infections, or chronic conditions are more likely to be rejected or unable to nurse properly. Responsible breeding starts with selecting healthy parent cats.

Provide proper prenatal and postnatal care. Making sure a mother cat receives good nutrition, clean living conditions, low stress levels, and veterinary checks during pregnancy and after birth helps promote healthy milk production and maternal behaviors. Monitor cats closely after birth.

Limit litter size. Very large litters can physically overwhelm and stress some mother cats, potentially leading to rejection or inability to sufficiently feed all kittens. It is best to allow no more than 4-6 kittens per litter. Consult a vet on appropriate litter size for the breed.

Outlook for Unfed Kittens

The outlook for unfed kittens depends heavily on how long they go without nursing from their mother. According to PetMD, kittens that are under 4 weeks old are at the highest risk of fading kitten syndrome if they do not receive proper nutrition from nursing or bottle feeding (https://www.petmd.com/cat/conditions/fading-kitten-syndrome-symptoms-and-treatment-options).

Statistics show that kittens can only survive 2-3 days without any nutrition before the effects become critical. Within 12 hours of birth, kittens need colostrum from nursing to receive vital nutrients and antibodies (https://www.thesprucepets.com/cat-wont-feed-newborn-kittens-554851). After 24 hours, mortality rates increase rapidly.

The long-term health impacts of early malnutrition include stunted growth, neurological issues, and weakened immune systems. Kittens who survive lack of early nursing may be more prone to viruses, infections, and chronic health conditions later in life (https://www.rover.com/blog/fading-kitten-syndrome/). However, with proper care and bottle feeding, most can go on to live normal, healthy lives.

When Refusal May be Best

In some unfortunate situations, a mother cat refusing to nurse her kittens may actually be the kindest option. If the kittens are born with severe birth defects or illnesses that result in poor quality of life, not nursing may spare them further suffering. According to one source, “If the kitten has a disorder that makes life painful or impossible, some mother cats will refuse to nurse them, which results in a peaceful, natural death for the kitten” (https://www.thesprucepets.com/cat-wont-feed-newborn-kittens-554851). While difficult, this refusal spares the kitten a short life of discomfort and the guardian the anguish of decisions about euthanasia.

Likewise, if the mother cat is struggling with severe illness herself, she may not have the physical strength and resources to care for kittens. Her refusal to nurse may be her natural way of recognizing her own limitations. As heartbreaking as it is, focusing her energy on her own survival may be the wisest course for a seriously ill mother. According to veterinarians, “If the mother cat is struggling with a severe systemic disease, she will often refuse to care for her kittens” (https://www.quora.com/Is-it-possible-for-a-mother-cat-to-neglect-or-refuse-to-breastfeed-her-kitten-s-Why). While the outcome for the kittens may still be tragic, refusing to nurse reflects the mother’s instinct to preserve her own health.

Under these heartbreaking circumstances, a mother cat’s refusal to nurse may be an act of mercy. While impossible to accept, letting nature take its course may sometimes be the most compassionate option compared to prolonging suffering. However, guardians should always consult a veterinarian to ensure the cats receive any possible comfort care.


Mother cats usually refuse to feed their kittens due to health concerns, either with the kittens or themselves. It’s important to evaluate the kittens for illness and the mother for signs of mastitis or metritis. Encourage nursing by keeping the mother and kittens together in a quiet, comfortable area. However, if the mother continues refusing to nurse, veterinary intervention may be necessary to save the kittens’ lives.

Kittens that go unfed can face serious health complications or death within days. So early evaluation and intervention is critical. There are techniques that can be tried at home, but prompt veterinary care greatly improves outcomes. With supportive treatment, supplement feeding, and monitoring, many rejected kittens can still grow into healthy cats.

While rejection is stressful for owners, sometimes a mother cat knows best when her kittens are too ill to save. Allowing her to focus resources on kittens with a better chance of survival can ultimately benefit the litter. But owners should still involve their vet to ensure the unfed kittens are humanely euthanized or cared for. With patience and care, many cat families can overcome this sad situation and thrive.

Scroll to Top