Routine Care of a Queen Cat and Her KittensCat Care > Cat Breeding > Routine Care of a Queen Cat and Her Kittens
If, as is usually the case, the birth has proceeded normally, it is to be hoped that there will be little for the owner to do during the first three weeks of the kittens' lives. Most queens are very good and attentive mothers and take care of all their kittens needs during this initial period. In the early days, the kittens divide their time between periods of feeding and sleeping. It is especially important that they receive the first milk, or colostrum, that is produced during the 48 hours following birth. It contains vital antibodies that help to protect the kittens from infections and transferred only at this time.
The degree of protection afforded and the length of time that it lasts depends upon the amount of colostrum each kitten consumes and the amount of antibodies it contains. The latter depends upon the immunity status of the mother cat. Some veterinary surgeons recommend giving a mother cat a booster vaccination during the last month of pregnancy to increase antibody levels. In this case, 'dead' inert vaccine is used, which stimulates the production of antibodies by the mother's immune system but poses no risk to developing foetuses.
Newborn kittens are blind and seem weak and helpless and yet are 'programmed' to crawl towards their mother's teats and to suckle. In any litter, but especially in a large one, there are usually one or two kittens that are smaller and weaker than the rest. Often, first-born kittens are slightly bigger and soon become dominant, establishing a claim on the most productive nipple, while weaker individuals can be pushed out and have to make do with one that produces less milk. Hence it can be hard for a smaller kitten to overcome an early disadvantage, and if there are deaths in the early days it is usually because of mal-nutrition. It is worth remembering that the queen's rear teats nearest to her hind legs, produce the greater quantity of milk.
After only two or three days, the strongest and most dominant kittens will have established a claim upon them. If the mother cat accepts the interference, it is acceptable to intervene gently and swap two kittens round so that a weaker one occasionally obtains a turn at a richer feeding station. Occasionally a mother cat fails to produce enough milk to feed her kittens adequately. An indication of this is when the kittens cry continuously and fail to gain weight. They should gain about 10 to 15 grams each day or 80 to 100 grams every week. If signs of poor nourishment are present, a veterinary surgeon should be consulted about supplementary feeding.
During the first 48 hours, which coincides with the time when the colostrum is being passed, many cats are reluctant to leave their kittens at all. It is best to try to persuade the queen to do so in order that she can have food, drink and an opportunity to use the litter tray. This also allows time to change the newspaper in the bed.
The mother cat spends a great deal of time in the early weeks licking and grooming each kitten thoroughly. By licking beneath the tail she both stimulates the passage of waste and keeps this area clean. There is a great deal of communication between the queen and her kittens, with 'chirruping', mewing and purring. The kittens are particularly vocal when their mother is absent or returns to the bed after a short time away. They crawl over one another and generally jostle for the best feeding position until settling down contentedly to suckle.
The queen cat should be observed for any signs of mastitis. This usually affects only some of the milk glands and is an infection that causes swelling, heat and pain. The area around the affected teats feels hard and looks red and is so painful that the cat does not permit suckling and feels ill and miserable. Obviously, it is best if this is detected at an early stage and prompt veterinary treatment is obtained. Generally, the cat is given a course of antibiotics, which brings rapid relief of the symptoms. It may be necessary to give the kittens some supplementary feeding until the symptoms subside.
A much rarer condition is eclampsia, or 'milk fever', which is brought about by a lack of calcium in the blood. The cat is evidently ill, shows no interest in her kittens and trembles or staggers. Emergency veterinary treatment is needed in the form of a calcium injection, which brings a rapid reversal of the symptoms. If treatment is not given, however, the condition can progress to a fatal outcome. Symptoms are a soaring temperature, convulsions, muscle spasms, coma and death. Eclampsia is a much rarer condition in cats than in dogs, and when it does occur it usually affects queens with large litters of at least five kittens. The most usual time for it to appear is two to four weeks after birth.
For the first three to four weeks, while the queen is feeding her rapidly growing kittens, her nutritional demands are enormous and it is difficult to overfeed her at this time. It is best to offer at least three good quality balanced meals a day and more if necessary. The cat should also be offered a constant supply of fresh water as she needs to replenish the fluid continually being lost in milk production. Milk provides an additional valuable source of protein and calcium and should be offered each day as long as it does not upset the cat's digestion.
After about two or three weeks, some mother cats like to move their kittens to a new nest site, carefully lifting each one by the back of its neck and moving it to the appointed place. Usually, if the original bed or box is moved to the new site as well, the cat will accept this arrangement quite happily. Of course, the new place may not be so convenient as the old from the owner's point of view.
Newborn kittens usually suckle at two-hourly intervals and weigh between 90 to 140 grams at birth. They grow very rapidly and are consequently soon able to take in more food, and the time between feeds stretches to three to four hours. Coinciding with this, the kittens' eyes open at about eleven or twelve days old and their mother is now leaving them for short periods of time. The kittens begin to explore their surroundings, becoming more physically competent as their level of activity increases. By about three weeks of age, they will be finding their way out of the box and following their mother to the food bowl and litter tray. At this stage the mother cat will probably be encouraging her family to use the litter tray and starting the process of toilet training.
The kittens should be treated for roundworms at about this age, and this needs to be repeated at regular intervals. A veterinary surgeon should be consulted about a worming programme for both the kittens and the mother cat. From now on, the kittens enjoy playing and exploring and may end up in unfamiliar corners. The mother cat calls to them to come to her if she feels that they are straying too far away or may carry them back if necessary. As they get older, the queen may find it necessary to discipline them from time to time, using growls or a bat with a front paw.