Kittens require a lot of care and attention, especially in the first few weeks of life. Sometimes you might see the mother wander off for a little while — maybe just a few minutes, maybe for longer — but she’ll always be back. The length of time that kittens can be separated from their mother will gradually increase as they grow and become more independent. It’s important to ensure that the mother has full access to her kittens while they’re small, as she’s the one who is best equipped to look after them. Kittens should ideally stay with Mum until they’re at least 12 weeks old.
How long can a mother cat be away from her kittens? It depends on the age of the kittens. For the first week of life, they will need to be with her almost constantly. The amount of time will increase over the next three months until the kittens are ready to leave.
You’ve arrived on this page because you have questions about kittens and their need for their mother. Maybe your own cat has just had kittens and you’re concerned that she sometimes leaves them on their own. Perhaps you’ve noticed a feral mother with a litter that she leaves unattended when she’s hunting. Maybe you’re wondering when kittens are old enough to leave their mother and go to new homes. Is it okay for a mother cat to be separated from her kittens? Keep reading, because we have all the answers that you’re looking for.
How Long Can a Mother Cat Be Away from Her Kittens?
Weeks one and two
During the first week of life, the mother cat will only leave her kittens a few times per day. She may duck out of the nest where she’s nursing her kittens to grab a bite of food, use her litter-box, or maybe to stretch her legs and inspect the area for possible hazards. In the wild, feral cats will leave their kittens to hunt if they have to, but will return to the nest as soon as they can. A domestic cat has a much easier time of it, since you’ll be there to make sure she has food and water nearby.
It’s okay at this stage to briefly remove the kittens from their mother so they can be weighed and checked for signs of illness or pest infestation. Baby kittens are very, very delicate; even minor illnesses or common infestations such as fleas can do a lot of damage. I heard of a very sad case where a cat owner mistakenly believed that touching the kittens would cause the mother cat to reject them. The kittens developed a flea infestation so bad that the whole litter died. Please monitor your kittens and make sure they’re healthy and gaining weight.
Weeks three to five
By around the third week, the mother cat will be able to come out and play for longer periods. The babies should now be a bit more mobile and independent, although they still need their mother. Their eyes are fully open and they can walk for short distances. They may be curious about their surroundings and want to explore a little. It’s okay to play with the kittens a little more at this stage, as long is it’s only for a few minutes. Handling and petting the kittens, and maybe tempting them with teaser toys, will help to socialise them.
Weeks six to eight
It’s around this time that mother cats will start to wean their kittens. In the wild, the mother cat would bring prey back to the nest for her kittens to nibble on. You can assist by offering the kittens a little solid food mashed with kitten milk (you can find this at pet supply stores). The mother cat will probably be spending more time away from them at this point, although she’ll want to keep an eye on her babies. During this time period she will start teaching her babies how to use the litter-box and imparting other feline wisdom. Make a point of playing with the kittens frequently, so they have positive associations with humans.
The Young Adult Cat
From eight weeks onwards, a kitten will become more and more independent. They’re able to stay away from their mother for longer periods, but will still return to play and interact with her. The mother cat supports the kitten in many ways, helping to develop confidence and various feline life skills. By the time kittens reach around 12 weeks, they’re almost fully adult cats (although they still have a lot of growing to do).
Some breeders allow kittens to go to their new owners at this age, but many more like to wait until the cat is at least 16 weeks. In my opinion, there is a lot of wisdom in waiting for that extra month. Kittens derive a lot of confidence from having their mother around; she helps them feel safe while they explore the world around them and get used to interacting with humans. In my experience, kittens taken from their mother at an early age tend to be more skittish and show more problematic behaviour. They also seem to be less healthy and resilient. I cot my British Shorthair at 16 weeks, and he was well worth the wait.
When Should Kittens Be De-sexed?
There’s another issue here, and that’s de-sexing — spaying or neutering. A responsible breeder would baulk at handing over an “entire” purebred kitten, such as a British Shorthair, to a new owner, unless that person was already established in the cat fancy as a responsible and caring individual with a proper cattery ready to go. The thought of sending a kitten to become the victim of a backyard breeder is unconscionable. With non-purebred cats, you’d still want to avoid unwanted kittens and protect the growing cat from all the health issues that entire cats are heir to.
Thus, kittens are typically neutered or spayed before being rehomed. Most vets prefer to do this at around five months. Paediatric de-sexing (spaying or neutering of young kittens) is generally only done if there’s a medical reason for it. The 16-week mark is a useful compromise — most cats are big enough for the procedure at this age, while at 12 weeks they’re often too small. By waiting till the fourth month before relinquishing the kitten, a responsible breeder ensures that they can be de-sexed ahead of moving in with their new guardians without any problems.
Caring For The Nursing Female
Get your pregnant cat checked by the vet and ensure that she’s healthy. Your vet will tell you if she needs to come in for further appointments. You should also schedule that spay so she won’t keep on having kittens. If you’d like more cats, consider adopting.
A pregnant or nursing cat needs plenty of nutrition. You might want to supplement her usual meals with extra portions. Obesity is less of a concern than poor nutrition. Don’t let her free-feed because she might make herself vomit, but do feed her at least three times a day.
You should also make sure she has a safe and quiet place to give birth, such as a box in a room with low traffic. Make sure everyone understands that she needs space. Some cats pick out their own spots to give birth in. Unless she’s chosen somewhere actively dangerous or very likely to be repeatedly disturbed, you should probably let her have her way. She’s selected a spot that she sees as safe, and she’ll feel more secure if she’s allowed to stay there.
Mother cats who feel insecure can act out in various ways, such as showing aggression or becoming territorial and destructive. In extreme cases, the mother can reject or even kill her litter. A more likely outcome is that she’ll move her kittens somewhere else, and that “somewhere else” may not be a good location.
I’ve come across a few tragic instances where an anxious mother moved her kittens into an open cupboard or a box-room without anyone knowing, and then couldn’t get to them once the door was shut. In one case, the whole litter was lost before anyone found them. Don’t let this happen to you — keep your nursing mama cat safe, happy and calm so she can raise her kittens into healthy adulthood.