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When Do Cats Leave Their Kittens – Timeline & Factors

When Do Cats Leave Their Kittens – Timeline & Factors

For most animals, there comes a day where the babies must say goodbye to their mother and venture out into the world independently. For kittens, this means saying goodbye to their mom and other siblings and often moving on to live with a loving family. There is a correct age for this milestone, and it can be damaging if a kitten is taken from its mother too soon. So, when do cats leave their kittens?

Cats leave their kittens when their litter is around twelve weeks old. Some kittens may stay with their mother a few weeks more, but typically in their third month of life, kittens are both old enough and developed enough to be taken to their new owners. 

Taking a cat from their mother before this age can damage the kitten’s health, especially if they are not yet weaned. However, there are many instances where premature weaning takes place, especially with cats living in the wild. 

A mother cat leaves her kittens in a perfect world once they are fully weaned and can eat solid food. Once kittens reach this milestone, they no longer need to be with their mother constantly and are old enough to be out independently.

Reasons Cats Leave Their Kittens 

There are plenty of reasons why a cat would leave their kittens. Below are a few of the most important ones you’ll want to keep in mind.

The Kittens Are Weaned 

The best-case scenario for why a mother cat is leaving her kittens is that the kittens are fully weaned and can now eat solid food. Once kittens reach this milestone, they no longer need to be with their mother constantly and are old enough to be out independently.

Most mother cats are quite nurturing, even if they have an aloof or standoffish personality type. It is hardwired into a cat’s DNA to protect their young, and they will do everything in their power to keep their kittens safe and healthy.

It is expected as the cats begin to get a little older for the mother cat to become more distant. This is part of the process as she prepares herself to let them go off on their own.

The Mother Cat Moves To A New Location 

Sometimes a mother cat will leave her kittens behind if she is unexpectedly forced to move locations and cannot carry or take her kittens with her. Whether forced to move locations due to a natural disaster or human interference, a cat may run away from self-preservation and leave her kittens behind. 

While the father cat is unlikely to stick around to help out with the kittens, the mother cat often does not want him there. If the father tries to get near the mother or her litter, she will likely hiss at him and shoo him away.

The Kittens Know How To Hunt On Their Own

When kittens are old enough to learn how to hunt independently, a mother cat’s work is done with her litter, and she will leave! At that point, the cats are considered fully self-sufficient and can be sent out into the world independently.

Cats are not animals that stick together for the duration of their life, so this marks the natural transition point where a litter of kittens and the mother will separate.

This is not a process that takes place suddenly one day. As kittens grow older and approach the three-month mark, the mother cat will typically start encouraging them to hunt with her if she lives in the wild or has access to go outside. 

One benefit to having several kittens is that there are more hands to help with the hunting! A mother cat will train her kittens to accompany her as she searches for food to make her job easier and offer guidance and show them how it is done. 

The mother cat may do this for a few weeks until she feels like her kittens have picked up her techniques and know-how to hunt and defend themselves against other animals properly. 

The Female Cat Is Pregnant Again

It is true; a female cat can become pregnant again shortly after giving birth to a litter. Female cats will go back into season about eight weeks after giving birth, although this may range by a few weeks depending on the cat (Vet West).

If this is the case, a cat may leave behind her current litter as she prepares for the arrival of her next litter. Usually, by this point, the original litter of kittens should be close to eating solid foods and fend for themselves, but the transition may take place a little bit earlier than it should.

This is why it is crucial to get your cats spayed and neutered to prevent unwanted pregnancies. In the cat world, pregnancy can happen both frequently and easily, and it is not difficult to have an accident occur.

It is also not very healthy for a female cat to have several litters back to back. This is hard on a cat’s body, and it can lead to health problems that will ultimately shorten your cat’s lifespan down the line.  

While cats may not have the emotional capacity that humans do, it is also confusing and upsetting to have to abandon their kittens before reaching full maturity.

It is better to keep your female cat far away from any males while they are in heat to prevent your cat from having to suffer through this scenario. 

The Kittens Are Sick 

It is a sad situation, but if a mother cat recognizes that her kittens are sickly or on their deathbed, she may leave her litter behind.

Sometimes that is why you see a runt of a litter, as there may be one cat that seems unlikely to survive, and the mother may not offer it as much milk or might move it further away from the birthing area. 

 While this may seem cruel, it is the reality of the animal kingdom that many female cats will have several litters throughout their lives, and they do not expend energy towards kittens.

They know they cannot help. They must conserve their resources for taking care of themselves and their healthy offspring. 

If you have a domestic cat and you witness this behavior, the good news is that you have the opportunity to get involved and nurture the sick kitten. With assistance from your vet, you will likely be able to prevent the kitten from dying, even if the mother cat has abandoned it. 

Is It Normal For Cats To Leave Their Kittens

While kittens are still exclusively drinking their mother’s milk and living together, a mother cat will only leave her kittens for short periods. Typically a mother cat would only leave her kittens for an hour or so at a time, and this only occurs if a mother cat feels like she must get away either for food or water. 

How Long Will A Mother Cat Leave Her Kittens

If you happen to encounter an unattended litter of kittens, do not immediately pick them up, take them, and assume they are abandoned (Feral Change).

Stand by and wait and watch for a while to see if the mother returns. If she has only temporarily left, she should be close by and would usually come running back quickly if she hears any of the kittens cry.

Beyond the timeframe of a few hours, it is not normal for a mother cat to leave her kittens. If she is gone for a longer length of time, something may have happened to her, or she has chosen to abandon the litter. 

At that point, it is time to step in and get involved to help the kittens get the sustenance they need to survive. The best way you can help abandoned kittens is by getting them inside somewhere warm and safe, away from potential predators.  

Will A Mother Cat Abandon Her Kittens If You Touch Them

It is a myth that a mother cat will abandon her kittens if a human touches them. However, a mother cat may stay away from returning to her kittens if a human is too close to them or watching over them. She may become spooked by your presence, especially if you are unfamiliar with her. 

Most domestic cats live with humans indoors, so they are used to smelling humans all around them. A human touching their kittens may upset them, but it is unlikely to cause a mother cat to reject the kittens.

Newborn kittens are very delicate creatures, and humans should be extremely cautious when handling them at a young age. Cats are pretty protective of their young and should be able to provide for their kittens without a lot of outside human interference during the kitten’s first few weeks of life. 

Some mother cats have such strong maternal instincts after giving birth to happily take in other kittens from another mother’s litter or even babies of other species.  

Will A Mother Cat Come Back For Kittens

Yes, most of the time, a mother cat will come back for her kittens if she has only stepped away for a short period. If you happen to find a litter of young kittens that appear to be within their first six weeks off life, refrain from immediately picking them up or trying to get involved. 

Cats are not weaned until about six weeks old, and a mother cat knows she must stay with her kittens that long to keep them fed and healthy. Most mother cats will do everything in their power to return to their kittens while they are still within that age range. 

Most of the time, if feral cats leave their young, they can find food. They must stay full themselves to continue producing milk for their kittens, so they must be well fed.

If you find a litter of cats in the wild and appear to be twelve weeks or older, it is more likely that the mother cat will not come back. Once cats know how to hunt and survive on their own, the mother cat will typically move on. 

When cats have not been spayed or neutered, their sole focus is to mate and continue reproducing. Although the mother cat may have just given birth to a litter, once they are old enough to be on their own, her mind will have moved on to mating again.  

Things To Consider

While the familial bonds are not the same, cats do have affection for their offspring. However, that does not prevent mother cats from letting go of their kittens and sending them out into the world.

Cats do not experience the same range of emotions and separation anxiety as humans, and some other mammals do when they are parted with their young. 

However, cats do have a strong reaction if one of their offspring dies. If a kitten dies while still under a mother’s care, she will try to keep the body close and even hold it in her mouth.

A mother cat will bury a kitten in the safest place she can find, underneath either dirt or rocks. Sometimes a mother will even stay near the spot where she buried the kitten to mourn their death. 

For this reason, if a kitten dies, it is essential to show the mother what has happened to prevent the cat from getting very worried. A mother cat has a very strong maternal instinct, and she is likely to freak out if one of her kittens suddenly goes missing.

Lay the deceased kitten near the mother, and let her sniff it and investigate it. She will recognize that the baby has died and then can begin to mourn the loss.