So now you have a tiny litter of perfect little miniature cats. Well, maybe not perfect yet.
At birth, the kittens’ eyes are sealed closed because they have not finished developing yet, and the ears are also sealed on the inside. The kitten relies on its sense of smell to find one of its mother’s teats and get suckling.
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This is Reed on her first day out.
Each kitten will recognize its own smell on the first teat it uses, and so each of the kittens in a litter will end up with its own teat. Mother cats have eight teats. Sometimes if the litter is not very big, the unused teats will “dry up” or stop producing milk. If the litter is too big (more than eight babies), the runt might not get to feed very frequently as it will not have a teat of its own.
Cats don’t seem to be able to count, which if you’re a newborn kitten can be a pro or a con.
Pro: Quite often, a new mother cat will adopt kittens from another litter. If two cats give birth at roughly the same time and one mum has too many while the other does not have enough (in terms of kitten to teat ratio), you can transfer the ‘extras’ from the overloaded mum to the other mum. She probably won’t even notice an extra kitten or two. Baker and Lance’s friend Scribbles tells us of a case where a new mother cat rejected her entire litter (Baker supports her in this decision, saying kittens are noisy, smelly, and little attention stealers, and he doesn’t believe in them). According to Scribbles, another mother cat in the house had enough love to go around and ended up raising both litters herself.
Con: Usually within a week of giving birth, a mother cat’s instincts tell her it’s time to move the babies. The birthing area can be quite smelly and in the wild the smell will give away the litter’s location to predators. So a move seems like a good idea to most cats. However, since she can’t count, a mama cat is quite likely to leave one of her little ones behind in the move. If you happen to come home one day and find one poor solitary kitten crying by himself in the birthing box, quite likely this is what happened. If the mother cat hears him crying, she’ll go back for him, but if she’s moved to an entirely different location, as in the case of a feral stray cat who birthed three kittens in an abandoned car in our neighgbour’s yard and then subsequently moved two of them to under our porch, you can help out by relocating the forgotten kitten yourself. If you’re dealing with a stray, there is a possibility she will reject a kitten who smells like human, so wear clean gloves to do the move, and try to placate the mum with a nice offering of tuna or tinned cat food.
Here’s a close-up of the four babies suckling. It’s their first meal!
When your kittens are newborns, they are unable to regulate their own body heat and need to huddle together for warmth. After the mum has settled down from the delivery and is comfortable leaving the box for food or water, you can change the bedding so the babies don’t have to lie in their own… shall we say… well, you get the picture. If you have a very small litter, you might want to provide them with a heat lamp, too.
Here are Libby’s newborn babies, cuddling together for warmth in the birthing box as Libby gets something to eat.
If your mother cat knows you, you can start handling the newborn kittens immediately, but only for a few moments at a time. They are very weak at this stage so be sure to support them fully when you pick them up, and keep them warm in your hands.
The mother will take care of all the newborn kittens’ needs: feeding, toileting, cleaning, and loving, so as the human in the family, you do not need to do anything yet. Just keep an eye on things and if your mother cat or any of the kittens seem uncomfortable in any way, or if one or more kittens do not suckle, take the whole family to the vet. Especially check your mother cat’s vaginal area for chronic bleeding, discharge, or bad smell. If any of these symptoms are present, take her to the vet.