New cat mothers can sometimes leave their kittens for a period. While this behavior may be new or surprising to the pet's carer, it is not uncommon. Feline mothers may leave their young ones for anywhere between a few minutes to a few hours and, in some cases, days. Why does this happen? Why do mother cats leave their kittens? Do they miss their kittens when they leave? How long can a mother cat be away from her kittens?
Here, I'll answer all of these questions to help you understand this behavior better.
The Different Stages of Absence
Mother cats will leave their kittens for different reasons at different stages of their lives.
At this stage of her kitten's life, feline moms will leave only a few times each day. This is because the kittens are wholly dependent on them at this time in their lives. They are born blind, and for the first few days, need close care from their mom. They also depend on their mom for body temperature regulation, protection, and stimulation to pass waste.
Because mom cat still needs care from her carers, and stress kept minimal, it is advisable to keep the litter box and other essentials like food and water nearby. This way, she would not have to go far or leave her babies to get these things.
Third to Fourth Week
At around the third week, many kittens grow less dependent on their mothers. At this stage, the mother cat may afford to stay away longer from them. She could spend her time playing with other pets in the home, cuddling with you, or just taking an alone time before going back to her kittens.
At this point, the kittens are beginning to explore the immediate environment alone as their eyes are open, and most can walk and play even though they naturally cannot stray too far.
Sixth to Eighth Week
At this stage, most cat mothers start to wean their kittens. And this means significantly less time is spent with them. You may find her sitting at her tree or a window for longer periods while keeping eyes on her playing kittens. This is also a period for survival lessons like hunting, litter box use, and other essential lessons to help them become fully independent.
Twelfth Week - Adult Stage
The mother cat spends long periods away from her kittens at this stage. Even though they may still be undergoing some of the survival and socialization skills, they are usually mature enough for separation unless they will be staying permanently with their mother. This is often the best time for adoption as the kittens have generally had enough education to help them do well without their mothers.
Common Reasons a Mother Cat May Abandon Her Kittens
Mother cats will care for and feed her little ones until they are grown enough to survive without her. Even though many will be absent at the different stages of their kittens' life as discussed above, it is brief, and they always return to their responsibilities.
However, sometimes, the absence can become a rejection. Yes, a mother cat can abandon her kittens, and while this is sad to think about, there are several reasons for this behavior.
Felines birth multiple kittens at a time, and while some cats can easily cater for all in the litter, some may be unable to. Some litters may be too large to get adequate care from the mother cat. When this happens, she may abandon some to save milk for the others, and this is usually within the first 24-48 hours of birth.
Deformity or Ill Health
Feline moms may reject a kitten upon suspicion of an illness. This may help them properly care for others or prevent the spread of the disease to others in the litter. A mother cat may also reject a physically deformed but otherwise healthy kitten. While there is no explanation for this behavior, many cat experts advise cat owners to remove any abandoned kitten to prevent the mom from rejecting the entire litter.
Mastitis is an infection of the mammary glands. It can occur in felines and get in the way of lactation. Some of the symptoms of this condition include swelling, hardness, and hotness of the nipples when touched. With this condition, breastfeeding becomes unbearable for the cat, which may seem like rejection until diagnosis and treatment.
Feline mothers may sometimes abandon their kittens because they lack the maternal skills needed to do so. These very young cat mothers may seem confused or disinterested in caring for their kittens in this situation. Some of these cat mothers may have had a difficult birth hence may be too traumatized or excessively vigilant to suckle or correctly care for their litter.
Thankfully, many feline moms that begin this way often figure it out as time goes on, and they recover from the trauma of delivery.
Young felines may sometimes wander far from their mom and get lost in places the moms cannot reach. In this situation, passers by may assume that the kittens in question are abandoned. But if you wait long enough, you will probably see the mom cat seriously searching for her kittens even if they aren't crying out for their mother.
If you suspect that the kitten is abandoned then you can check our guide here on what to do with a stray kitten.
How Long Can a Mother Cat Be Away From Her Kittens? Conclusion
Like almost every other species, cat mothers are faced with the challenges of raising their newborns. Again, like these other mothers, they can sometimes take time away from their cat. This is entirely normal and should be accepted. You may sometimes also observe that your cat's litter appears abandoned; I discussed some of the possible reasons for "abandonment."
However, if you feel that a mother cat has permanently abandoned her cat, you should alert your local rescue group, shelter, or even your vet for proper care before deciding on the next step.
That said, cat owners have to remember that while felines are a joy to own, they breed quickly and in litters, and become overpopulated in no time. Unless you are willing to care for them entirely, you should opt for spaying or neutering, and avoid gifting cats or any other pet to those likely ill-prepared to care for them, especially with the holidays around the corner.