A newborn kitten needs to be fed 10 times a day. A mother cat can become incapable of satisfying that need for a variety of reasons. She can stop feeding her kittens because of sickness, genetic disorders, human interference, inexperience, or death. Kittens need human help to survive if they are still nursing but have been abandoned, whatever the reason.
A mother cat can develop a sickness or infection, making her unable to nurse. Mastitis is an infection that leaves a female cat completely unable to milk. Kittens can also develop viral or bacterial infections that disturbs their normal nursing instincts. Caesarean sections can interrupt normal milk flow, and the mother might need time to recover from one before she is able to feed her kittens. Whatever the case, if the kittens are not nursing but the cat still looks like she wants to feed them, it is time to consult a vet.
Kittens are not born with their eyes open. They have to find their way toward their mother by touch and smell. If the kitten's nose is blocked, it can't smell the milk or the mother, leaving it hungry and unable to feed. A kitten in this condition is unlikely to survive without human help or vet intervention.
When the litter is so large there isn't enough milk to go around, the weakest of the litter will starve. The larger, stronger kittens will push the runts of the litter away from the food. The smallest kitten will slowly starve to death unless a human comes hand-feeds it formula. Keep the hand-fed kitten with the rest of the litter, if possible, as there are other needs that the mother cat fulfils, such as warmth and encouraging defecation.
A mother cat can reject certain kittens in her litter. This is more likely to happen with a feral cat than a domesticated one, but it can happen with either. A mother might reject a kitten because of a genetic disorder or deformity that makes the kitten less likely to survive as an adult.
If the mother is inexperienced, stress caused by lack of food or frightening circumstances can cause her to abandon one or all of the kittens. If the cat is feral, handling the kittens can cause the mother to abandon them, especially if she is afraid of humans.
In rare circumstances, a cat might kill one or more of her kittens. This happens more often in the winter, as it is a difficult time for a mother to raise the kittens. Other times a mother might kill a kitten, rather than abandon it because of abnormalities that make it harder for the kitten to survive.
Sometimes an inexperienced mother might kill her kittens on accident, by grooming them too roughly or trying to move them through dangerous areas. When a kitten is killed, it is normal for the mother cat to consume the corpse, to avoid attracting predators and to recoup some of the energy spent in giving birth.
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