Why Do Mother Cats Move Kittens?

mother cat carrying kitten
Mother Cat Carrying a Kitten, The Akermarks, Flickr

Feral cats often move their kittens if they feel that the nesting site has become unsafe for some reason. Domestic cats have the same urge to hide their offspring from predators and to avoid staying too long in one place where their kittens might be noticed.

Causes of kitten moving

A mother cat is most likely to move her kittens during the first few weeks after they are born. Kitten moving indicates that the mother is nervous, either because she is inexperienced, she feels that the nest site is unsafe, or both. Things that may trigger the urge to move include lack of privacy, noise, or bright lights.

While some cats are fine with attention and handling of their kittens shortly after birth, a nervous mother, particularly if it’s her first litter, may find this very stressful. For the first few days after kittens are born, keep interaction to a minimum, just checking to make sure that the mom and kittens are healthy and that mom cat’s food dishes are full and her litter box is clean. For cats that appear nervous or agitated with people around or have already moved their kittens once, extend the minimal-contact time to the first couple of weeks.

How to reduce the likelihood of kitten moving

During their first weeks of life, kittens can’t regulate their body temperature, so they depend on their mothers for warmth. If a queen moves her kittens frequently, there is a risk that they may become chilled.

To reduce the likelihood of frequent kitten moving, provide a dry, clean, cozy nesting box in a quiet, low-traffic corner of the home free from bright lights and draughts. A suitable box can be purchased or made from cardboard, wood, or a plastic storage container. The box should be around 1.5-2 feet square (depending on the size of the queen), with a door on one side and (ideally) a removable lid. Artificial fleece blankets or tight-weave towels make good bedding (avoid terry cloth, which can snag kittens’ claws).

Pay attention to the mother’s body language and behaviour when handling kittens. A week or two after birth, most mothers will allow handling if the kittens are held briefly and kept in her sight at all times. Handling kittens from week two onward is recommended if the mother will allow it, because this helps socialize the kittens to humans. However, if the mother seems agitated when a kitten is held or touched, it should be returned to the nest immediately. Children should not visit or handle kittens unless they are able to remain quiet and calm, and hold the kittens gently. (Always wash hands thoroughly before handling kittens, as their immune systems are not sufficiently developed to fight off harmful microorganisms.)

If the mother does move her kittens, leave them in the new place she has chosen if possible (unless the new nest presents a safety hazard). Turn on the heat in the new room to prevent the kittens from becoming chilled (unless the room is already very warm). Avoid using bright lights near the new nesting site, and leave the mother and her kittens alone until she has settled down – interaction right after a move may provoke another move.

Further Reading:

For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.

References

    • East Bay SPCA. (2009). “Stray Cats and Kittens.” EastBaySPCA.org.
    • Eldredge, D.M., DVM; Carlson, D.G., DVM; Carlson,L.D., DVM; & Giffin, J.M., MD. (2008). Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, Third Edition. Wiley Publishing, Inc.
    • Merck & Co., Inc., Eds. Kahn, C.M., BA, MA, & Line, S., DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVB. (2007). The Merck/Merial Manual for Pet Health, Home Edition.
    • Rice, D., DVM. (1997). The Complete Book of Cat Breeding. Hauppage, NY: Barron’s Educational Series.
    • Schelling, C., Dr. (2010). “Veterinary Topics: Feline Reproduction: Kittens Birth to Weaning.” CatHealth.com.

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