Mother cats, or queens, display distinct nurturing behaviors with their new kittens. Born blind and unable to stand up, kittens depend on the queen’s maternal instincts to help them do everything necessary for survival during the first weeks of life, according to Pet Place. Most queen behaviors--nursing, cleaning up after elimination and early training--begin before kittens reach one month old. However, some behaviors, including ignoring new kittens, are not normal and should be evaluated by a veterinarian.
The mother cat’s focus immediately following the birth of kittens revolves around cleaning and nursing, according to Healthy Cats Care. First, the queen breaks open the sac that surrounds each newborn and licks the kitten clean, which stimulates breathing. Next, as the kittens settle close to nurse, she curls her body around them protectively. In the following days, the queen licks the kittens’ hindquarters to stimulate elimination, which helps ensure that all bodily systems are working properly. She will also clean up after them.
Within a Month
After two to three weeks, a mother cat will start leaving the kittens for short periods. She's training them to get out and follow her, according to Pet Education, although she listens closely to her brood and will return quickly if their cries sound worrisome. By four weeks the queen will be leading her kittens to the litter box, and they will learn how to use it by watching her.
Some cats, especially new mothers, separate and move kittens to different places, according to Healthy Cats Care. If your cat does this, you may see her using her mouth to gently lift them by the scruff of the neck. In the wild, separating kittens was a means of protecting the group from predators, and domesticated cats sometimes do this instinctively. Older cats that have had previous litters tend to do this less often.
New mother cats tend to be more nervous or territorial than before they gave birth, according to Vet Info. Some become more aggressive. These are natural behaviors that stem from the queen’s need to protect the kittens. While you should check kittens’ eyes, noses and mouths for signs of infection, handling during the first three weeks should be kept to a minimum while the queen settles into a routine with her kittens.
A mother cat that ignores her kittens should be watched carefully. She may be suffering from a medical condition that needs attention, according to Vet Info, or her inattentiveness may stem from having been abandoned as a kitten and not knowing what to do. When a queen ignores her kittens, human intervention is necessary to make sure they are fed and socialized properly. Consult your veterinarian on how to care for kittens if the mother will not nurse them, and what to do if she needs to be treated for illness or infection.