Last updated: February 15, 2017
Kitties are so cute. When they’re born they’re blind, deaf, unable to walk and utterly helpless balls of fluff; but don’t be fooled. Within a few months these little bundles of fur will be tiny hunters, equipped with all the tools they need to survive in the wild. They have forward-facing eyes that can see in the dark, padded paws with retractable claws and really, really sharp teeth! But why do you need to know how long kittens nurse? Because cats are carnivores which means that they eat meat. Carnivores need to hang out with Mommy for quite a while, unlike their prey, who literally have to hit the ground running!
The First Few Moments of Life.
A queen can have as many as eight kittens, but the average size of her family is usually between four and six. (All at one time – so glad I’m not a cat!) As she becomes older, though, her litter size will decrease naturally.
When the first kitten is born Mommy will guide it to a teat and it will start to suckle even before its brothers and sisters are born. The birth can take up to an hour depending on the litter size, and it may take a while before all the kittens are nursing.
If any of the babies go astray, Mommy will gently guide it back by nuzzling, licking, and guiding it back with a forepaw . They may take some time to get the hang of it, but once they get sucking there’s no stopping them! They help the flow of milk along by pressing down on the queen’s tummy with one front paw then the other in a kneading motion, a behavior which is continued for the rest of the cat’s life (long after the kneading is needed – get it?)
The kittens will gradually establish a kind of pecking order, each one laying claim to the same nipple all the time, and since the back ones provide the strongest flow the biggest kittens will get those ones, thereby enabling them to become even more robust than the weaker ones. Weaker kittens will try to nurse on these nipples but will abandon them when the rightful tenant comes back! So how long do kittens nurse? As long as they can get a teat, it seems.
Meanwhile the queen eats the placenta, for three reasons: to discourage predators in the wild, who would follow the scent, for valuable nourishment, and to get oxytocin, a hormone that helps her to make milk. The first milk is called colostrum, and is rich in the vitamins and minerals that the babies need for a good head start.
The First Few Days
For the first few days Mommy will not leave the kittens at all except to drink and defecate. During that time you may wonder why your domestic cat picks each kitten up by the scruff of its neck and moves it to another part of the house. She will do this at frequent intervals. ‘Is my cat crazy?’ I hear you scream. No. She is just obeying her instincts and being a good mother. In the wild predators are everywhere and a little kitty looks tasty enough for a light snack, so mommy has to move her babies from place to place to keep them off the scent and to stop them from hearing the kittens mewing. Your cat may drive YOU crazy during this time, but it’s useless to try and stop her; the biological imperative compels her to protect her babies at all costs! After all, Mother Nature is a Mommy too!
Ever wondered why kitties all lie there in a heap? You’d think the one at the bottom would be suffocated, right? After the first few days the queen will leave the kittens for short intervals, so they huddle together for warmth and comfort, but they squirm about, then when one wakes up and finds he’s slipped to the bottom of the pile he’ll climb back up again and another will take his place. In this way the heap is constantly rotated so no one gets any warmer than anyone else. Very democratic! When Mommy comes back she’ll curl around them then wash them all thoroughly to encourage them to suckle. Kittens at this age spend a third of their time feeding and the rest sleeping. (It’s a cat’s life!) If you have adopted a new kitty and she cries constantly you can simulate this by wrapping a hot water bottle in a towel and putting a ticking alarm clock underneath. This will simulate Mommy’s body heat and heartbeat.
Eyes Open to the World
Kittens’ eyes begin to open between 7 – 10 days after birth, and it takes about 28 – 30 days to begin to walk. By the time it is a month old the kittens have grown from 3-5 oz (80-140 grams) at birth, to around 1 lb (450 grams) at one month old, solely on mother’s milk, and now it’s weaning time!
Cutting the Cord
How long do kittens nurse? This will obviously vary within a few days from cat to cat, but generally around forty five days after birth the mother will begin to wean the kittens. In the wild, she will bring the kittens dead prey to eat, and gradually make herself less and less available to them. Even a domestic Mommy, if she has access to the garden, will occasionally bring in a mouse or small bird and put it down in front of her babies to acclimatize them to solid food. She will also begin to take pieces of her own food from her bowl and give them to the kittens. Since young animals learn most things by imitating their mother, the kittens gradually begin to eat more and more solid food and lessen their dependence on milk till at last they are eating solids and nothing else. The kittens’ teeth are not very strong at this age so it’s advisable that for the first few months they eat softer, specially developed kitten food.
The Final Word
So that’s the answer to how long kittens nurse. It takes from birth to 2 ½ months for the little helpless morsels to become fully developed eating machines! If you’re raising one – good luck, and enjoy falling in love!