How to Wean Kittens

posted: 05/15/12
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There are many benefits to allowing kittens to bond to their mother before taking them home.

Weaning kittens is a natural process. Mother cats, who completely focus on their kittens for the first three to four weeks, know that as the babies begin to grow, their need to nurse begins to fade. She may take the lead by curtailing nursing time, but you can make the transition easier by showing the kittens how to eat without their mother. Their curiosity and hunger will make the process an easy one.

For kittens, the nursing experience provides both nutrition and security. Besides feeding her young, mom cat teaches them to play, hunt and clean themselves. Kittens that stay with their mothers for at least eight weeks -- or better yet, 10 to 12 weeks -- are more adjusted socially than those separated earlier. But they can start chewing solid food, in addition to nursing, once their teeth start coming in, usually by three weeks. If a cat is nursing a sizable litter, or has had health problems and is not producing enough milk, getting the kittens to eat on their own earlier, at two or three weeks, will give them a nutritional boost.

Lending a Hand to Mother Nature

Mother cats produce milk for about 12 weeks, and kittens may try to nurse the entire time. During their first three weeks, kittens nurse (and nap) almost continuously. When their teeth come in, they may explore their mother's food, imitating her by trying to eat it. By the kittens' fourth or fifth week, mother cats encourage weaning by gradually cutting down nursing time for kittens with their sharp, growing teeth.

You can assist by offering a shallow dish of kitten milk replacement, available at pet supply stores. Kittens should never drink cow's milk, which causes digestive upset and diarrhea. Dip your finger into the dish; let the kitten lick off the milk, and then guide it down to the bowl. A kitten may walk into its dish, cleaning the milk replacement from its paws as it figures out this new way of eating. This is a good thing. Never push a kitten's nose into a dish; it could inhale the liquid and develop pneumonia or other lung problems.

From Mother's Milk to Real Meals

Once kittens are accustomed to lapping from a bowl, combine the kitten milk replacement with a little canned food, mixed to a gruel-like consistency. A kitten-specific formula food will provide the protein growing kittens require. Serve this mush-meal at room temperature, three or four times a day. As kittens get used to eating it, gradually cut back the amount of milk replacement while increasing the food. Kittens will continue to supplement these meals with nursing, but as they get used to the taste, scent and texture of solid food, they will prefer it to mother's milk. They should be eating regular un-moistened food by eight to 10 weeks. However, always offer a shallow dish of fresh water to kittens that can get dehydrated easily.

To prevent the mother cat from developing mastitis, or inflammation of the mammary glands resulting from a blocked milk duct or infected gland, weaning should be done gradually. Instinctively, the mother cat will discourage nursing. She may walk away from her nesting box to take a nap apart from her increasingly active family. Kittens eating solid food can be separated from their mothers for longer periods. If the mother cat is still producing milk and the kittens have stopped nursing, reducing her food and water intake can help the milk dry up.

Bottle-fed Babies

An orphaned or otherwise hand-fed kitten should always be given kitten milk replacement, not cow's milk. Bottle-raised kittens can begin weaning a bit sooner than nursing kittens. At about three weeks, begin offering the kitten its milk replacement in a shallow dish, urging it to drink the same way you would show a nursing kitten. At first, keep a bottle ready if it rejects the bowl. As it grows more comfortable taking meals from the dish, mix the milk replacement with a little canned kitten food. Gradually adjust the amount of milk replacement until it's eating just food.

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