When Can You Handle Newborn Kittens?

Dr Pippa Elliott
Bottle Kitten

Before handling a newborn, weigh the risks which shift depending on the mother's character and individual circumstances. Pet Place suggest briefly handling the kittens once a day to check they are gaining weight, however, take care not to over handle the kittens as this may distress the mother.

Why Handle the Kittens?

Your cat gave birth and is attentive to the kittens. All seems well but you are anxious to ensure the kittens are OK. You are torn. Should you check them or leave them alone? If you handle the kittens will the mother reject them? These are good questions to which there isn't an easy answer. The solution lies in balancing the mother's maternal instincts and friendliness to people, against the welfare of the kittens should she reject them.

Do Check the Kittens

While you don't want to over handle the kittens, you do want to check:

  • The kitten is warm, strong and vigorous
  • For problems such as a bleeding placenta or birth membranes in the mouth
  • The gender of the kittens

Beware

However, you must balance the welfare of the kittens with the knowledge that if you handle the kittens the mother may:

  • Be distracted and stop labor
  • Reject the kitten

On the one side you are looking out for the kitten's health, but it could be at the price of the mother's rejection. As explained by the Cats Protection League, your aim should be to do the least harm to the welfare of the mother and her newborn litter. This may be clear cut. For example, the kitten that has birth membranes covering her mouth while the mother is showing no interest. You must act to clear the kitten's mouth or risk her suffocating. At the other extreme of the scale, imagine a newborn kitten happily suckling from her mother. To check her over risks putting your scent on the kitten and the mother not recognizing the kitten when you put her back.

Checking Your Pet's Kittens

A mother cat that knows and trusts you, will be more tolerant of intervention than an anxious or feral cat. Because she already associates you with comfort and security, she may accept you mean no harm and tolerate you touching her kittens. However, be aware maternal instincts can kick in, with a painful twist for you. As the Cornell Feline Health Center writes, some pet cats are such good mothers, they protect their offspring from everyone, including you. This can end in painful bites or scratches if you touch her brood.

If the mother gave birth in a secure place, is attentive to her kittens and the kittens are sucking and warm, it's best to leave the cat and newborn kittens alone. If you are concerned the location is not suitable, then let her finish kittening, and only move the whole litter in one go to the new, safer spot. Moving kittens one at a time can cause her to relocate the remainder, which risks splitting the litter.

Handling Kittens in Difficulty

If mother or kittens are in difficulty, then you need to intervene and touch the kittens. The Cat Doctor cites examples of this including:

  • If the mother is having difficulty giving birth, you'll need to take the mother and kittens to a vet.
  • If the kittens are in distress, such as if the kittens
    • Are born in the sac
    • Don't move or breathe
    • Are too cold
    • Don't suckle with two hours of birth
    • Have a mom that isn't paying attention to them

Make sure your hands are clean and when offering the kitten back to the mother, try stroking her and then the kitten to transfer the scent.

Orphaned Kitten

newborn kittens

Pet Education explains how kittens that are rejected or otherwise orphaned when the mother dies, need to be hand reared. In these circumstances, it is fine to handle the kittens as the main risk (the mother rejecting them) is no longer relevant. Be sure to wash your hands first, and keep the kittens warm at all times, fed regularly and toileted. Orphaned kittens need special attention, so always discuss their care with your veterinarian.

Feral Kittens

If you spot a litter of newborn kittens that appear to be feral, the Mayor's Alliance advocates leaving them alone and observing them from a distance of at least 35 feet. Newborn kittens are deaf and blind, and instinct tells them to stay in the nest. If the mother is not present, she may have slipped away to relieve herself or find food. On her return, she will check for danger, before approaching the nest. If she senses the kittens have been disturbed or you are too close, this increases the risk of her running off and abandoning them.

A feral mother who feels threatened will opt to relocate her kittens to a new nest. Since she can only carry one at a time, there will be occasions when her young appear abandoned but aren't really. Again, stay some distance away to monitor the situation. As the Feral Cat Coalition explains, feral kittens are best off with their mother until at least five to six weeks of age.

How to Handle Kittens

International Cat Care suggests when you need to check the kittens, keep them as close to the mother as possible. Let her see the kitten at all times, or even be within touching distance. Wash your hands first, to ensure they are clean. Sit on the floor near the mother, and hold the kitten so she can see it. Keep the kitten upright (that is belly-down) and supported in your hands. Newborn kittens are vulnerable to chilling and heat loss, so be sure to keep her warm. Wrap a hot water bottle in a towel and, if required, rest the kitten on this to keep warm. Handle the kitten for the shortest time possible, and put her straight back with the mother.

It can be helpful to stroke the mother first and transfer her scent onto the kitten. Then, either show the kitten to the mother or place the kitten beside a nipple. When the mother licks the kitten or allows her to suckle, these are good signs. It's crucial to handle the kitten gently but with confidence. Ideally, let the kitten rest on her belly in a natural position in your palm or cupped hands. She may move her head from side to side (as if seeking a nipple) and mew quietly. This is normal.

If you need to check the umbilicus then gently grip the kitten with the forefinger and thumb of one hand forming a girdle around the kitten's chest. Support the kitten's rear end in the palm of the opposite hand while you gently lift and roll the kitten over. The kitten may cry, which is a warning to the mother she is upside down. Return the kitten to a natural resting position as soon as possible.

Small children should not be allowed to handle newborn kittens, and older children should only handle them with supervision. Remember, kittens are vulnerable and unable to defend themselves, and they should always be protected from other pets.

Do Kittens Need to be Handled and Socialized?

Yes and no. VetStreet explains how the first two weeks of life, kittens are busy eating, sleeping and pooping. It makes no difference to their friendliness later in life, whether they are handled during this period or not. However, handling is important once their eyes and ears open at around 10 - 14 days of age. It is crucial kittens are held and touched in a gentle and appropriate manner, by a range of different people, to hone them into a confident, well-adjusted adult cat.

As the Merck Veterinary Manual explains, handling and petting the kittens early in life helps them grow used to people, and they will make better pets. During this time, you can begin to play gently with the kittens. Give the kittens plenty of toys to play with, and try to avoid allowing them to play with your fingers or clothing because this can encourage aggressive behavior later on.

When Can You Handle Newborn Kittens?

The rule of thumb is to avoid handling newborns unless you have a compelling reason to do so and always balance the benefits against the risks. Ultimately, if your intervention is going to distress the mother, then respect this and only handle the newborns if their lives are in danger. While many pet cats are comfortable with a trusted caretaker touching their newborn, there's always a slight risk Mother Nature has other ideas.

When Can You Handle Newborn Kittens?