Lactation is the secretion of milk through the mammary glands to feed kittens. Every mammal produces unique milk to provide all the nutrients required for that particular species.
Milk is highly nutritious and is made up of proteins (caseins and whey protein), fats, calcium, iron, amino acids, minerals trace elements and maternal antibodies. Antibodies protect the kittens from diseases while their immune systems develop. Milk also changes as the kittens grow, the first milk is colostrum, which is highly concentrated, nutrient-nutrient dense and brimming with antibodies to protect the newborn kittens.
Feline pregnancy lasts between 61-65 days, and milk production begins in the last two weeks of pregnancy. Pet owners may see milk dripping from the nipples a day or two before the onset of labour.
How long before a cat gives birth, does her milk come in?
In the days leading up to the birth, her nipples will increase in size, around two days before she gives birth, they will produce milk. It may be possible to express some out by gently squeezing the nipples between your thumb and forefinger.
How do I know if a mother cat is making enough milk?
Human mothers can check a baby is receiving enough milk by counting how many wet nappies a baby produces in a day. Female cats stimulate a kitten to urinate and defecate by licking the genitals, which makes it hard for pet owners to monitor urine output.
A healthy kitten who is receiving enough milk will gain weight. Weigh all kittens once a day and keep a log of each kitten’s weight to monitor weight gain to ensure they are gaining weight. As a rule, a healthy kitten should gain at least 10 grams per day.
In the early days, kittens eat and sleep. A kitten who is not receiving enough milk will be unsettled and cry a lot.
How much food should a nursing mother eat?
Approximately 24 hours before the queen goes into labour, her appetite will drop, once the kittens are delivered, it will return, and from there it will rise until the kittens wean. Lactation is the most energy consuming time in a cat’s life, and the queen must eat a high-quality diet to provide enough calories to produce enough milk for the kittens as well as maintain a healthy weight herself. Lactation lasts approximately 7–8 weeks in dogs and peak milk production is 3-4 weeks after giving birth.
Large litters, in particular, take their toll on the queen. Provide her with as much food as she wants for the first 4-6 weeks, this can be tapered once the kittens begin to wean. Queens should eat between 250 to 350 calories per kilo of body weight.
What should a nursing cat eat?
A high-quality and easily digestible kitten food which is higher in calories. Wet (canned) food is more appetising and can be fed several times a day.
Provide free access to high-quality dry food.
Fresh water must also be left out at all times, as milk production requires adequate water intake.
How to fatten up a nursing cat
It is not uncommon for a nursing cat to lose weight and pet owners must take care to ensure the queen is receiving adequate nutrients herself. Nature provides well for babies, to the detriment of the mother cat who will lose weight, especially if she has a large number of kittens.
- Ensure the other cats in the household don’t have access to the mother cat’s food
- Feed a small amount of wet food, but more often
- Leave dry food out at all times
- Nursing cats are reluctant to stray far from the nest, especially when the kittens are tiny, therefore food and water bowls must be kept close to the mother and her kittens
- Add some grated cheddar or parmesan cheese or plain yoghurt to the top of the cat’s food
- Feed a high-quality brand of food as cheaper brands contain more fillers which don’t offer your cat a lot in the way of nutrition
- Offer her some fresh goat milk which is easier to digest than cows milk, alternatively, add some kitten milk replacer to the food
- If the nursing cat continues to lose weight, speak to the veterinarian about supplementing the kitten’s diet with a kitten milk replacer (KMR) to relieve some of the load from the queen
Does the queen need supplements?
Generally, no, supplements are not recommended. Always speak to a veterinarian before providing supplements to the queen.
How many times a day do kittens nurse?
Below is the average feeding schedule for a kitten from birth to six weeks, every kitten is different, and this may vary.
- 0-1 week: Every 2 hours
- 1-2 weeks: Every 2-3 hours
- 2-3 weeks: Every 3-4 hours
- 3-4 weeks: Every 4-5 hours
- 4-5 weeks: Every 5-6 hours
- 5-6 weeks: Every 6 hours
When does the weaning process begin?
The weaning process is the transition from drinking milk to eating solids, which occurs gradually over several weeks. Kittens begin to show an interest in food around four weeks of age. At this time, they are still nursing frequently from their mother, but start to eat a small amount of food; this gradually increases as the weeks go by.
By 7-8 weeks of age, kittens should be entirely on a diet of solid food and water and should no longer be nursing from their mother.
How long does it take for the cat’s milk supply to dry up?
Once kittens start on solid food, they will gradually nurse less often. Milk production is based on supply and demand, less milk will be produced as demand drops. The queen will also discourage older kittens from nursing. Milk supply typically dries up within two weeks.
Can a cat lactate if not pregnant?
Yes, it is possible for a cat who is not pregnant to produce milk if she experiences a pseudopregnancy (also called false pregnancy).
Mastitis – Mastitis (inflammation of the mammary gland) occurs when the lactating queen’s mammary gland(s) becomes inflamed, blocked or infected, it can also occur in cats who have had a pseudopregnancy.
Neonatal isoerythrolysis – A serious and life-threatening condition caused when kittens who have type A blood nurse from their mother who has type B blood during the first 24 hours of life. Problems occur when the kitten ingests colostrum from the queen which contains naturally occurring alloantibodies against the kitten’s type A blood group. This leads to the destruction of the kitten’s red blood cells. It is thought to be a major cause of fading kitten syndrome.
Eclampsia (milk fever) – A serious and life-threatening condition which occurs in late pregnancy or birth as a result of blood calcium levels becoming dangerously depleted, leading to low blood calcium levels (hypocalcemia).