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Care & Feeding of Queens & Kittens
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith
Reproduction and Breeding
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The kittens have arrived, have nursed, and are now sleeping with the queen. She will curve her body around them and look very content as they nurse and sleep.

Feeding and nutrition

The queen should be allowed easy access to food, water, and a litter box. Place everything she needs close by, but out of reach of the kittens. Monitor that she is eating, drinking, and using the litter box.

Within 2-3 days, the queen's appetite will about double from her pre-pregnancy intake. She will need a near constant supply of a high quality kitten food and water to maintain her weight and health while feeding the kittens. She should still have her supplements of vitamin and mineral tablets. She should not look gaunt or thin if her weight is maintained. Ideally, she should weigh the same at weaning as she did when she was bred.

Queen licking genital area of kittenA healthy kitten is firm, plump, and vigorous. Kittens nurse about every 1-2 hours. If they nurse until their stomachs appear round and they sleep quietly, they are eating enough. If they are crying and moving a lot, they are not eating enough. They may be swallowing air which makes the stomach appear larger. As they become weaker, they will lay still and not cry. Kittens develop a preference for which teat they nurse from within days of birth. They locate the same teat by smell. Before, during, and after nursing, the queen will lick the stomach and perineal area to stimulate urination and defecation. She will continue to do this for 2-3 weeks.

A normal kitten weighs 100 grams plus or minus 10 grams at birth. Those with weights under 90 grams at birth are more likely to die within the first days of life. The minimal weight gain should be 7-10 grams daily, although, they may lose weight slightly in the first 24 hours after birth. A kitten's weight should double within the first 14 days of life. Kittens should be weighed daily or every other day for the first two weeks of life and then 2-3 times a week until weaning. Failure of weight gain is often the first sign of illness in kittens.

Mother cat nursing older kittensThe kittens will begin to imitate the queen eating and drinking around 3-4 weeks of age. A secure shallow water dish should now be available at least part of the day. At this age, the kittens can start receiving kitten mush. A high quality dry kitten food can be placed in the blender with liquid kitten milk replacer and hot water. This should be blenderized until the consistency of human infant cereal. The kittens should receive 3-4 meals a day of this to start. Once the kittens have checked it out, walked in it, and have eaten some, the queen can be allowed to finish it and clean the kittens. Each week, decrease the amount of the milk replacer and water that is added and the time of blenderizing, so by 7-8 weeks, the kittens are eating dry food. Once they are on dry food, it may be left in with the kittens. As the kittens eat more solid food, the queen may be let away from the kittens for an ever longer period of time. By the time they are 7-8 weeks old, they should be fully weaned from the dam's milk, eating dry food, drinking water, and using the litter box. As weaning progresses, the amount the queen eats should be decreased. If the weaning is not rushed, she will naturally start decreasing milk production as the kittens increase their intake of solid food. Starting the fifth week of lactation, add a small amount of premium adult food to the queen's diet and slightly decrease the amount of kitten food. Keep gradually increasing the adult food and decreasing the kitten food, so by the time the kittens are weaned at 8 weeks, the queen is on all adult food. During the last week of weaning, the dam's food consumption should be less than 50% above the maintenance level and declining towards the maintenance level.

Cats and kittens need to be able to smell their food to eat well. If a kitten has a runny nose, keep the nose area clean and provide fresh food several times a day. Weigh these kittens daily to make sure they are continuing to gain weight.

Sanitation and litter box training

The nesting box needs to be changed at least once a day at this stage. The queen is stimulating the kittens to urinate and defecate for the first several weeks of life. Around four weeks of age, they will begin sand-scratching behavior. Initially, they follow the queen to the litter box and play in it. Gradually, by about six weeks of age, they learn to eliminate in the litter box. A cake pan with short sides that the kittens can climb over works well at this stage for a litter box. Kittens learn to bury their feces by watching the queen burying hers.

Temperature

The nursery area should be maintained about 75-80°F for the first week. Then it can be gradually dropped to about 70°F. If a heat source is used, it should not be warmer than the queen, as the kittens head for the heat source to nurse. Kittens will lay side by side or piled on top of each other to stay warm and for the contact. If they are spread throughout the box, the temperature may be too warm. Kittens need the extra heat, as they are unable to regulate their body temperature until several weeks old. The rectal temperature of a newborn kitten is about 97°F and rises each week until about 4 weeks of age when it is a normal adult temperature of 100.5-102.5°F.

Health of the queen

Each mammary gland and nipple of the queen should be checked at least once a day for redness, hardness, discharge, or streaking color. If mastitis (infection of the mammary gland) develops, the veterinarian should be contacted immediately. If caught early, milking out the affected gland and applying hot compresses will help prevent a spread of the problem. Sometimes, antibiotics are necessary. If the queen develops multiple glands with mastitis, the kittens will need to be bottle fed. The kittens' nails should be trimmed weekly starting within days of birth. This will help prevent some of the scratches on the queen's mammary glands. The deciduous teeth start coming in around day 11. Check the mammary glands of the queen daily for bites.

The queen will have a bloody discharge from her vulva, which may be quite heavy for several days. It should decrease in amount, become darker, and be almost gone within 2-3 weeks.

Kitten health care Dr. Foster examining a kitten

Unthrifty kittens should be examined as soon as possible by a veterinarian to check for birth defects. Some defects such as a cleft palate are not compatible with life. These kittens should be humanely euthanized. Death of kittens after 4 days of age should be rare.

Vaccinations are started at about 6-7 weeks of age. Ask your veterinarian which vaccinations are necessary for your litter.

The American Association of Parasitologists and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have made the following recommendations for deworming kittens:

In kittens, because prenatal infection does not occur, egg excretion begins later than in puppies, and in most areas, the risk of roundworms and hookworms in cats is comparatively lower; deworming for kittens can be started effectively at 3 weeks of age and be repeated at 5, 7, and 9 weeks. Drs. Foster and Smith suggest that owners of newly acquired kittens should obtain the deworming history of their new pet and contact their veterinarian to determine if additional deworming is needed. The queen should be dewormed at the same times as the kittens.

A health check done by a veterinarian at 6-7 weeks of age before the kittens head for new homes should include checks for heart murmurs, hernias, ear mites, other parasites, eye disorders, etc.

Normal kitten development

Kitten showing umbilicusThe umbilical cord normally falls off in 2-3 days. Infections of the umbilicus are rare in clean, well-managed catteries.

Kittens will twitch and jerk while they sleep. This helps develop the nervous system and muscles. The kittens crawl well by 7-14 days of age, walk at 16 days, and have a normal gait at 21 days. They need to be on footing that offers traction. By 4 weeks of age, the kittens follow each other and actively play with each other. By 5 weeks of age, the kittens pounce and stalk in their play. At this age, they will also begin grooming themselves and each other.

Kittens are born without teeth. The deciduous (baby) teeth start to erupt at 2-4 weeks of age. All of the deciduous teeth are usually present by 8 weeks of age.

Kittens learn to use a scratching post by watching the queen use it. A solid secure post should be available by 3 weeks of age. Do not allow other surfaces for them to scratch at this point. Once a pattern of using the scratching post for scratching is established, it is followed fairly consistently.

Kitten with eyes and ears still closedThe kittens' eyes will begin to open around 7-10 days of age. Do not pry open the lids for any reason, as the immature eye is not yet ready to handle light. Some kittens will take a day to open the eyes while others will take 3-4 days. The retina matures around 5 weeks of age and the kitten sees clearly. The eyes will have a bluish color to them at first and then change to their adult color over time. If the eyes appear white or solid blue, take the kitten to the veterinarian right away.

The ears open at about 14 days of age. The kittens should hear clearly by 4 weeks of age. Deafness may not be noticeable while the kittens are together and first noticed only when the kitten is in its new home. White cats with blue eyes are frequently deaf because the gene causing deafness is linked to the genes necessary to produce this combination of coat and eye color.

Interactions between the queen and kittens

The queen will start spending more time away from the kittens by 2-3 weeks of age. They will be starting to follow her from the box to explore. They should be well supervised and have safe toys available.

Kitten socialization

Woman playing with kittens laying on a window perchKittens go through their socialization period between 2-7 weeks of age. This means that the socialization falls on the breeder. The kittens should be exposed to everything possible from metal food dishes dropping, to vacuums, garage doors opening and closing, thunderstorms, sirens, garbage trucks going past, dogs and other pets, car rides, etc. Do not try to keep the area quiet during the day. The kittens need to get used to normal household noises. Children should be allowed to play with the kittens with supervision. Everything the kittens are exposed to now will help them become well-socialized, unafraid adults. Each kitten should be handled 30-40 minutes a day between 2 and 7 weeks of age. This time should consist of petting, playing, and talking with them. The kittens learn by imitating the queen. They will learn to fear what she fears. They learn to hunt by watching her and then practicing with prey she brings back to the box.

 
References and Further Reading

Cain, J; Lawler, D. Small Animal Reproduction and Pediatrics. Pro-Visions Pet Specialty Enterprises. St. Louis, MO; 1991.

Ettinger, SF. Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 3rd ed. W.B. Saunders Company. Philadelphia, PA; 1989.

Feldman, E; Nelson, R. Canine and Feline Endocrinology and Reproduction. W.B. Saunders Company. Philadelphia, PA; 1987.

Fogle, B. The Cat's Mind - Understanding Your Cat's Behavior. Howell Book House. New York, NY; 1992.

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