How Long Do Kittens Nurse?

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On average, kittens only nurse for about 3 ½ to 4 weeks before they start weaning. During this time, kittens develop their canine teeth and begin walking around.1 Weaning is the process in which young kittens transition from drinking their mother's milk to eating solid food, developing quickly away from being dependent on their mothers to more social independence in just a few weeks.1 

Of course, orphaned kittens don't have mothers to nurse from, and if they survive without a mother, they'll be bottle-fed until it's time to start weaning them. If you've come across a litter of kittens, you might wonder, "How long do kittens nurse?" or how you can care for and wean them. 

After about 6-8 weeks, most kittens are fully weaned off their mother's milk or a bottle (if orphaned). Compared to other mammals, kittens don't take long to wean themselves off of their mother's milk. However, some kittens may wean at their own rates, relying on a mixture of solid food and their mother's milk for a few weeks.  Ideally, a kitten's mother will take care of the weaning process. However, if you're caring for a small kitten that has been orphaned, you'll need to take care of this to help them become more independent.1 

Want to learn more about how long kittens nurse and when they should be weaned? This article will discuss everything you need to know about nursing kittens, including when they should be weaned and how you can care for an orphaned neonatal kitten. 

The timeline of kittens nursing

Timeline of Kittens Nursing

How long does a kitten need milk? Kittens rely on their mothers for a lot, including nutrition. Kittens are neonatal when they're under four weeks old.1 These neonatal kittens are not ready to be weaned from their mother's milk, which contains all the nutrients they need to grow big and strong. When kittens are ready to be weaned, they'll become more mobile, explore their surroundings, and engage in play.1 The weaning process is slow and isn't completed until a kitten is around 6-8 weeks old. Until a kitten reaches around four weeks old, they only need their mother's milk. There are three stages of kittens nursing:

1. Mother initiates nursing

If you're wondering, "How long do kittens nurse?" you might also wonder how soon after birth they start nursing. Kittens begin nursing only 1-2 hours after they're born.2 During this time, their eyes are still closed, but they're able to find the mother cat through her warmth. Within the first month after birth, a mother will start to wean her kittens off her milk, continuing the process for the next few weeks.

Once kittens start nursing, they'll need to nurse every few hours for the next three to six weeks to help them grow healthy and strong. 

2. Kittens initiate nursing; Mom is cooperative

After the 2nd to 3rd week of a kitten's life, they'll begin initiating nursing while the mother rolls over to allow them to feed.2 Around this time, the kitten starts being able to see. However, around the 4th week after birth, kittens will stop nursing and start weaning. The weaning process begins around the 4th week, in which you'll need to introduce them to kitten food and utilize milk replacement formula, if necessary.2

3. Kitten's initiate; Mother becomes uncooperative

In the weeks prior, the mother rolled over for her kittens when they were hungry. However, around week 5, the mother cat might become evasive to start to wean kittens off her milk.2 In wild cats, around week 5 is when the mother would begin to feed her kittens fresh food from a hunt, but pet parents should begin feeding kittens canned food.

By the 6th to 8th week, kittens are fully weaned from their mother's milk. However, they may occasionally nurse from the mother if she allows it. Now is the time when they can start eating kitten food. 

The entire weaning process can take up to a month or more, with the mother cat becoming more uncooperative and less available to feed them. If you're caring for an orphaned kitten, you'll need to take care of their nursing and weaning on your own. In mother cats, the milk will begin to dry up. It's always best to have the mother take care of nursing and weaning since kittens must learn independence from her. As long as everything is going well, you can let the mother cat take care of the entire process. However, you should offer solid food around four weeks of age to let the kittens practice eating solid food. 

Ideally, kittens should not be separated from their mother before they're eight weeks old because they need the nourishment provided by her milk, which contains essential antibodies and nutrients. The mother cat also helps her babies urinate and defecate after eating. Of course, there are times when mother cats can't care for their babies, in which case the kittens will need either a pet parent or a surrogate mother.

Surrogate mothers are cats that have recently had a litter and are still producing milk. While not all nursing cats will accept another cat's kittens, some will care for abandoned kittens as long as their own kittens are not threatened. If there is no surrogate mother cat available, humans will need to step in to provide the necessary care for young cats that haven't yet weaned.3 

How Often Should You Feed a 4-Week-Old Kitten?

How often to feed kittens depends on their age. Nursing kittens is relatively easy, especially if their mother is there and can take care of this part of their development. However, if you're caring for an orphaned kitten, they'll need to be fed multiple small meals a day. Young kittens are fragile and should nurse every two hours in their first week. They'll require less milk as they get older. 

4-week-old kittens reading to start weaning can be fed multiple small meals throughout the day

4-week-old kittens ready to start weaning can be fed multiple small meals throughout the day. A typical four-week-old kitten will still likely be partially nursing or fed formula with a spoon if orphaned. However, even if the mother is around, you can feed them formula with a spoon to allow for the transition to wet cat food, getting them used to no longer suckling to feed. 

If there is no mother, you'll need to take care of all the nursing on your own with a small bottle designed for kittens and replacement formula. Therefore, you must learn everything from how to care for kittens to how to pet a cat and what types of food are best for cat health. 

Bottle feeding kittens

When kittens are nursing, and the mother isn't around, or the mother can't feed all the newborns at once, you'll need to bottle feed them. Kittens need to eat every few hours, with the frequency depending on their age, so the easiest way to ensure every kitten is eating is with a bottle. If the kittens do not have a mother, they can die if not properly cared for, so you must be able to provide the same motherly care to them by keeping them warm and helping them urinate and poop after each meal.3 

Since newborn kittens are fragile, you'll need to ensure they stay warm with warm bedding or by holding them as a mother cat would. Additionally, young kittens need help urinating and defecating. Mother cats often lick their kittens to stimulate the bowels and bladder, but you can use a warm, moist cotton ball to simulate a cat's tongue. When kittens are around four weeks old, or the age of weaning, they will begin to urinate and defecate on their own, so you can begin teaching them how to use a litter box.3 

Remember, newborn kittens should be fed once every two hours with warm formula. Most kittens will stop suckling when full, so if your kitten stops eating, it means they don't need more. Additionally, you should prevent overfeeding, which can be dangerous to their health. If you're nursing a young kitten, talk to a vet about what the proper feeding amounts are to ensure the health of the kittens.3

How Old Can Kittens Be Weaned?

Cats begin the weaning process at around three to four weeks. However, it takes a few weeks to help them transition from milk to more solid food. Most kittens are fully weaned between 6 and 8 weeks.4 Kittens taken away from their mothers too soon could face potentially life-threatening issues. For example, the mother does more than feed her children; she's responsible for keeping them warm and helping them urinate and defecate within the first four weeks of their lives. Therefore, kittens need their mothers. If they don't have their mothers, humans typically have to step in to act as surrogates to save the lives of young orphaned kittens.

There are dangers of weaning kittens too soon. If the mother is present, she can face negative consequences like anxiety and aggression.1 Meanwhile, kittens can be put at risk, especially if they're not properly taken care of. Since kittens learn how to interact, eat, and other behaviors from the mother, there's no need to separate them too soon. Any weaning kitten should be kept with its mother until it's fully weaned. 

Tips for Weaning Kittens

You now know that kittens nurse until they're about 4 weeks old, when they begin the weaning process. However, they should remain in the care of their mother until they're at least 8 weeks of age.3 If your kittens have a mother cat, she can take care of the weaning process on her own. However, if you're caring for an orphaned kitten, you'll need to provide the same care a mother would be starting the weaning process at around four weeks old. 

Tips for weaning kittens

Remember, this is the time the mother becomes more evasive and less cooperative. However, she still may allow her kittens to nurse every now and then. Here are a few tips to help you transition your kitten from formula to solid food: 

  • Do nothing (if possible): If you're the pet parent to the mother and her kittens, you don't have to do anything other than monitor their relationships and take care of the mother so she can feed and wean her kittens. In this instance, the mother will be able to take care of every part of the nursing and weaning process, and you will only need to help if there are issues with the kittens or the mother chooses not to nurse them too early in their lives. 
  • Start at the right age: The mother cat will know when it's time to start weaning her kittens, but if you're caring for an orphaned kitten, you'll need to start weaning them around 4 weeks of age. That doesn't mean that they'll be able to eat solid food. However, you should start introducing them to wet food around this age so they can get used to it. 
  • Use kitten food: Cats need a diet based on their specific life stage, so you'll need kitten food that states it's for kittens. Kitten food is higher in calories, fat, and protein, giving them all the nutrients they need to grow up big and strong. Wet food is typically best because it's easier for kittens to eat, but as they get older, you can slowly transition to dry food. 
  • Don't rush: While kittens wean fairly quickly and no longer rely on their mothers by ten weeks of age, you shouldn't rush the weaning process. You can try offering nursing kittens around 4 weeks of age wet food on a spoon to see if they'll accept it. If they're interested in eating, you can give them a small, easily accessible dish with food. However, if they're not interested, continue to bottle or syringe feed them and offer kitten food as a supplement to their liquid diet. 

Unfortunately, without a mother around, weaning can be unsuccessful sometimes. Instead, your kitten may refuse solid food and only eat when you offer them a bottle. In this case, you'll need to stop feeding them from the bottle for set periods of time to get them interested in food. If you've introduced them to solid foods properly, they should know how to eat them. However, if your kitten isn't eating, you should talk to a vet as soon as possible. 

Kittens eating out of a food bowl

What To Do If You Find Abandoned Kittens

Kittens rely on their mothers so much within the first few weeks of their lives. Not only does their mother feed them, but she helps them urinate and defecate while keeping them warm. When kittens are ready to begin weaning, she may run off to bring them solid food to teach them how to eat. Additionally, kittens learn everything from their mothers, including how to hunt. 

If you see abandoned kittens, you may feel like you have to pick them up and take them to the nearest vet or shelter. However, be careful. It's highly likely that the mother is out looking for food for her babies and didn't actually abandon them. Instead, you can come back the next day to check on the kittens. If the mother has come back, there's nothing to worry about. You never want to take kittens away from their mothers since they need their milk. 

Once you determine a kitten is truly orphaned, you'll need to take them to the vet as soon as possible to determine their health and whether they can survive. Once the vet has given them a clean bill of health, you can take the kittens home to feed and care for them as their mother would, or you can take them to a shelter where they can be properly fed and weaned when the time is right. Again, it's crucial to determine whether kittens have actually been abandoned, so you should never take kittens away from their mother. Instead, check on them regularly to make sure the mother isn't coming back before moving them. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Quick Facts

How often should kittens nurse?

Kittens should nurse every 2-3 hours. If they have access to their mother, they'll nurse on their own, with the mother initiating nursing for the first few weeks after birth. However, if you're caring for orphaned kittens, you'll need to remember to feed them formula every 2-3 hours. Kittens nurse for about 40 minutes in a single session, and when they're not nursing, they'll likely be sleeping since they can't yet walk. 

The bigger a kitten gets, the less often it'll need to nurse. For example, a 3-week-old kitten will need to nurse every three hours. If you're taking care of an abandoned kitten, you'll need to know how much to feed them. You can consult a vet to ensure you're not overfeeding your kitten to ensure they're getting the right amount of nutrition during feeding times. 

On average, kittens only nurse for about 3 ½ to 4 weeks before they start weaning

How old are kittens when they start weaning?

Kittens can be weaned starting at about 3 ½ to 4 weeks of age. However, weaning is a process, so you cannot simply give them a bowl of food and expect them to eat it. Instead, during this time, you'll introduce kitten food and allow them to taste it. The goal within the first few weeks of weaning is to get them used to the taste and texture of kitten food while they're still enjoying their mother's milk. 

In most cases, you won't have to worry about weaning at all if the mother is present and has access to the kittens. She'll usually stop being cooperative about nursing when it's time to start weaning her kittens. When this happens, you, as the pet parent, must begin introducing kitten food to help them learn that they'll be getting their nutrients from a new source and will need to be more independent. 

Around the time kittens can start weaning, they'll be more active, learn how to walk, and their teeth will start coming in. Cats also get their vision around this time, and wild cats may bring their kittens prey. However, domestic cats will rely on pet parents to help them wean their children by bringing them kitten food. 

You should start introducing solid foods to your kitten when they’re around 4 weeks of age

When do kittens wean?

Most kittens are fully weaned when they’re around 8 weeks of age. However, you must start introducing solid foods to kittens around week 4 to ensure they know how to eat them. Once the mother's milk dries up, kittens will no longer have access to those nutrients, so they'll need to find food in other ways. In the wild, the mother will bring her kittens fresh prey. However, in domestic settings, the pet parents will need to assist the mother during the weaning process by introducing kitten food around four weeks of age. Kittens will also learn to eat solid food by watching their mother, so it's usually best to keep them together until the kittens are fully weaned. 

Final Notes

Caring for kittens is fun and rewarding, but you must ensure they're properly cared for. If they have their mother, she can take care of the nursing and weaning to help her kittens learn everything they need to know. However, if you're caring for an abandoned kitten, you'll need to learn how to nurse and wean them to give them their best chances of survival. Always consult a vet if you notice any problems with your kitten's development, including nursing habits. 

Worried about caring for a young kitten? Whether you think your cat is pregnant and needs a cat pregnancy test or have questions about caring for young kittens, we're here to help. Have all your questions answered about caring for kittens answered or learn how to introduce cats with Dutch. We offer telemedicine for pets to help you be the best pet parent you can be. Connect with a licensed vet today. 

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References

  1. "Weaning Kittens: When and How to Do It." WebMD, https://pets.webmd.com/cats/weaning-kitten.

  2. Nursing Mothers and Their Kittens. https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Animal_Services/Foster_Care_Manual/Foster%20Program%20Manual.pdf.

  3. "Caring for Abandoned Kittens." The Cat's Meow Rescue, https://www.thecatsmeowrescue.org/caring-for-abandoned-kittens.html.

  4. "Bringing up a Litter of Kittens: Health Considerations." International Cat Care, 6 Mar. 2019, https://icatcare.org/advice/bringing-up-a-litter-of-kittens-health-considerations/.

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