You should avoid touching newborn kittens until they are around 2 weeks old. Of course, your ability to do so depends on the mother's character and whether she's caring properly for her kittens. If necessary, you can briefly hold the kittens once a day to confirm they are gaining weight. However, take care not to touch the kittens too much, as this may distress the mother.
Can You Touch Newborn Kittens?
Yes and no. There may be scenarios where you must touch or move a newborn kitten because their life is in danger. For example, if a kitten has birth membranes covering their mouth while the mother shows no interest, you must act to clear the kitten's mouth or risk suffocating.
On the other hand, touching a newborn kitten just for the sake of it while they're happily suckling from their mother is not a good idea. You could unintentionally injure the fragile kitten or mother cat's maternal instincts could kick in, leaving you with painful bites or scratches.
It's a myth that a cat will reject her kittens if you touch them. Still, even though she will not abandon her little ones, she may not be happy about you touching them.
When Can You Handle Newborn Kittens?
The rule of thumb is to avoid handling newborns until they are 2 weeks old, unless you have a compelling reason to do so. After two weeks, the kittens' eyes will be open, and their developing systems won't be quite so delicate. Mother cat will also likely need a break from her brood.
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.
When You Should Intervene
If the mother cat or kittens are in distress, then you need to intervene and touch the newborn kittens immediately. Examples of this include if the mother is having difficulty giving birth and you must take the mother and kittens to a vet. Or you might need to intervene if the kitten won't move or breathe, is too cold, won't suckle, doesn't appear to be gaining weight, or you have a mom who isn't paying attention to her litter.
If your mother cat gave birth in an unsafe location, 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.
Safest Way to Handle Newborn 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 and won't transfer bacteria or viruses to the kittens.
- 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 fully supported in your hands.
- Newborn kittens are vulnerable to chilling and heat loss, so be sure to keep them warm during handling. Wrap a hot water bottle in a towel and, if required, rest the kitten on this to keep warm.
- Handle the kitten gently and for the shortest time possible, and put them straight back with the mother.
- When offering the kitten back to the mother, try stroking her and then the kitten to transfer the scent.
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 Newborn Kittens Need to be Handled and Socialized?
No, not right away. VetStreet explains that in 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 early period.
However, handling is important once their eyes and ears open at around 10 to 14 days of age. It is crucial that a range of different people hold and touch the kittens in a gentle and appropriate manner to hone them into confident, well-adjusted adult cats.
Handling Orphaned Kittens
PetCoach explains that kittens who are rejected or otherwise orphaned when the mother dies need to be hand-reared. In these circumstances, it is fine to handle the kittens. 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.
Handling 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 cat 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. Feral kittens are best off with their mother until at least five to six weeks of age.
Kittens Handled the Right Way Make Better Pets
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. After they reach 2 weeks old, 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 because this can encourage biting behavior later on.