When Do Mother Cats Leave Their Kittens In The Wild?

a sleeping mother cat with front arm over sleeping kitten

When do mother cats leave their kittens in the wild? Usually, a cat will leave their kittens for short periods to go hunt and feed and for the purposes of toileting. A mother cat doesn’t strictly leave their kittens once the kittens grow up – kittens move from being dependent on the mother to being independent. This is usually completed within 12 weeks of birth.

Read on to learn more about how feral cats and kittens behave in those early periods of life.

When Do Mother Cats Leave Their Kittens In The Wild?

There are specific moments when a feral mother cat will leave their kittens, quite naturally, to go take care of herself.

When a feral or stray cat living in the wild has kittens they have to fend for themselves and will go hunt for food and leave kittens laid up – they are not abandoned, she has every intention of returning! Sometimes these periods of absence whilst on the hunt can be hours and hours. Other times the absence may be relatively short.

Additionally, cats like to live in relatively clean conditions, and mother cats more so than others. A mother cat will move away from kittens for the purposes of toileting. But this will usually be a momentary absence from the kittens.

At most other times the mother cat will be with or in close proximity to the kittens.

When do kittens leave their mother in the wild? Strictly speaking, a mother cat does not leave her kittens – they become independent from the mother cat. This move from dependency to independence is called weaning and occurs and finishes between weeks 4 and 8.

a pair of silver grey tabby kittens sleeping together in a wicker cat bed

What Is Weaning?

Weaning is a phase of development for both mother cats and kittens. For the mother cat, she has spent four weeks raising her kittens and has likely become out of condition. She needs to regain condition for her own survival and in readiness for her next breeding cycle.

The kittens, by week four, have grown to such a size they can no longer develop sustainably from mother’s milk. They have begun to develop teeth and claws, have full vision and hearing and their physical size is developing on a daily basis.

Nature’s answer to these circumstances is to make the mother’s milk less nutritious for the kittens, bringing about a pang of hunger and motivation for hunting in the kittens. Additionally, the mother begins to find nursing the kittens uncomfortable due to the demands, claws, and teeth! She responds by batting the kittens away and vocalizing at them.

To satisfy the nutritional requirements of herself and the litter during this phase the mother cat will hunt and bring back the catch to make up for the nutritional requirements of the group not met by nursing. 

Over the weaning period, the prey she brings back will identify to the young what they are to eat naturally and when she brings back live prey they learn to kill and capture in their own right. 

By week 8 they should be fully independent from the mother cat for their nutritional requirements and she will be ready for her next breeding cycle. The kittens will be able to hunt in their own right.

At this point, we might consider the mother cat to have left the kittens. But, the family may stay together as a unit and go on to form a colony if there is an abundance of resources. At this point, they may also go their own separate ways. People often ask at what age kittens can leave their mom – this is the point where they are usually independent enough to leave.

A word of warning though, kittens separated from mother too early, before weaning, are likely to suffer developmental issues having missed out on all that life experience a mother cat can impart!

a pair of kittens hanging out together

Do Feral Cats Abandon Their Kittens?

Feral cats do not abandon their kittens prior to weaning anymore than normal domestic house cats. A feral cat has the same maternal instinct that any cat has.

For periods of time, they may be otherwise engaged on a hunt and so appear to have abandoned their kittens or they may be moving kittens to a new location one at a time so appear to have left the remaining unmoved kittens.

Additionally, first-time mother feral cats may lack understanding of what is required from them but only to the same degree as non-feral cats.

Once the weaning period is over the mother cat and kittens essentially live independent lives and in these circumstances, you could say the mother has abandoned the kittens, but this is a perfectly natural development phase of the cats.

What About If You Find A Litter Of Kittens?

If you find kittens that appear to have been abandoned it is best to leave them. The mother is probably only away for a short period and will return. Avoid handling or disturbing the area as this may put the mother cat off and force her to abandon the kittens.

If you find a family of weaned kittens – complete with teeth, claws, and capable of eating solids with no mother in attendance then there is an opportunity for these kittens to be neutered and spayed prior to being released again. It may be too late to socialize the kittens with the aim of avoiding them becoming feral – but catch, neuter and release is a humane way of controlling the local wild cat population.

three stray kittens hanging out together

Do Feral Cat Families Stay Together?

When there is an abundance of resources – particularly food, feral or wild cat families may stay together as matriarchal colonies. Basically the kittens, despite being weaned, remain close to the mother, and then the mother and daughters expand the colony through breeding over time. 

The mother will rule the colony with age determining the social hierarchy. Male descendants will stick around until they leave to secure territory of their own and live solitary lives.

However, colonies do not form the majority of the time, and cats and kittens may equally end up going their own way through life as solitary cats. If food is scarce a colony will not form and cats will live competitively as individuals attempting to secure food.

Do Feral Kittens Stay Together?

Kittens tend to be like people – some develop strong friendships or bonds through childhood that last a lifetime and others, well, just don’t! 

There is no hard and fast rule that kittens will hang out together or develop socially together. 

stray kitten with eye injury

What Percentage Of Feral Kittens Survive

Animals that produce large litters tend to do so as a strategy for the survival of the species. Cats are no different. Basically, a cat can have as many as three litters a year given a gestation period of 65 days, although two litters are more common and each litter can have two to five kittens. 

These numbers are necessary to ensure the survival of the species in the wild given that the mortality rate in kittens tends to be as high as 75% in the first six months.

Final Thoughts

When do mamma cats leave their kittens in the wild? Usually, they go their separate ways after 4-8 weeks in order to begin their next reproductive cycle – however, before that period they may occasionally leave their kittens for short periods whilst hunting and toileting.