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How Often Do Feral Cats Move Their Kittens? Maternal Instincts Explained

Codee Chessher

By Codee Chessher

Feral cat carrying kitten in her mouth

Like their domesticated counterparts and other wild animals, feral cats will move their young for various reasons. Depending on how unsatisfied she is with the living conditions of the nest, a mother cat may repeatedly move her kittens until things are to her liking.

If they have everything they need to survive, like clean bedding, food, water, and privacy, a mother cat may never relocate her kittens before they wean. However, the space must be large enough to accommodate the mother cat and kittens as they grow.

On the other hand, dirty, cramped conditions with little access to food or water will have the mother cat looking for a new home. Let’s check out some more info on why mother cats move their kittens down below, including what to do if you find kittens alone.

Why Mother Cats Move Their Kittens

Maternal instincts are very strong, and a mother cat could decide in an instant the area isn’t safe. We mentioned a few above, but let’s list some more so you can get an idea.

Reasons Feral Cats Move Their Kittens:
  • The area isn’t private enough
  • The area is dirty or soiled
  • The mother cat smells other animals nearby
  • The kittens have grown and need more space
  • Access to food and/or water has grown more scarce
  • The mother cat smells humans nearby
  • Humans have handled the kittens

Will a Mother Cat Abandon Her Kittens?

bottle-feeding newborn kitten
Image Credit: KayaMe, Shutterstock

Eventually, every mother cat will leave her kittens. For most litters of feral cats, this is around 4 to 6 weeks or so. Domesticated cats typically stay with their mother until they’re 8 to 12 weeks old.

There are some other reasons that a feral mother cat might leave her kittens before it’s actually time. Let’s take a look at some of those below.


Newborn kittens have virtually no immune system, relying on antibodies from their mother’s milk to fight off diseases. Feral cats are also exposed to much more harsh conditions than the average housecat, so they have a much greater risk of getting sick.

To prevent illness from spreading in the litter, a mother cat may leave the ill kitten to devote her time and energy to the rest of the litter.

She Got Lost

Cats are very smart and have an amazing sense of smell, but they can get overwhelmed and lost like any creature. If she strays too far from her litter or gets relocated by humans, the mother cat won’t be able to return to them.

She’s Injured or Killed

It’s very sad, but sometimes mother cats leave their litter in search of food and don’t come back. In the wild, there are tons of dangers that could hurt or kill her before she comes back. A predator animal, spoiled food, and cars are just a few hazards that could harm a cat before she’s able to get back to her litter.

Her Instincts Haven’t Kicked In

While maternal instincts are, well, instincts, they’re not automatic in 100% of cases. A first-time mother cat may not understand what’s happening, panic, and leave a newborn litter. These are very dangerous cases because newborn kittens can die very quickly if left on their own in the wild immediately after birth.

How to Tell if Kittens Are Abandoned

Feral kittens lying on the ground
Image Credit: Jumpstory

It can be alarming to stumble across a litter of feral kittens, especially if there’s no mother in sight. Don’t panic! Mother cats don’t usually go very far from their litter. However, you can periodically check on the litter to see if the mother comes back.

If the area is difficult to access, you can scatter some flour nearby and check it later. If there are paw prints, it’s likely the mother returning from a hunting trip. There’s no need to interfere with a wild cat litter as long as the mother is nearby—trust that she knows how to care for her kittens.

On the other hand, if there’s no sign of the mother returning for more than a few hours, intervention may be necessary. There are a few options here, so let’s review them so you can decide the best course of action.

Some of your options include:
  • Fostering the kittens yourself if you have the available space and resources
  • Locating a suitable foster mom cat who can feed the kittens
  • Alerting a local animal rescue organization


Mother cats always want the best for their litter, and they’ll move their kittens as often as they need to until a suitable living space is found. For instance, a smaller nest may need to be abandoned as the kittens get bigger. However, you shouldn’t interfere with her litter unless absolutely certain that she is not coming back to take care of them.

See also: Sam Sawet Cat Breed


Featured Image Credit: Biamillah Jaya, Shutterstock

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