In 60 kittens (11 litters) from free-ranging domestic cats we investigated the role of chemical cues in facilitating nipple attachment and suckling during the first month of postnatal life when kittens are totally dependent on the mother's milk. Kittens were tested both together and individually on sedated females in different reproductive states. We found (1) that newborn kittens with no suckling experience responded to the ventrum of lactating but not to the ventrum of nonlactating females with search behavior and attached to nipples within minutes; (2) that even in older kittens, nipple attachment depended on females' reproductive state, with virtually no attachments on nonreproducing females, some on pregnant females, the greatest number on early-lactating females, followed by a decline on late-lactating females; and (3) that kittens could locate their particular, most used nipple on their mother but not on a female of similar lactational age, even after eye opening. We suggest that kittens respond from birth with efficient nipple-search behavior to inborn olfactory cues on the mother's ventrum, that emission of these is under hormonal control, but that kittens also quickly learn olfactory cues specific to their own mother and to their own particular nipples. © 2009 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Dev Psychobiol 51: 662–671, 2009.