It’s something that can be very hard for us to understand. We love the image of seeing a mother cat with her kittens. They are so tiny and vulnerable, relying completely on their mother.
The mother cat, normally independent and self-centered, puts her needs aside for those of her litter. She displays endless patience while caring for them, particularly in the first weeks.
Despite all this, it is possible for a mother cat to kill her kittens.
Do mother cats kill their kittens?
The short answer is that it’s rare for a mother to kill her kittens, but it does occur. However, it’s important to understand why a mother may kill their kittens.
We consider cats to be a domesticated animal. However, they are certainly closer to their wild counterparts than our other favorite companion animal, dogs. When considering any cat behavior, it’s important to remember that they are not far removed from their feral instincts.
Illness or Deformity
One common reason cats kill their kittens is illness or deformity. It may seem cruel, but it is likely an act of mercy. Cats don’t possess our moral code. It’s possible they view life and death in a more practical sense.
Feral cats have limited resources that they must use to raise their kittens. The fewer kittens they have, the more resources there are to go around. If a cat has a low chance of survival, it may seem better to kill them than to risk the rest of their litter attempting to raise the kitten.
It may also be an act of mercy for the diseased or deformed kitten as well if it is suffering. While the act may seem heartless, it may be just the opposite.
It’s important to note that cat’s sense of smell is 14 times more powerful than ours. They can actually smell many diseases that are not visible to us. So, a kitten that appears healthy to human eyes may be seriously ill to a cat’s expert nose.
Mother Eating Kittens
You may find the thought of a mother eating her kitten even more disconcerting than the thought of her killing it. Again, cats are not subject to our moral values. Instead, they are driven by survival instincts.
A mother may eat a dead kitten for a few reasons. These reasons also cause her to eat the kitten’s placentas after birth.
A dead body will surely attract predators, which puts the mother and kittens at risk. She will consume the body or move the kittens to avoid attracting predators.
It also attracts bugs and allows bacteria to grow. This can also be dangerous for mother and babies, so she may eat the body for sanitation reasons.
Lastly, birthing and nursing kittens requires a significant amount of calories. Domesticated cats may have all the food they need, but the instinct to not waste food is still there, particularly after birth.
They may eat the kitten because of it’s nutritional value. This seems cold to us, but food is necessary for the survival of the remaining kittens as well as the mother.
Fear and Stress
A mother will also kill her kittens if she feels they are in imminent danger. Essentially, she will kill the kittens before allowing them to be harmed by a predator.
Unfortunately, it’s also possible for the mother to misread the situation. If the area is extremely busy or stressful, she may feel that she can’t protect her litter. This can cause her to eat the kittens, even though there’s no actual danger.
Difficult Labor or Nursing
If a cat’s body becomes overly taxed by labor or nursing, they may kill and eat one of the kittens. This is a survival instinct.
Humans generally put the survival of their children ahead of their own. There are many stories of parents risking or giving their lives to save their children. This may seem like a moral decision, but in truth it seems to go deeper than that. It appears to be a part of our biological drive to ensure the survival of our offspring, no matter the cost to us.
Cats are simply wired differently. If it comes down to their survival or that of their kittens, they will choose to save themselves, even if it means killing and eating one of their kittens.
First Time Motherhood
First time human mothers are told, “you’ll just know what to do”. This is true in most cases. Even though you’ve never cared for a baby before, you instinctively understand the basics.
This is typical for animals as well. However, sometimes things go wrong. One possibility is the delay of prolactin. Prolactin is a hormone that is responsible for nurturing and bonding in cats. It is typically released during pregnancy, and increases right after birth.
Sometimes, this hormone doesn’t appear when it should. This can cause the mother to not have a nurturing instinct towards her kittens. She may even view the kittens with fear or contempt. This can cause her to kill the kittens.
More often, first time mothers are simply inexperienced. Newborn kittens are very fragile, and the mother may unintentionally be too rough. If the cat becomes injured accidentally, the cat may kill it because it has a low chance of surviving due to the injury. She may also inadvertently kill the kitten because she is inexperienced.
Do cats kill other cats’ kittens?
Just like a mother cat killing her kittens, it is rare, but it does occur. There are a few reasons for this behavior. While males are most often thought to be dangerous to kittens, females kill kittens more often, simply because they spend the majority of their time around kittens.
Some cats are unable to switch off their hunting instincts around kittens. This can occur with their own kittens or with other’s kittens. Males are well known for this, but it can also occur with females.
It’s thought that some females are missing the off switch that typically prevents this from occurring.
Resources and Rivalry
It’s uncommon for a female to intentionally kill another female’s kittens, but it’s not unheard of.
If there are limited resources in the area, the female may kill the other mother’s kittens. She may also do so to ensure her genes are passed on, rather than those of a rival.
Hunger or Malnutrition
A female that is malnourished or hungry may kill and eat another cat’s kittens, particularly if she is pregnant or nursing her own. It’s possible that the drive to eat and survive overrides any maternal instincts towards other kittens.
Do stray cats kill other cats’ kittens?
Yes, stray cats can kill other’s kittens for the same reasons listed above. When stray cats live in groups, this is more likely to occur.
It’s possible for a cat to stumble upon a litter and kill the kittens due to the hunting instinct. After all, kittens are very similar to prey, and cats are predators by nature.
Kittens are small in size and have high pitched vocalizations similar to those of prey animals.
Stray Cats in Groups
Stray cats that live in groups may also kill another cat’s kittens. This commonly occurs when there is more than one queen in the group. The dominant queen will sometimes kill the other queen’s kittens, ensuring her genes are dominant in the group.
Kidnapping can also occur. The dominant queen will sometimes kidnap other kittens to raise as her own. However, the mother of the kittens may kill them in an attempt to protect them from the perceived danger.
Do male cats kill their kittens?
It’s rare that males will intentionally kill their kittens. However, this doesn’t mean the kittens are completely safe.
Most fathers show little interest in their kittens. They may play with them occasionally, or ignore them completely. However, some fathers show surprising fatherly instincts, particularly when they are needed.
If the mother is incompetent, the male may perform some of the mothering duties, including playing with the kittens and bringing them food.
Even if the mother is competent, some males seem to have a paternal instinct that leads them to become involved.
Play vs. Prey
When a male kills their own kittens, it’s often because they are playing with them. Females seem to have an off switch that helps them distinguish between playing and hunting prey. This keeps them from killing their kittens when playing with them.
Unfortunately, males don’t have this instinct. They may play with the kittens, and accidentally kill them due to their prey drive. The behaviors are so similar that one essentially leads to the other, and kittens are fragile.
Mothers move their kittens by picking them up by the nape of the neck. The kitten instinctively goes limp when picked up in this manner.
Neck biting also occurs during mating and asserting dominance. A male may grab the kitten by the neck in an attempt to assert dominance, and accidentally break their neck.
The male may also attempt to mate with the female when she is not in heat. Sexually frustrated, they can turn their attention to the kittens. When they attempt to mate with the kitten, they will grab it by the neck. This can also result in accidentally breaking its neck.
Do male cats kill other cats’ kittens?
Males killing other cat’s kittens is a fairly common occurrence. It’s part of their genetic drive to pass on their genes to offspring, while eliminating rivals.
Males Killing Kittens
Males will kill kittens from other fathers. Typically, one male will have a territory with several females or groups of females within their territory. However, tom cats are notorious for roaming, and females are indiscriminate about breeding. So it’s common for a tomcat to breed with a female in another tom’s territory.
It’s typical for males to kill kittens from other fathers because they want to pass on their own offspring.
How Do Males Know If Kittens Are Theirs?
Cats don’t have the benefit of paternity tests, so how does the father know if they are the father? It is further complicated by the fact that a female can be pregnant by several different males at the same time.
Female cats ovulate after intercourse. This makes it possible for them to release several eggs which can be fertilized at different times, often by different males.
Males follow their nose. If they smell a rival male near the female, they will assume the kittens aren’t theirs. Killing the kittens has two benefits. First, it eliminates the offspring of a rival male, which can interfere with him passing on his genes.
Second, if all the kittens are killed, the cat will come into heat soon after. This allows the tom to mate with her again, hopefully siring the kittens without interference from a rival.
It’s generally a good idea to keep other cats away from kittens to be on the safe side. You may choose to allow other females around the kittens, or the father. Neutered males can make good companions for kittens, and are less likely to kill them.
If you choose to allow anyone other than the mother around your kittens, it’s best to do so only when you can closely supervise. Socialization can be good for kittens. It helps them learn how to get along with other cats, and can teach them valuable skills like hunting.
Because there’s a chance that other cats could injure or kill the kittens, supervising interactions can give you the best of both worlds.
How Long to Keep Kittens Away From Others?
There’s little benefit to allowing cats other than the mother access to the kittens during their first four weeks of life. This is when they are at their most vulnerable.
They are essentially similar to newborn babies during this time. At four weeks, their immune system is stronger. Their bodies have grown stronger. They are mobile and ready to play.
This is also the timeframe when they want to play and socialize, so allowing other cats to spend time with the kittens can give the mother a much needed break.
By 8 weeks or 2 months of age, most of the danger has passed. At this point, it’s safe to allow the kittens to interact freely with other cats in the household.
Deterring Cats From Kittens
It can be difficult to keep other cats in the household away from kittens. The simplest way to do so is to confine the kittens to one area of the house during their first weeks.
You’ll need to let the mother in and out of the area, however. It’s important that she is able to come and go, and not be constantly confined with her kittens.
Cats hate water, citrus scents, garlic, and coffee grounds. Any of these options may act as a deterrent to tom cats. However, they can also deter the mother, so you’ll need to use them strategically to allow the mother to move about freely.