There are some surprising parallels between the way humans and animals raise their young. It’s the parent’s job to teach the child how to behave. Human parents take a wide range of approaches, but how do cats discipline their kittens?
How do mother cats discipline their kittens?
Mother cats, known as queens, do have ways they discipline their kittens. Animals of all shapes and sizes, particularly mammals, will learn the basics of behavior and social etiquette from their mothers. The discipline provided by their mothers prepares them to interact with the wider world.
What is Discipline?
First, it’s important to understand the difference between discipline and punishment. Many behavioral experts say that punishment isn’t an effective way of disciplining human children. When you look to the animal kingdom, you’ll find discipline, not punishment.
Punishment is a punitive action that occurs when the child, or kitten, does something wrong. Discipline, on the other hand, focuses on results and is more positive.
The Karate Kid is one of my favorite examples of discipline. Mr. Miagi didn’t ground Daniel, and he certainly didn’t spank him into submission. Instead, he taught him discipline through manual labor. He challenged him, and applauded his accomplishments. The point of discipline is behavioral correction, not validating feelings of anger or betrayal through punishment.
How Cats Discipline
Cats discipline their kittens in the same way you should discipline your pets. When an unwanted behavior occurs, they respond immediately. Cats and dogs don’t have the same understanding of things that we do.
If your cat pees in your shoe while you are at work, and you punish them when you get home, they may know they are being punished. However, they certainly won’t know what they are being punished for.
As soon as the kitten does something wrong, the mother will discipline them immediately. This allows them to understand, when I do x, y happens. I don’t like when y happens, so I should stop doing x.
All cat discipline follows this basic structure. There are different behaviors that prompt discipline, and different methods of discipline, but the basic structure remains.
One of the most powerful tools in a mother’s arsenal is withdrawal of attention. Have you ever walked out of the room as your child was throwing a tantrum? You probably realized that your child was seeking attention, and that not giving it to them was the best course of action.
This shouldn’t be done maliciously. Instead, it should be a natural cause and effect. The kitten wants to play, for example. The mother shows that she doesn’t want to play through her body language and lack of playful behavior. The kitten persists, still attempting to play.
At this point, the mother simply walks away. A human parent may say, “I don’t like the way you are behaving right now, so I’m going to step away for a few minutes”.
It may take a few tries, but the kitten will soon learn when they continue to pester mom, she will walk away. Kids and kittens alike thrive on attention, so this is a great way to correct their behavior.
Vocal corrections are usually used if walking away doesn’t work. Your child wants to watch TV. You say no. They keep asking, trying to convince you. You walk away, but they follow you, still asking to watch TV. At this point, you’ll probably vocally let them know you’ve had enough. Your words and tone of voice let them know you mean business, and they usually give up at this point.
Mother walks away from the kitten attempting to play. The kitten follows, still batting and biting them playfully, trying to entice them to play. The mother will use vocalizations as a way to say “No. Stop”.
This can be a growl or a hiss. It’s a warning the mother has had enough, and the kitten will usually stop the behavior. They instinctively know the mother is not happy with them.
Parents are rightly discouraged from bopping a wayward child on the head, but cats have no qualms about doing so. It isn’t meant to hurt the kitten. Instead, it gets their attention and lets them know they should stop doing what they are doing.
At first glace, it may seem similar to spanking. However, it’s more like lightly slapping a toddler’s hand when they are grabbing for something they shouldn’t. It doesn’t cause physical pain. Instead, it’s a way to get the child’s attention. It instantly lets them know that what they are doing isn’t acceptable.
How do mother cats teach kittens not to bite?
It’s an important lesson, but not always an easy one to teach. Kittens naturally have little self control. Cats of any age can struggle to separate play from hunting when they are very excited. This can cause injuries, because the cat slips from play mode into hunting mode.
Kittens must learn some level of self control, and what’s appropriate during play. Playful nips are an accepted part of cat behavior, but hard bites are not. Kittens learn where the line is through trial and error, and correction from their mother.
This is another way cats use vocal corrections. When a kitten bites, the mother may meow loudly. This can startle the kitten into stopping the behavior. It shows that the mother is either in pain or angry, depending on the tone of the meow.
If you are attempting to teach a toddler not to bite, you may cry out when they do. This startles them, but it also lets you know the behavior caused you pain. Toddlers don’t have a well developed sense of empathy, but they have enough that hurting their parent is unpleasant. This can make them not want to do it in the future.
Cats will sometimes bite their kittens. Back to our toddler example, you have probably had at least one well meaning family member say to “bite them back” to teach them not to bite. Most human parents find this too extreme, or even borderline abusive.
However, in the cat kingdom, it’s a part of a mother cat’s arsenal. She may bite the kitten because it bites her too hard. She may also bite if no other correction methods are working. The kitten will certainly get the message then.
Why do mother cats hit their kittens?
It may seem cruel when you see a mother hit her kittens, but there’s usually a good reason for it. The reasons why they hit their kittens varies based on how old the kittens are.
Very Young Kittens
If your mother cat is hitting very young kittens, she may be showing maternal aggression. Typically, cats are good mothers. However, problems can happen. Mothers can abandon or harm their young due to hormonal imbalances or extreme stress.
If your cat isn’t caring for her kittens, there’s an issue that needs to be addressed. Signs of maternal distress or aggression include not feeding the kittens and not grooming them. She may also allow them to wander away and not retrieve them, or leave them alone for long periods.
She may need her own space to relax. The area may be too busy or stressful. She may be experiencing a hormonal imbalance that isn’t triggering her natural maternal instincts.
It’s also possible that she is simply disciplining her kittens. When in doubt, look at the way she interacts with her kittens. Is she feeding them regularly? Does she play with them? Does she spend most of her time with them? If the answer to these questions is yes, it’s safe to assume she’s teaching them. The exception to this rule is if she seems excessively aggressive. Is she bopping them on the head with her claws retracted, or is she hitting them hard enough to knock them over?
3 Weeks to 3 Months
This is the time when most discipline and training will occur. You should expect your cat to discipline your kittens. This will typically include hitting, walking away, hissing, and the occasional bite.
Weaning begins at 3-4 weeks of age. Kittens can be very insistent about being fed, so the mother will sometimes hit or hiss at them when they won’t take the hint. She will continue to feed them some, and gradually lessen their milk intake.
During this time, she will also begin bringing the kittens to the food bowl to teach them to eat.
In addition to teaching the kittens how to interact with others through discipline, she must train her kittens to hunt and defend themselves. She does this by playing with them. At times, this turns to sparring. Sparring can involve her hitting or getting a bit rough so the kittens can learn to defend themselves from attacks.
3 Months or Older
Once the kittens are weaned, at 10-12 weeks, the mother will likely push them out of the nest. She may hit or act aggressively as a way of saying, “I raised you, now go make a life for yourself”.
It’s very similar to a parent telling their child of 18 or older that it’s time to get a job and move out on their own.
Cats are also indiscriminate breeders, which may play a role in her instinct to distance herself from the kittens before they reach sexual maturity. Cats will breed with any available mates, including siblings, mothers, and fathers. Genetically speaking, it’s in the cats best interest to separate the family before they are of breeding age. This helps prevent incest, which has a negative impact on the gene pool.
How do mother cats teach their kittens to hunt?
Even domesticated cats will hunt when given the chance. The same skills they use when playing are also what is used in hunting. While some aspects of hunting are instinctual, cats must learn hunting from their mother.
How Cats Hunt
Before we learn exactly how mothers teach kittens to hunt, it’s important to know the steps of hunting itself.
Hunting starts with prey spotting. The cat sees prey. You see them devote all their attention to the prey, whether it’s a mouse or a toy feather.
Next, they stalk their prey. They will get low to the ground and move very slowly. They may start and stop, particularly if there’s a long distance to cover. Cats are stalking hunters, not chasing hunters. This means they must get close to their prey without startling it away.
Now it’s time for action. When they are close enough, they will pounce on their prey. It happens very quickly. If they are successful, they move to the next step. If they aren’t successful, they will repeat the steps beginning with spotting.
If they succeed, now they have the prey in their grasp. The next step is the killing blow. However, this isn’t as simple as it sounds. When attacking actual prey, the cat is in danger. A bite from a snake or rat could cause injury or be fatal, so they must be in a position to not get hurt themselves.
The aim is one clean bite to the prey’s spine. This severs the spinal cord, so the prey is immobile and no longer a danger.
If the prey isn’t in the correct position for a kill, the cat will release them for a moment and grab them again. This is repeated until the cat achieves the killing position.
Playing is the first taste of hunting kittens get. It’s a natural instinct. Their mother and sibling mates will help teach them what’s appropriate when playing. However, jumping, batting, chasing, pouncing, and pawing are all things kittens initially learn when playing. These skills are used in the same way during hunting, with a different intention and result.
Kittens begin their training with real prey by eating dead prey. The mother will bring them a fresh kill. This gives them real life experience with the animal’s body, and helps them learn to eat it.
As the kittens get older, the mother will bring them live prey. Under her supervision, they learn to catch and kill the prey. Of course, they’ve already been practicing their skills and hunting sequence through play.
On Their Own
Between 8-16 weeks old, cats learn how to hunt on their own. They will hunt alone. Younger cats may bring kills back to their mother to share, but the act of hunting itself is performed alone once the kitten learns how.
Do Indoor Cats Learn to Hunt?
Even indoor cats will hunt prey if it’s available. If it’s not, the mother will still teach the kittens hunting skills. They do this through play and toys. It’s not a full training experience. However, combined with instinct, most cats are able to figure out how to hunt even if they’ve never hunted live prey.
Will the mom cat be upset when her kittens go?
Some mothers experience a day or two of distress when the kittens leave, but cats aren’t overly affected. It is important to make sure the kittens are fully weaned.
Once the mother has completed weaning, her kittens are on their own. She may begin to get aggressive, encouraging them to go and begin their own life.
If you notice your cat avoiding the kittens and being more aggressive than normal after weaning, she’s probably ready to say goodbye to them.
Don’t be surprised if she searches for them and seems down for a day or two. However, she should quickly return to her normal temperament.
A new pregnancy or heat cycle can also play a role in her being finished raising the litter. Cats usually go into heat shortly after weaning is completed, but it’s possible for them to go into heat earlier. If she is expecting a new litter of kittens, she may be more vocal about the current brood sticking around.