Your cat is settled in with her new kittens. You check on them frequently from a distance, and love seeing her care for them. Suddenly, you hear a kitten cry out. You return to see the mother attacking the kitten.
What’s going on? Why did your mother cat suddenly turn on her kittens? Should you be concerned?
Why do mother cats attack their kittens?
In many cases, the mother isn’t actually attacking the kittens. It just looks that way to us. However, it is possible for her to attack her kittens. Rarely, a mother will harm or even kill her kittens.
Discipline vs. Aggression
Cats, like human mothers, must teach their offspring many things. They teach them how to behave, and how to hunt. Just as a mother may scold a child, it’s necessary for a mother to discipline her kittens.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between discipline and an actual attack, from a human perspective. The mother may hiss or even swat at the kitten. The kitten may meow as if they have been hurt.
To know the difference between actual aggression and discipline, look at the kitten. Do they show any signs of harm? Are their bite marks? Blood? Do they seem to be in pain? These are signs that your cat is actually attacking their kitten to harm them.
However, if the kitten appears physically fine, you can assume that mom is only disciplining them.
Mother cats typically take great care of their kittens. However, sometimes things go awry. When the mother doesn’t care for her kittens, this is known as kitten rejection. This can occur after birth, or anytime while the kittens are nursing.
When a mother rejects her kittens, she will not nurse or groom them. She may carry the kittens away from her bedding area, or leave the area where the kittens are. She may also be aggressive towards the kittens because she wants to be left alone.
Being tired can make you cranky, and it can do the same to your cat. The process of birth and caring for kittens requires a lot of energy. Your cat is bound to get tired. This can lead them to attack their kittens.
In most cats, this will simply cause your cat to be a bit more short tempered. It shouldn’t lead them to harm their kittens.
Throughout pregnancy and lactation, hormone levels fluctuate. Certain hormones like oxytocin increase, to encourage the cat to bond with her kittens. If hormone levels are not in balance, the cat may not show appropriate interest in her kittens. She may also be aggressive towards them. It’s thought that hormones are often the cause of kitten rejection.
Weaning begins at 3 to 4 weeks of age. When mom starts weaning, she will begin denying the kittens when they try to nurse. The kittens will begin eating solid food during this time as well.
Over a period of several weeks, the kittens get less milk from mom, and more solid food. Eventually, at 8 to 10 weeks, they are completely weaned, and no longer nursing.
The kittens will protest being denied milk from their mother. They will attempt to nurse, and some can be quite insistent. When this happens, mom may hiss or swat at them. If the kitten won’t take no for an answer, mom may even attack them.
The kitten shouldn’t be injured during this process, but it can look violent. Even after the kitten is completely weaned, they may still attempt to nurse, which can result in an attack.
Stress is a common source of behavioral problems in cats, including maternal aggression. A stressed cat can react in several ways, including attacking her kittens. If motherhood becomes too stressful, she may attack and kill the kittens as a way of cutting her losses.
If a mother feels threatened, she may attack and kill the kittens. This is actually a protection instinct. A mother will do anything to protect her kittens from falling into the hands of a predator. It can seem more humane to kill the kittens than to allow a predator to get them.
Unfortunately, the threat doesn’t have to be legitimate for this to occur. Another pet or even a person can trigger this behavior, if the mother is afraid for her kittens.
Cats have a strong prey drive. Unfortunately, kittens are very similar to a cat’s natural prey. Ideally, a cat will recognize her kittens, and her maternal instinct will prevent her from harming them.
However, sometimes wires get crossed. The kitten may be particularly small and vulnerable, or the cat may have a higher than normal prey drive.
This can lead mom to attack her kittens, because her prey drive takes over. This is a common cause of mom’s attacking and killing kittens.
Once a kitten reaches maturity, it’s a mother’s instinct to push them away. At 6 to 8 weeks old, the mother will start paying less attention to the kittens. She will still keep an eye on them, and may continue to nurse occasionally.
However, she will not interact with them as much as she did when they were kittens. At 12 to 14 weeks, the kittens are old enough to be on their own. Mom has taught them everything she can, and it’s time for them to be independent.
If an older kitten tries to interact with mom, she may attack them. This is her way of pushing them out of the nest, so to speak. She is telling them it’s time for them to begin their own life, away from mom.
If the kittens are old enough to begin learning to hunt, the mother will appear to attack them. However, she isn’t trying to hurt them. She’s actually teaching them to hunt. Mothers teach their kittens hunting skills by demonstrating them.
If the cat pounces on the kitten, seemingly out of the blue, she may be teaching them how to attack.
The mother cat will also play with her kittens. This is partly to teach them how to hunt, and partly as a way to bond. Playing is a fun activity, and it brings mother and kittens closer together.
It can sometimes look like they are attacking them, when the reality is they are only playing.
Do mother cats bite their kittens’ necks?
It can look scary when you see the mother cat biting her kittens’ neck. You may worry she’s trying to harm them, but this is rarely the case.
Cats typically kill their prey by biting its neck. This is what makes it so startling when you see mom biting the neck of her kitten. As mentioned previously, mother cats teach their kittens by demonstrating.
To teach a kitten how to kill prey by biting its neck, mom must show the kitten by biting their neck. If this is the reason for the biting, the mother will not harm the kitten.
Mothers will sometimes bite their kittens’ neck as a way to discipline them. This typically occurs when the kitten is being aggressive or other methods of discipline have failed.
Biting the neck is a show of dominance. This makes it a good way to put an unruly teen in their place.
Typically, a mother will hiss at a kitten as a warning. The next step is a swat with their paw. If this doesn’t do the trick, they may bite their neck to get their attention.
Cats will also bite their kittens’ necks when they move them. This can include moving them to a new bedding area, or simply bringing a wayward kitten back to the area.
In this case, a mother cat will bite the scruff at the back of the kitten’s neck. They can then carry the kitten, without harming them.
Should I get my cat to stop attacking her kittens?
It’s important to keep your kittens safe. In some cases, this means safe from mom as well. However, when to step in isn’t always clear.
When to Observe
In most cases, you’ll simply need to observe your cat’s behavior. If she seems to be aggressive or attacking the kittens, you’ll need to watch her closely. However, you shouldn’t interfere unless it’s absolutely necessary.
If the kittens are not being harmed, leave the mother alone. Meowing doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem, either. Kittens meow for many reasons, including not getting their way, like young children.
Mothers know what they need to do to take care of their kittens, and prepare them for their life as an adult cat.
When to Step In
If you notice physical injuries to your kittens, it’s time to step in. This includes blood or bite marks. You should also step in if mom seems to be aggressive and isn’t taking care of the kittens properly.
If the kittens are not well groomed or aren’t gaining weight, mom isn’t caring for them properly. In this case, she may be rejecting them.
You should also consider age when determining if your mother cat is being too rough. Kittens are very fragile for the first two weeks of life. If mom is attacking them during this time, you may need to remove the kittens and care for them yourself.
However, if the kittens are 10 weeks old, they are pretty resilient. They can handle some rough play and correction, or even an all out fight with mom. Of course, you should still separate them if mom is attacking them on a regular basis.