Last updated: August 10, 2016
What could be more exciting for a cat lover than having kittens? You give your cat the best of everything during her pregnancy as you anxiously await the arrival of her babies. You even prepare a special place so she can have privacy when her kittens come. You want to do everything you can to help your cat be the best mother possible!
Most female cats have a strong maternal instinct. Pregnancy and giving birth cause hormonal changes that bring out a mother cat’s natural skills for nurturing her kittens. The majority of female cats end up raising happy, healthy babies. But unfortunately, Mother Nature can be brutal, and for a few cats, having kittens results in tragedy.
Feral Cats and Kitten Killing
The events that will trigger a mother cat, also called a queen, to kill one or more of her kittens occur more often in feral cat populations than with pet cats. That’s a big relief, right?
As strange as it seems, the likelihood of a feral queen to kill her kittens is sometimes related to the time of the year when her kittens are born. For cats living in the wild, late fall, winter, and early spring are the toughest times of year to find adequate supplies of food. If a feral queen is struggling to find enough sustenance, she may feel that she cannot hunt enough prey to nourish a litter of kittens. In those cases, sometimes feral cats will kill their kittens so they do not have to expend valuable energy raising the babies.
The birth of several litters of kittens in one cat colony can also give rise to episodes of kitten abduction and killing. Typically, the more dominant female cat is the culprit. There are many possible motivations for such disturbing behaviors. One cause is when a dominant queen wants to improve the survival chances of her own litter. Another reason a dominant female will kill a rival’s offspring is to remove the genetic competition from the other female; this is basically a “survival of the fittest” tactic.
Why Do Tomcats Kill Kittens?
Kitten killing is a more prevalent behavior in female cats than males, primarily because the social structure of a group of cats does not include the consistent presence of adult males among kittens and their mothers. However, in some very specific situations, a tomcat will kill and even eat kittens.
Occasionally, an unneutered tomcat will become involved in the kitten-rearing process. Particularly when a litter of kittens is orphaned or has an incompetent mother, a tomcat will assume some of the mothering duties. Problems can arise when the kittens play because a tomcat’s hunting instinct will become highly aroused by the behavior. If the tomcat becomes overwhelmed by his hunting instinct, he will inadvertently view the kittens as his prey. At that point he may dismember or even eat the kittens.
Another problematic situation can arise when a tomcat attempts to assert dominance over an unruly kitten. Neck biting is one way that cats express their dominance. The problem is that the automatic response of a kitten being held by the neck is to go limp. If a tomcat uses neck biting to impose dominance over a rowdy kitten, he may accidentally break the kitten’s neck with the force of his jaws.
Kitten Rejection and Killing
Kitten killing occurs most often with highly stressed and inexperienced mothers. Sadly, sometimes a queen will kill her kittens as a result of a frustrated protection instinct. This occurs when she perceives a threat to her kittens but feels she is unable to protect them.
Because cats have a more sensitive sense of smell than humans, sometimes queens can detect an illness in a kitten that a human is unable to perceive. It is not uncommon for a mother to reject or kill a sick kitten to avoid the spread of illness to healthy kittens.
Another common rejection scenario occurs when a kitten has abnormalities. The kitten may be otherwise healthy, with the exception of a physical deformity. A cat that is stressed from a difficult pregnancy or birth may do more than merely reject an abnormal kitten; she may kill it. In this case, the female does not want to expend the time or effort to care for a kitten that she perceives has a poor chance of survival.
As with tomcats, a mother cat’s hunting instinct can cause her to kill a kitten. A baby kitten is small, wiggly, and makes little squeaking sounds. The sounds and movements of a kitten can resemble those of a cat’s natural prey and can trigger hunting behavior in a cat. Unfortunately, a cat with a hormonal imbalance and an underdeveloped maternal instinct may not be able to resist her urge to kill her kitten when she perceives it as her prey.
Why Cats Eat Their Kittens
As gruesome as the thought of an animal eating its young is to humans, the phenomenon is not completely uncommon in the animal world. When it occurs in cats, the kitten’s death is not always caused by the mother cat; there are a diverse number of reasons that can cause kittens to die naturally. But a mother cat’s instinct is to protect her nest, so she may eat the dead kitten in order to prevent the death from attracting predators to her other kittens.
Sometimes, cats eat their kittens for the benefit of their own health. If a stressed mother feels that her energy is low from the birthing process or her nutrients are depleted from nursing, she may eat her kittens in an effort to restore her own health.
Other times, it’s a cat’s natural drive to reproduce that will cause her to eat her kittens. If a cat senses that conditions are not favorable for her to raise her current litter of kittens until they can survive on their own, she may choose to produce another litter of kittens as quickly as possible. By killing and even eating her kittens, she will return to breeding condition sooner, and perhaps her new litter of kittens will be more viable.
How to Protect Your Kittens
Discovering that your cat has eaten her kittens is deeply disturbing. While it is impossible to prevent it in all situations, there are a few things you can do to protect your kittens.
A malnourished cat may eat some or all of her kittens, so make you sure to feed your queen a nutritious diet in quantities that will enable her to produce plenty of milk for her babies. Equally important is that you and your family members resist the urge to spend a lot of time watching the kittens or handling the kittens, especially when they are first born. Even though your cat loves you, she is vulnerable to powerful hormonal changes and natural instincts. She may feel that you are interfering with her kittens too much and that she needs to move them to the safety of a more private location. Even worse, she may confuse your involvement with a predatory threat, which could cause her to kill and eat her kittens.
Don’t forget about your other pets and the dangers that they could pose to a litter of kittens. A tomcat can be a threat to a new litter of kittens if he perceives that he is not the father of the kittens. Multiple tomcats can aggravate the concerns over paternity among the cats and lead a tomcat to kill and eat the kittens in an effort to perpetuate his own genetics.
Fortunately, incidences of cats’ eating their kittens are rare. The vast majority of pet owners will never encounter such a tragedy. The birth of a litter of kittens is an exciting and joyful time for a pet owner, and taking a few simple precautions can help to ensure that your cat successfully raises happy, healthy babies.