If you’ve ever bred a litter of kittens, you might be aware of the sad fact that sometimes the mother will eat her kittens. However, it is quite rare. It’s hard to believe that any mother would want to harm their young, and cats can be such gentle animals. So, why do cats eat their kittens? And what can you do to try to make sure that she doesn’t?
Reasons why cats eat their kittens
The main reasons for cannibalism in cats are stress, rejection, immaturity and over-handling.
The most common cause of a mother cat eating her kittens is stress. This might include a perceived threat from another animal, but quite often it is us as humans that inadvertently cause our new feline family stress.
It’s an exciting time when a cat has kittens, and it’s natural to want to check in on them regularly, both due to concern and excitement. But, disturbing a mother cat during the early days by picking up or touching them or the kittens, or even by entering their room and not giving them space, can have dire consequences.
If a mother cat doesn’t have much milk, she may reject the runt of the litter. Similarly, any kittens that have birth defects or health conditions may also be rejected by the mother. Thankfully, this often only means that she will ignore the rejected kittens and not allow them to feed, leaving you as the owner, or breeder, to take over the responsibility of rearing them. However, in more extreme cases of rejection, the mother cat may eat them.
Young cats haven’t had enough time in their short lives to mature and develop. Therefore, they commonly show poor mothering ability and less willingness or understanding when it comes to feeding and nurturing her litter. This lack of mothering instinct means that they are far more likely to react negatively to stressful or threatening situations and are at a much greater risk of eating their kittens.
Any time that a kitten is handled by a well-meaning owner, the smell of that person is transferred to the kitten. Because cats rely heavily on their sense of smell, overhandling can cause the kitten to be rejected by the mother because they don’t recognize the kitten as one of their own.
So, what can I do to help?
Any new litter of kittens should be left alone with their mother as much as possible. Try to ensure their own space – ideally somewhere warm, calm, and quiet, away from the hustle and bustle of family life. Although it’s tempting to have a peek, try to keep an eye from a distance and keep any handling to a minimum.
Ideally, female cats should not be bred until they are over 18 months old when they will be mature and have a better chance of taking motherhood in their stride. Finally, monitor the kittens to see that they are all feeding and getting stronger, if any seem to be being ignored by the mother it may be best to remove them and hand-rear them.
So that’s why cats eat their kittens. Thankfully, if you follow all of these steps, you should have a happy and healthy feline family!