Maternal Behaviour – Reproduction

The newborn kitten is eleven to fifteen centimeters (four to six inches) long and weighs between seventy and one-hundred-and-thirty-five grams (two and five ounches). It is a fairly helpless creature at this stage, unable to see because of closed eyelids, unable to hear with ears that are folded back, and capable of wiggling and squirming but not walking.

Brothers and sisters instinctively bunch tighter to conserve warmth.

Over the next two to three months the mother cat gradually teaches her kittens all they need to know in order to look after themselves.

In the first few days of life, the queen is absolutely vital to the kittens’ survival, not least in protecting them while they are physically so vulnerable. Instinctively, the queen knows what to do, even if it is her first litter. When she decides to carry a kitten, she does it by gently but firmly grasping the scruff of its neck.

Although the mother often grasps the kitten unceremoniously, she does it gently and never causes any harm.

A firm bond is established rapidly between mother and infants. Although shortly after birth a queen will accept kittens other than her own. Once the bond is forged, strange kittens are not readily accepted. The sense of smell plays an important part in this bonding. Queen and litters recognize the “personalized” odour of the secretions of each other’s skin glands, particularly those situated on the head. The pleasurable rubbing of heads transfers the characteristic scent.

In the first few days after giving birth, a queen may decide to move her kittens to a new “den”. This often occurs with wild cats and is an instinctive act, designed to remove the babies from the liquids produced by the birth process which might attract predators. If your queen moves home like this, simply put her kittening box in a new spot.

The kittens rely on their mother for their supply of milk. Each kitten adopts its own individual teat, and there is rarely much swapping of teats. By pushing with their fore paws against the mother’s body as they suckle, the kitten trigger a nerve/hormone reflex that initiates the “let-down” of milk. Restless, fretful kittens that cry a lot may indicate that the queen is failing to let down milk or, more rarely, that she simply cannot produce enough milk.

This foster mother is taking as much care of the kittens as if they had been her own.

Where the “let-down” mechanism is faulty, a veterinarian may decide to give a pituitary gland hormone injection that almost instantly corrects the problem. If the queen simply cannot manufacture the necessary amount of milk, fostering or artificial rearing will be necessary.

Sometimes only one of the kittens appears to be short of milk and in this case the vet can examine it to see if it has a congenital condition such as cleft palate, or some other problem.

A mother licks her kittens often. This stimulates their breathing and the circulation of blood, and tones their infant muscles. Licking their bottoms is important in encouraging and teaching them to defecate and urinate regularly.

Mother’s grooming serves to stimulate the breathing, circulation and muscles of her offspring

Communication between queen and kittens is mainly vocal at first. The mother produces a range of greetings, scolding, soothing, warning and “come-to-me” sounds. When the kittens are bigger and go on family walks, visual signals come into play. Everyone keeps together as the youngsters follow the “flag” made by the queen holding her tail high with the top bent backwards.

The cleaning of her kittens’ rear ends encourages regular bowel movements and urination and keeps a delicate area clean.

Gaining independence
Although the kittens learn b watching their mother and other cats, some things are instinctive. Even before their eyes are open they will reach to certain stimuli – spitting or hissing if disturbed for example. They also tend only to rest when together as a litter. This instinctive habit serves to keep them warm and ensures that they do not become separated as a group. The snugness and the sound of their own heartbeats probably comfort them by reminding them of what life was like within their mother’s womb.

This litter of kittens is obviously well fed, well groomed and content.

The first major advance in independence is when their eyes begin to open at five to ten days of age. They are fully open at eight to twenty days. At sixteen to twenty days the kittens begin to crawl, at three to four weeks they start to take solid food and by two months of age they are usually fully weaned. When they begin to wean, the bond with their mother gradually weakens until she ceases to differentiate between her own and other kittens. At this stage they can fend for themselves.