There is nothing more natural than the bond between parents and children and the passage of one generation into the next. There’s a reason why the phrase “eating their young” is used to describe situations of true hopelessness and horror. Surely cats would be free of that infanticidal cannibalistic impulse, or so we would like to think.
The sad truth is that there are certain conditions under which cats can fall prey to their most base and desperate urges, and that sadly includes eating their own babies. So what could possibly compel cats to do the unthinkable and is there anything that you as a cat owner should know in order to prevent this tragedy?
How Does This Happen?
Before you start worrying that your mother cat must be a homicidal maniac, you can rest easy knowing that cats eating their babies is very rare. As we’ll see in a moment, there are certain conditions which can cause mother cats to resort to this tragic measure, but most of the time, you should be fine.
It is worth noting, however, that when mother cats give birth to their litters, they do sometimes eat the placenta. They do this in order to recoup some nutrients and energy after the arduous process of giving birth to kittens, hence why cats eating their babies is a rarity. You wouldn’t spend all that time and energy just to cannibalize the product of your labor (literally!) would you?
That’s why when post-birth kitten cannibalization happens, it’s usually due to an extreme circumstance forcing the mother to take this awful step, or else something wrong with the kitten itself. Sometimes cats won’t eat their young if they are extremely sickly but simply leave them out to die on their own, which is a bit less viscerally macabre but still condemned to the same grim fate.
1. Stillborn Kittens
A stillbirth is yet another tragedy that no mother wants to face, and that’s true for cats as well. However, when faced with a stillborn kitten, mothers will sometimes eat the corpse. Why would they do such a seemingly callous thing?
The answer may have something to do with their stillborn kittens’ odor. Cats’ sense of smell is 14x stronger than ours, and just as horses can literally “smell” fear, cats can potentially smell when something’s not right with their kittens, including if they’re stillborn.
2. Sickness and Deformity
This also means that a cat may be able to sense deformities or sickness in kittens that you may not be able to with your human senses. If a cat mother eats a baby that seems to be otherwise fine to the naked eye, this may be one reason why. Mothers typically do this if they sense that the kitten is “doomed to die.”
One reason why cats do this is because the scent of decomposing flesh isn’t just unpleasant and potentially traumatic but, in the wild, could mean a survival hazard. Such a scent would be extremely strong, which could attract potential predators to a cat’s nest or den. House cats retain those instincts, and can thus sense sickly kittens to be a hazard to their survival as well as a hygienic nightmare.
Everyone knows how much cats care about hygiene, given how meticulous they are about licking themselves, so contradictory as it may seem, a cat may see eating her own as more “hygienic” than leaving them there to rot.
3. Stress and Mercy
While these situations apply more to feral cats than house ones, it can apply to both. When cats are faced with danger, it can up their stress level considerably. The most common form of danger is obviously sensing that there are predators nearby. When we’re under pressure, we don’t always make the best decisions, and this can be the case with cats as well. Newborn kittens may cause exhausted, stressed mother cats sensory overload, which can be painful and lead to them trying to get rid of that pain by any means necessary, even one as extreme as this.
4. Post-Birth Stress and Fatigue
As mentioned, mother cats can sometimes eat the placenta after giving birth in order to replenish their energy. This is vital for a mother cat, not just for her own survival, but that of the litter. A mother cat needs enough nutrients not just to recover from the birthing process, but also to provide her kittens with milk and nurse them. If she doesn’t have enough energy for that, the kittens will die. As a result, if she feels that one of her kittens is sickly and won’t survive, and also thinks that she herself needs energy so she can feed the rest of her children with her milk, she may make the calculation that sacrificing one kitten for the good of the rest of the litter is the best move overall.
It may be cruel and coldly utilitarian, but when the alternative is potentially losing your entire litter, it’s understandable why desperate and stressed mother cats may opt for this option.
5. “Mercy” Killing
No mother wants their child to suffer, but does that mean they may kill them instead? That’s the thinking of cats who engage in “mercy” killing of one or more kittens. If they are being stalked by a predator and don’t see any way out, they may think that it’s “better” to eat their kittens now rather than let them die at the hands (or claws) of a predator. How “merciful” that might be is up to you to decide, but the fact of the matter is that situations such as these are nearly always at times where the kittens may well be dead either way, so the mother may at least be able to save her kitten a more painful death.
6. New to Motherhood
Motherhood can be hard, especially when it’s your first time. Granted, that’s not quite an excuse for this fate when applied to human mothers, but for cats, it can occasionally lead to infanticide.
If a cat has never been a mother before, she may not know what to do. Again, you might think that when considering the “do”s and “don’t”s of parenthood, “Don’t Eat Your Children” should be a pretty obvious one, but cat hormones may say otherwise.
For example, the hormone prolactin is excreted by cats during their pregnancy and then during labor and after their kittens’ birth. It’s an important hormone, as it helps bond a mother to her babies. However, sometimes the release of prolactin is delayed, which can leave a mother disoriented and, if she is a first-timer to this process, uncertain of what to do and not properly bonded to her offspring. When a mother doesn’t feel that immediate bond with her children, she may accidentally perceive them as just another small furry creature within her reach — that is, prey. On the other hand, she could perceive one or more of the kittens to be a threat to herself or the rest of her litter.
Without prolactin, confused first-time cats can make some fatal parenting mistakes.
7. Feline Mastitis
Another potential cause of cat mothers cannibalizing their young, feline mastitis is a form of mammary gland inflammation that can affect one or all mammaries. Symptoms include redness, swelling, pain, discharge, and the mammary feeling tender and painful. If your cat’s kittens aren’t gaining weight like they should due to your mother cat not feeding them, it may be due to mastitis, as the mother cannot feed her young with mammaries that are swollen or in serious pain. In severe cases, the mammaries may even turn blue or have sores, blood, pus, or ulcerations.
Feline mastitis can be caused by a wide variety of factors. Mastitis affects other mammals as well as cats, and in several of these cases can emerge as the result of a bacterial infection. Despite their attempts at hygiene, a cat’s life can be a dirty and germy one, so it isn’t hard to see how they may accidentally pick up an infection that may then start to spread or localize and become more severe within their mammaries. Trauma is another potential cause, as is a sudden accumulation of milk.
Feline mastitis can be extremely painful, and as with stress, pain can cause your cat to make poor decisions, including eating kittens so she doesn’t have to feed them.
8. Feline Hypocalcemia
Another condition which can interrupt your mother cat’s normal maternal activities, hypocalcemia, as the name would imply, occurs when your cat has low calcium levels. Common symptoms of this are weakness, muscle tremors, irritability, seizures, hypersensitivity to sound and touch stimuli, and muscle twitching.
This condition can occur as part of a chronic condition such as renal failure. It can also occur as a complication post-surgery in the event of surgical treatments for conditions such as hyperthyroidism. Other causes include pancreatitis and milk fever. This is a serious, life-threatening condition, and is cause for taking your cat to the vet immediately.
This can result from a uterine infection, and typically manifests in the week after a cat has given birth. As in human cases of endometritis, this results in the lining of the cat’s uterus becoming inflamed and quite painful. If left unchecked, the condition can get even worse, causing your cat severe pain.
10. Not Recognizing Her Kittens
As mentioned in our section on prolactin, it is essential for mothers to bond with their kittens from the start, not least so they can recognize them. While it is comparatively rare for mothers to not recognize their kittens, it can happen. For example, if the cat mother has given birth via a C-section via the vet, the scent of humans’ hands may linger on the kittens, which in turn may confuse her or cause her to think that they must not be her kittens after all.
As in the case with prolactin, if this happens, the cat may think that these kittens are little predators, or even potentially confuse them for prey. This is one reason why you’ll want to try not to handle kittens during the first week after their birth. This may seem hard since, well, they’re kittens — of course you want to hold and cuddle them! But doing so too soon can lead to the cat mother confusing their scent or not being able to recognize it at all, which can lead to disastrous consequences.
What You Can Do?
Since, as demonstrated above, stress is one of the most reoccurring causes of cat mothers eating their young, one of the best things you can do for her and the kittens is do whatever you can to calm her down and lessen her burden.
Make sure that the cat has a calm environment in which to give birth and care for her young. As mentioned, you should avoid touching the kittens during the first week. Make sure that you monitor your cat’s behavior during this time to ensure that she doesn’t seem confused about the kittens being her own. If she does, or demonstrates other danger signs such as being rough with the babies or choosing to neglect them, then the cat may be an “unfit parent,” and it’s better to act sooner rather than later (or too late) and save the kittens immediately. Remember, though, that if you remove the kittens, you will have to take care of them as their new surrogate mother. If this does prove necessary, ask your veterinarian for guidance.
If your cat is an unfit mother, you may want to have her spayed so neither she nor you have to worry about any more kittens. Finally, for things such as hormonal and calcium deficiencies, you may want to look into injections and similar treatments.
No pet owner wants to see kittens cannibalized, and most cat mothers don’t want this horrible fate to happen either. By paying attention to these ten risk factors, you can help prevent this grisly fate and ensure that the mother and kittens have a lovely feline future together.