There is a very impressive level of mutual support amongst mother cats (queens) when living in colonies. The support systems do not necessarily take place between relatives such as sisters or mother and daughter. Unrelated cats also help one another out and in quite a profound, intimate and important way.
Although, when related individuals provide mutual assistance they are improving the survival of their genes in siblings, nieces and nephews etc..
“they are also benefiting their own genetic fitness…”¹
All this mutual support behavior is geared around survival of the individuals and the colony as a whole. Perhaps people can learn from this.
The central figures in cat colonies would appear to be the queens. They are often related. They co-operate to make it easier for the young to survive.
During parturition (kitten birth) the queens assist each other. This is uncommon amongst animals. The queen who is not giving birth to kittens will help out. She will:
- clean the perineum of the queen giving birth
- eat the fetal membranes and
- clean the newborn kitten
Thereafter queens guard, nurse and groom each other’s kittens. This is particularly important when moving kittens to a new nest, which is a dangerous time for the kittens as they are left alone for a while if the queen is raising them on her own. In mutual sharing situations the kittens are left alone for much less time and are therefore safer.
Mutual support can extend to queens bringing food to nursing queens.
There seems to be a natural balance in what the experts call “reciprocal altruism” – which I would define as: help and assistance that is interchanged, or owed to each other. This is because mutual support is more likely to occur when the level of support is of the same value. Also the time frame between helping is important. Help is more likely to be exchanged when there is less time between the helping sessions.
Altruistic mutual support occurs most often when the queens – related or otherwise – live together in the same colony and when they give birth in the same season.
For example, a queen who is to give birth within a few weeks, and who assists another queen, will probably receive assistance in return from that queen when she herself gives birth.
The queen really is a queen in a colony of cats. Her position is very important. Queens maintain the social group. Where the mother is present in a family group, the highest rates of adult cat to adult cat grooming takes place (allogrooming). There is improved social cohesion thanks to the mothers.
- The Welfare of Cats page 3 ISBN 978-1-4020-6143-1 – I recommend this excellent book