Can imprinting take place between young kitten and human?

When a person raises a newborn cat, does imprinting take place whereby the kitten sees the person as his/her parent? It may not take place but this article is about whether it could take place and whether it does sometimes take place without the knowledge of the person.

Kitten imprinting? Do we know or realise it?

Kitten imprinting? Is it taking place? Photo by Sam.

I am not referring to the usual close bond between a good cat caretaker and her cat. No doubt there is a close bond in that situation.

I am referring the biological process called “imprinting”. There is a short window of opportunity for imprinting to take place.

Imprinting can only occur between a newborn or very young kitten and a person. It need not be a person but I am discussing the human/cat relationship.

If imprinting does occur between a person and a newborn then the newborn cat will firmly recognise the person has her/his parent. It will be a hard-wired relationship.

This normally won’t occur because nearly all newborns are parented, initially, by their biological mother.  However, where a person raises a kitten from a very young age it seems plausible that the person could be imprinted on the kitten’s mind that she is the mother.

This may account for some exceptionally strong bonds between cat and person. This sort of relationship goes beyond the usual. It is pure biology.

The well known example of animal imprinting is ducks flying with a person in a light aircraft when migrating. The video below (sad, in my opinion, as it is in China) shows a duck that has been imprinted with the notion that a puppy is his/her parent.

Let’s assume kitten to human imprinting takes place. On that basis, shouldn’t people be aware of it? It places the person in a greater than normal position of responsibility. The person genuinely becomes the cat’s parent. This is not about good standard cat caretaking but a person being the parent of a cat.

I have not seen this discussed on the internet. It does present a delicate question. If a person is a known excellent cat caretaker might it be a good idea if, under the right circumstances, she is imprinted on a cat’s mind as the parent because it will create the best possible bond. It could result in better relationship and better cat caretaking.

Foal imprinting

Deliberate foal imprinting. Photo by Sundance Stables.

Horse imprinting sometimes take place in some stables. It is done deliberately and it makes the foal that much….

….braver, calmer, more trusting, inquisitive and willing, and who see us, and their future owners, as friends and partners…(Sundance Stables)

Now, I don’t know if imprinting is a good thing. After all, it is taking some of the naturalness out of life for the young animal. However, if the animal is a domestic animal and therefore has to live in the human world, imprinting would seem to make the animal better adapted to being a companion. This is a tricky ethical question.

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Can imprinting take place between young kitten and human? — 13 Comments

  1. I think what we’ve seen here about out of species caretaking may qualify as imprinting. A cat nursing a baby squirrel would be an example?
    I find the video to be sad too. The poor duck wants to be nurtured, but the puppy isn’t old enough to be able. I wish the duck had an older dog available to make that happen.

    • Yes it makes me sad too Dee. The little newborn animals really deserve their mamas whenever possible no matter what. It’s sad to see any animal orphaned.

  2. We have 5 cats in our household. We originally had two, a fixed male and an unfixed female, Slinky. Slinky got out one day and had seven kittens. By the time it came to deliver the last one she was exhausted and couldn’t finish pushing her out. I gently pulled her out and massaged her to stimulate movement and breathing. Once she responded I placed her in front of Slinky and she began to clean her. I named the kitten Morticia, she is a beautiful all black angora and we call her “Tishy for short at times.She is with me constantly just hanging out and watching every thing I do with an occasional hentle head butt or pet all the time. She can be independant and loves playing with her sisters too. We kept 3 females and we still her mother. I am truly convinced that Tish imprinted on me. What do you think?

    • Hi Lana. It is more than possible that she imprinted on you. Your story is very nice and interesting. If you see imprinting in Trishy’s behavior you’re probably right as no one knows her better and you have behaved as her mother.

  3. Very interesting article. I believe this is possible. My mother had taken in a sick stray queen who had a litter of kittens. My young son and I helped with the delivery and the kittens were born with ring worm. I nursed all of the kittens but one in particular (his name is Neo) would choose to sleep with us instead of his litter mates. We have had him for 13 years now and he follows me every where and sleeps with me every night. I’ve had many cats in my lifetime but my relationship with Neo is very special. I do believe he imprinted on me and I am grateful for this exceptionally close bond.

  4. I found this article precisely while googling about this… I do think it’s very possible! I have two grown cats at home, and the older I rescued from the streets when he was two or three months, and I kept him in my bed with me every night when he was small as I have a big dog as well, and that’s how he grew up- ever since he’s been very dependent on me, follows me around and cries and cries until I let him in the room, he also loves to be carried over my hip like a baby. The other cat was much smaller when rescued and my mother took care of that one, letting her sleep with her and all, and this cat behaves the same way as the other, but towards my mom instead! I’m now caring for a small kitten of maybe two months of age who was put in our way by fate, and she seems to recognize me as her parent now, I’m so excited, I just hope my other cat will soon get accustomed to the new addition 🙂

    • Thank you, Dani, for sharing your experiences. I believe I have to agree with you because the cat that I’m currently living with, I raised from about 7 to 8 weeks of age. I’m not sure whether he sees me as his parent but I believe he does. I raised him just beyond the age when cats develop or are the most impressionable i.e. the first seven weeks of their life. That said, my cat, Gabriel, does show traits similar to yours. He does see me as a cat and quite possibly his parent, who he believes should go outside with him in the morning at 4 AM just as he does, to go hunting. When I don’t go outside with him it becomes annoyed and deliberately annoys me. I understand this. There are other forms of his behvior which indicate that he sees me as a parent.

  5. I am a true believer in imprinting. I rescued my kitten at 2-3 days of age, as guesstimated by our vet. He still had his umbilical cord and could fit in the palm of my husband’s hand. He was born in the bottom of my father’s boat in his garage and the rest of the litter was dead. He cried long enough to get noticed by my kids while we were there visiting on our way home from a camping trip. Anyways we brought him home, I slept on the couch for 6 weeks by his makeshift incubator. I was the one who fed him, first by a eye dropper and then by bottle once his strength got up. I bathed him, stimulated his areas to get him to do his business, I even diaper creamed his little bum when he went through a terrible period of bloody diarrhea so bad it made his anus bleed. I held him, burped him, rocked him to sleep just like my human babies. Fastforward almost 5 years and my 4 ounce kitten is 12.5 pounds of pure gorgeousness! He has some issues with strangers and some seperation issues with me. He loves my husband and kids sometimes lol but he is so so different with me. He grooms me, kneads me, spends tons of time a day cuddling me, comforts me when I cry, slaps his paw over my mouth if I yell lol. He is my baby and I am his mom. He even has a meow that sounds like he is saying mom lol. I love my Pepe cat to bits, he truly is one of my children..just a bit furrier lol!

    • Great comment Dana and, yes, I completely agree that imprinting can take place. Your story is a great example 😉 .

  6. I never was a firm believer of imprinting until a feral female cat around one year old had 3 kittens in my garage. She took only one of them and abandoned the other two. So I adopted them, fed them formula, gleaned them and made sure all lower body parts were functioning. I named the boy Bainn and the girl Rainn. Sadly a week later Bainn died due to his inability to thrive. I found him laying next to his sister Rainn. I bawled my eyes out and buried him in a flower pot. Fast forward 5 years and Rainn believes Im her mom. Wherever I go,even if she’s in a dead sleep, she goes. I work nights as a nurse and my two friends who live w me work days so there’s always someone home. She’s very territorial and will his if the other two cats come anywhere my room. She has also learned to shut doors, by putting her 2 front feet against my door and walking across the room on her two hind legs. She also knows how to turn off/on lights using hers nails and paws. It seems just like yesterday when I was shoving formula down her mouth fighting to keep her alive. Her ferel mom got taken by the coyotes 6 months later but I still see the one she took w her “Dainn” around our houses. He is identical to Rainn. I give him water and food when I see him. He’s in good health. Rainn is definitely a livable cat and will roll onto her back so I can give her strawberries to her belly. Every time she sees me she rolls onto her back showing me her belly. Unfortunately she’s had to stop doing that on the stairs because she’s gotten so fat she can’t fit, and rolls down the stairs like a slinky. One of the best gifts God has ever given me.

    • Super post Adrienne. I enjoyed reading it. Your story proves imprinting takes place. I raised my cat from feral young kitten and we have a similar relationship. We are genuinely like a human couple. We completely understand each other. He sees me as a cat and wants to roughhouse. My skin isn’t quite up to it sometimes 😉

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