Cat Nest-moving

In their natural state, once kittens are a few days old, the mother may move them to a different nest site. Many mothers move their litters from the nest and will probably do it at least once before her kittens are weaned.

Cat nest-moving

Cat nest-moving

Despite the fact that scientists are yet to be completely sure as to why mother cats do this, the obvious reason is to ensure that their kittens are safe when, for example, there may be a disturbance near the nest which makes the mother uncomfortable about remaining there.

Another reason put forward by a well-known author1 is that cats in the wild move their kittens from the original den to minimise the risk of a flea infestation.

In the wild, it is probably reasonable to state that every kitten will carry some cat fleas, at the very least, and there may very well be an infestation in the den because of the congregation of kittens and mother there. Also, the mother has to spend so much time in the nest, flea eggs may accumulate and when these eggs turn into adult fleas all they have to do is jump onto a kitten who happens to be on the spot.

Moving all the kittens away from a flea infested nest makes common sense in helping to reduce exposure to the cat flea which can be quite dangerous to a young cat. A genuine infestation can cause anaemia in a kitten and on occasions can be fatal.

As a result, this appears to be a good strategy by a concerned mother, although it has to be said that this proposed reason is speculative because there is no evidence to support it.

Another possible reason why a mother indulges in kitten nest-moving is to reposition the nest to a place where it is nearer a source of food thereby making it easier to feed her young because there will be less expenditure of energy in finding food. It is hard work from mother to feed her young and she has to eat well herself.

Another reason why a mother may move her kittens using the classic “scruffing reflex” is to try to ensure that they are kept warm and dry. Young kittens are very vulnerable to cold. Is important that they are kept at a good temperature and a draughty, wet den site may result in the kittens becoming ill. Also damp wet conditions favour the transmission of viruses that cause upper respiratory infections.

Many feral kittens die of cat flu. Occasionally, I have seen photographs of rescued feral cats or semi-feral cats who had become blind because an upper respiratory infection has developed into a bacterial infection which has attacked the cat’s eyes to an extent where the eyes have become so severely damaged that they cannot be saved by a veterinary surgeon.

As an afterthought, I am informed, that some veterinarians use the scruff reflex to calm cats when they are at the clinic. Veterinary nurses sometimes apply a line of clothes pegs to the area of skin between the top of the head and the shoulders. This allows the nurse to examine the cat without causing the cat too much stress and, I presume, that at the same time, it also protects the nurse from possible scratches should the cat be agitated.

Photo: by Margo Akermark (modified by me)

Ref: (1) John Bradshaw

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Cat Nest-moving — 12 Comments

  1. I have seen this many times although there has been no rhyme or reason to the placement of the kittens when moved. Not necessarily safer etc – just what the mama prefers it looks like. The day Gigi was born I put them all in a nice box with a blanket – she had thhem on a bunch of electric cables behind the hifi! But she didn’t like the box – and carried the Gigi and her sibling upstairs to another spot. Seemed like a personal preference but then I am not a cat so hard to say if some element was there i hadn’t noticed.

    • I find many interesting because I think as you say sometimes there is no obvious reason, to our eyes, why mother moves her kittens. Your story highlights that. It may just be a personal preference. A sort of gut feeling by the mother that somewhere else is better. There may be an instinctive desire to simply change position as a precaution. It may be a hardwired instinct because changing position will automatically make it more difficult for predators to find the kittens.

  2. i remeber a cat i had when i was 16 she had her kitties under my bed, even though i had her in a box i guess its a cat choice where they go and put there kitties. Just love kitties when they that young so cute

    • Sometimes the reasons why mother moves her kittens seems a mystery to us and Marc in his comment about seems to highlight that. As you say it is about a personal preference – what feels right for mother – and we as humans may not find it easy to understand.

  3. We have a feral Mama cat in our bathroom right now with 5 kittens. She had them the day after I brought her home. They are 7 weeks old right now. This Mama has been so incredible and I think she must trust us or she is just grateful to be here because even when she has had the chance, she hasn’t tried to move them at all. When we hold the kittens and love on them she just purrs and totally relaxes, it’s like she takes a break when we are there to play, she thinks we are the babysitters. LOL I’m ok with that. 🙂 Here is Mama with her little boy baby when he was about 3 weeks old. Kisses for Mama

  4. When we were CP feral officers we had a real job catching a mother and her 5 kittens, she moved them every time we got close, some instinct seemed to warn her. Someone would tip us off when they had a glimpse of her but she had moved them again, probably at night. We eventually managed to trap them all when they were old enough to start wandering, the cat wasn’t feral but living rough for some reason and had lost her trust in humans. They all ended up in good homes 🙂
    Many years ago our Bert was brought to us by his mother, we had been feeding her and one morning she turned up carrying one kitten, went off and came back with another, they all moved in. We had the mother cat spayed and she and Olive went off to new homes, we kept Bert, he was my feline soul mate for 17 years.

  5. Michael, I couldn’t agree more to what your theories are.
    I’ve watched these moves many, many years.
    The initial move is, usually, to safer ground. Then, the next move is closer to a food source.
    At least, that’s how I’ve always seen it.

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