During the first three weeks of kittens’ lives their mother licks them extensively. The first and obvious reason is because it keeps their coat in good condition. Secondly, it also removes ectoparasites (parasites living on the outside the host’s body) such as fleas from the coat. There is a real risk of fleas being harboured in the family nest so this action is important.
Thirdly, eye infections such as conjunctivitis in newborns can be managed by the mother’s licking because the saliva acts like an antibiotic as it is antibacterial in nature. Conjunctivitis (aka ‘pink eye’) is a secondary bacterial infection of the eye and it often causes partial or total blindness is stray and feral kittens as it can destroy the eyes.
Fourthly, licking the bottom of the kitten by the mother is called anogenital licking (‘relating to the anus and genitals’). It evokes or stimulates elimination of faecal material and urine which are consumed by the mother.
This is a newborn kitten reflex which ensures that faeces and urine are not retained by the kitten. This special mother-kitten behaviour also keeps the nest clean. As the young leave the nest the anogenital licking stops and the offspring urinate and defecate away from the nest.
The video below was made by me many years ago. It shows Martin Stucki, who at that time owned and managed A1 Savannahs with Kathryn his wife, taking up the role of mother cat in wiping the kittens’ bottoms to stimulate elimination. These are top quality Savannah cat kittens.
Source: Myself backed up by The domestic cat: The biology of its behaviour, edited by D.C. Turner and P. Bateson.
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