An interesting observation by a TNR advocate on how feral colonies share kitten care

By Mary Reilly Posted September 4, 2017

Foreword from Elisa: I found this post on a TNR group on Facebook for those actually trapping and releasing cats and thought it an interesting article. If you care for a feral colony, please comment after reading and share your experiences.

Mom and dad share “kitten care”
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

This is just what I have noticed watching colony behavior. Please remember that most of the cats I have trapped have been very rural, and isolated. I want to hear about other folks observations, but I don’t want to be “yelled at” because my experiences are different.

What I have noticed in all the colonies of 20 or more cats is that the kittens are nursed and cared for communally. Most of the females go into heat within a month of each other, and therefore drop their litters within a month of each other.

While the main caregiver to the kittens is the mother, when the mother leaves to go eat or hunt, one of the younger male cats will slide in and fully care for the kittens until she returns. If the kittens become hungry before the mother returns, one of the other mothers will feed the kittens, but leave the actual care to the surrogate male cat.

If the mother of the litter does not return, then each mother cat chooses one to two kittens to join her litter. Or if there is another mother who lost her kittens, then she will take over nursing the entire litter. Again, the surrogate male will either follow the kittens, or the mother cats may already have a male cat to help them. In which case the surrogate male will take on other duties, such as watching the more mobile kittens and making sure they don’t get into trouble. Or teaching them to hunt by playing games.

As the kittens get older, the surrogate and mother will hunt for the kittens and tear their prey up into pieces. Or the surrogate male and mother will herd the kittens up to the human created feeding stations to teach them to eat. At each feeding station any female cat will nurse any kitten from any litter and the surrogate males will help keep all the kittens together.

Each colony will have between one to three dominate male cat protectors. I have noticed that most of the kittens resemble one of those dominate cats. Those dominate male cats will not allow other cats to join the colony, and will also protect the colony from predators. I saw one dominate male attack two coyotes. He, of course, got the bad end of the encounter, but his colony escaped the ambush. (I caught him and took him to the vet and he recovered enough to live a happy life in my home.

This is all out in the woods, not the city. I have noticed similar but different behaviors for city colonies. One of which they seldom get to 20 cats like most of the colonies in the rural settling.

And yes, I spend way to much time watching cats.

Mary Reilly

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4 thoughts on “An interesting observation by a TNR advocate on how feral colonies share kitten care”

  1. I do not take care of any feral colonies, but wanted to comment. I find the feral communal life fascinating. Very interesting article.

  2. It’s nice to knowthat male cats can assume a parental role. Domestics usually aren’t like lions, but who knows.

    My experience with this is not TNR but with unneutered cats in the home. I only comment because the male we had at the time killed the kittens when the mom took a break. My mother’s comment was that that was normal and it’s always stuck with me.

    The only other observation that might support this is when her Scottie had pups the first time. Molly would watch Sunshine, an expert mouser, while he was in to eat, (he’d get disgusted and leave), but Frankie earned only occasional glances and could stay in.

    No flames please. These are my observations.

    • Hi Anne, thanks for commenting. I have never heard of a male domestic cat killing kittens (correction: I do remember now!). It is rare. I’ll do a bit of work in this today. There may have been a specific but unusual reason for the male cat killing the kittens but if they were true domestic cats in a person’s home there is no obvious reason for this behavior that I can readily think of. But…..I’ve found a post I did which contains the answer…

      Here is the page which explains what is going on – click on the link:

  3. This is why TNR advocates work so hard to catch and spay/neuter the cats. Unfortunately, it can take time to trap a trap-savvy female and the result is kittens. Just remember it’s just as important to catch and neuter the males as well. Many kittens can be trapped in time to find them a real home before their “feral side” kicks in.


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