Do domestic cat mothers instinctively know how to care for their offspring?

Not always, is the answer. You would have thought that as the domestic cat is considered to be barely domesticated that they would have inherited the full range of parenting skills from their wild cat ancestor but it seems not (sometimes). I’m taking my lead in answering the question in the title from Dr. Bradshaw who wrote the book Cat Sense and who tells us the story of his cat Libby. It is a story which helps to answer the question.

Mother cat with kitten
Mother cat with kitten. Photo: Pinterest.
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He writes that Libby was nervous and as a result was not the best mother. She appears to have been confused. I wonder, too, whether there is a variation in domestic cat intelligence which is not always fully apparent to cat caregivers which has an impact on their parenting skills?

It took Libby a while to decide on a suitable den for birthing. Apparently, she looked in various places in Bradshaw’s home before settling on a certain place but she didn’t use that place exclusively to raise her kittens. Bradshaw discovered her kittens scattered, he says, all around the house.

Also, for a few hours after birth she allowed her kittens to suckle and then lost interest. She spent too much time away. The kittens’ grandmother, Lucy, was interested in the kittens but at that time played no part in raising them.

It seems that not only was Libby not particularly well predisposed to being a mother, she was also a first-time mother and her inexperience showed. It would seem that experience in mothering improves the quality of caregiving, which makes sense.

When Libby moved her kittens, rather than grasping them in her mouth by the scruff of their necks, she placed their heads in her mouth. Accidentally she managed to grasp them correctly on occasion. Then she got the hang of it and sought out a place to hide them.

Bradshaw decided that without the benefit of living in a human home and the intervention of humans, Libby would have lost her kittens.

'Hi mom' - picture of kitten with mother
‘Hi mom’ – picture of kitten with mother

When she was moving the kittens to a new den, she would take the first to the new place then return for the second and take that kitten to a different place, all the while ignoring the cries of the first kitten. She then took the third kitten to a third location. She would then wander off looking confused according to Bradshaw. At this point Bradshaw and his family fetched the kittens and placed them together in the original den.

At this stage, the kittens’ grandmother intervened and helped to retrieve the kittens. From that point on Lucy took more control over raising the kittens by grooming them and keeping them together until they were weaned while Libby fed them.

Bradshaw says that the grandmother appeared to recognise the kittens by their appearance and by smell. He also says that first-time mothers sometimes behave as if they don’t know what a kitten is! It seems that they do things instinctively and those instincts don’t always function that well.

However, it seems that one inherited function is hardwired sufficiently to always work and that is when she hears the sound of her kitten’s high-pitched distress call, she should immediately search, retrieve and bring the kitten back to the den by the scruff of their neck. Eventually Libby learned over the first couple of weeks how to recognise her kittens as independent animals. It is not clear that mothers recognise their kittens as individual offspring with distinguishing characters and personalities.

Single newborn kitten cuddling up to mother
Single newborn kitten cuddling up to mother. Photo in public domain.

In conclusion, Libby appeared to have lacked “several components of maternal instinct” which would have proved fatal for the kittens if she had been left alone outside.

Apparently, research studies on free ranging cats indicate that first-time mothers are as successful a second time mothers which contradicts what I have written above. Libby appears to be an exception but in defence Bradshaw says that a mother’s inability to grab, in her mouth, the scruff of their kitten’s neck is not that uncommon.

My thanks to Dr Bradshaw. I recommend his book. I have it on Kindle.

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