Mother cat decapitates her four kittens

A mother cat (a queen) bites the heads off her four kittens – an act of infanticide. Why?

Domestic cat infanticide
Domestic cat infanticide. Photo: Dee.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Dee, a regular contributor to PoC and a very experienced cat caretaker, has experienced something sad and unsettling. This is what she says:

“I was called to a neighbor’s house some distance from me to see what her mother cat had done. They brought her in as a stray not long ago and, then, discovered she was pregnant. They said that she walked and trotted around while giving birth with babies just hanging out of her one by one. They also said that after the first 4 weeks they nearly had to force her to care for them too.

The mother cat seems to be around 10-12 months old and had a first litter of 4. She seemed to have been a good mother for about 4 weeks; but, suddenly she has bitten every head off of her 4 babies, killing them of course. I can’t find any explanation for this.

Do you have one?…..[she was] the only cat in the house. The only thing I can think of is that she was just too young and inexperienced or got annoyed by their crying. It’s a first for me.

It’s so heart-breaking. There was plenty of food around, so the mother wasn’t lacking..So, I just don’t get it. Why would she do this?”

My only thought in response was that the mother was unable to cope and had decided in the interests of her survival to destroy her litter and start again sometime in the future when things might be more favourable. But she was well fed so there was no pressing need from the point of survival.

I did some research…..a good number of the reasons for female domestic cat infanticide are directly or indirectly associated with survival of both kittens and/or mother.

There are other reasons too. According to Sarah Hartwell, kitten-killing (infanticide in cats) is more commonly carried out by females than males. Until I had read that I had always presumed that males where the primary killers of kittens or cubs (for wild cats) as a mating strategy and as a means to create his own offspring. It seems that amongst domestic cats, the situation is more complicated than that. All my excellent reference books refer to male infanticide with no reference to female infanticide, which I find interesting.

Hunting instincts dominate maternal instincts

Some mothers don’t develop maternal instincts on the birth of their offspring. Their hunting instincts take over or dominate their actions and they kill their kittens. These queens have poorly developed maternal instincts.

Defective Kittens

The mother has decided that the kittens have a poor chance of survival because she detects a defect that is not obvious to us. She decides that it is not worth expending energy on raising them. This is the cut-throat world of survival. She kills them.

Out of season births

This means early spring, late autumn and winter which results in a reduced chance of survival as prey is scarce. The mother instinctively assesses the difficulty in survival of herself and her kittens and kills them.

Disturbed nest

If a birth nest/den is disturbed and if the cat has difficulty moving to what she perceives as a more secure place, she may kill her kittens as the only response as she probably perceives the threat to her kittens and herself as too great under the circumstances. This action allows her to escape to save herself.

Inexperience

Sometimes queens accidentally kill their kittens through incompetence or desperation when trying to move them to a new nest. Very rarely, an inexperienced and anxious mother may inadvertently seriously injure or even kill her very young and fragile kittens when cleaning them and then eat them to “hygienically dispose” of the body.

Stress

Sometimes stressed mothers decide to “cut their losses” as Sarah Hartwell calls it and kill and eat their kittens. The reason for eating her own offspring is purely functional. She has invested in creating them and wants to reclaim some of the investment while simultaneously improving her chance of survival and readying herself for the next litter. Under these circumstances she may cull part of her litter thereby improving the prospects of successfully rearing the remainder.

An abused mother cat be anxious with kittens and kill them. This is stress related.

Handled another person or animal

A queen may kill her kittens because, in being handled by another animal or human, her scent on her kittens has been obliterated or obscured such that she no longer recognised them and they become prey. A kitten’s size, movement and sound could encourage a cat to treat them as prey.

Natural death of kitten

Where a kitten or kittens have died naturally the mother may dispose of the body by partially eating it giving the impression she has killed it.

41 thoughts on “Mother cat decapitates her four kittens”

  1. Cats do not just kill their babies. This article leads people to believe mother cats are cold blooded killers of their babies. This is wrong. When a cats kills kittens it is more often than not because there is something wrong with the kittens. At times it is because mother becomes stressed and has no milk for them. But mothers do not kill babies because they can’t handle their crying. Crazy theory. I’ve had cats all my life. Delivered, nurtured, and even bottle fed. I’ve had more mothers take kittens not their own than I can count. Don’t paint these pictures. It’s hard enough to save cats lives.

    Reply
    • Thanks Pamala for commenting. I have responded in the Facebook discussion. I don’t think that the article gives the impression that cats are cold blooded killers. I am simply reporting on a phenomenon associated with domestic cats. Also I don’t think suggesting reasons either from visitors or from other people is a bad thing. It is called freedom of speech. And I don’t think the article affects the saving of the lives of cats. I disagree completely with you. Perhaps you are a troll. I get a few.

      Reply
      • Lmfao …that’s fucken funny..nd yes there are cats who just can’t handle the stress and are too young and inexperienced..it’s the same concept of when a mother just up and abandons them wich I’ve seen numerous times and had to hand raise a number of them. I’ve had cats all my life as well and they are not some infallible Supreme being. And the articles has no direct impact on the number of cats people are willing to rescue. That woman is obviously a cat Karen,who’s only relationships are with her cats Cuz no one wants to be around someone that can’t take a politely worded disagreement without automatically resorting to name calling. And im willing to bet even the cats try to escape and plot her demise.

        Reply
  2. Years ago, I had rescued a cat from a trucking company that I worked for. I got sick and tired of her kittens getting run over (accidentally). It took a while but I finally got her to trust me and I took her home. She was pregnant when I got her and she had her kittens in my house. The runt wasn’t doing well and I tried to help the baby but one day I heard her crunching and when I checked she had killed the baby and was eating it. I was horrified but I loved her and had her spayed as soon as the kittens were weaned. I also got her older kittens and brought them home (what a job that was! Back in the early 80’s). I never had any more problems with her after that. She was my “Buddy Girl”.

    Reply
    • Wow, great story Robin. It is nice to hear a first hand experience story of a mother cat killing and eating one of her kittens even if it is gruesome and sad. It confirms that this happens. Thanks.

      Reply
      • I know this is an old article, but I was researching mama cats killing their kittens and came across this. I was researching because about a week ago I found the mama cat eating her 3 week old kittens head. I don’t know if she killed it, I didn’t see. This was the runt of the litter of 3 kittens. The other 2 were much bigger, fat little butter balls. This evening I went outside and found her yet again eating her kittens head. This kitten was seemingly healthy. It was disturbing. We have many cats, they are well fed. We’ve been thru many kitten seasons, multiple litters each season. We put boxes out when the mamas are close to having birth so they have a place to stay w their babies and we know not to disturb their box or handle the kittens… We’ve had mamas abandon kittens for that reason. Um… Just trying to deduce reasons.. oh, she’s had 2 or 3 litters already, prior, and she was a good mama, so I wouldn’t say she was inexperienced. She doesn’t seem to be lacking in milk as I’ve seen the babies feeding multiple times a day recently, even earlier today before i found the 2nd dead kitten. We’ve separated her last kitten from her so she doesn’t kill it also. I just had a lot questions, so I was looking online.. 1-did she kill them herself? (I think most likely she did) 2- why? 3- will she kill any more of her own litters-to-come. 4- will she kill any of the other kittens we have, because we currently have about 4 other new litters and some mommas haven’t given birth yet. 5- is she okay/is something wrong w her? 6- why did she eat their head? 7- why in the world did she kill her happy little bouncy fluffy cute fat 4 week old baby? ????

        Reply
      • I know this is an old article, but I was researching mama cats killing their kittens and came across this. I was researching because about a week ago I found the mama cat eating her 3 week old kittens head. I don’t know if she killed it, I didn’t see. This was the runt of the litter of 3 kittens. The other 2 were much bigger, fat little butter balls. This evening I went outside and found her yet again eating her kittens head. This kitten was seemingly healthy. It was disturbing. We have many cats, they are well fed. We’ve been thru many kitten seasons, multiple litters each season. We put boxes out when the mamas are close to having birth so they have a place to stay w their babies and we know not to disturb their box or handle the kittens… We’ve had mamas abandon kittens for that reason. Um… Just trying to deduce reasons.. oh, she’s had 2 or 3 litters already, prior, and she was a good mama, so I wouldn’t say she was inexperienced. She doesn’t seem to be lacking in milk as I’ve seen the babies feeding multiple times a day recently, even earlier today before i found the 2nd dead kitten. We’ve separated her last kitten from her so she doesn’t kill it also. I just had a lot questions, so I was looking online.. 1-did she kill them herself? (I think most likely she did) 2- why? 3- will she kill any more of her own litters-to-come. 4- will she kill any of the other kittens we have, because we currently have about 4 other new litters and some mommas haven’t given birth yet. 5- is she okay/is something wrong w her? 6- why did she eat their head? 7- why in the world did she kill her happy little bouncy fluffy cute fat 4 week old baby? ????

        Reply
        • It is a mystery! Are u sure that the second kitten that she ‘killed’ was not already dead? I know they were seemingly healthy but I wonder. When cats eat prey they start at the head. Has there been a change in the environment from her perspective which might have stressed her?

          Reply
          • I find this very disturbing but interesting. I have a feral cat, whom has had many litters in my backyard. This most recent litter, she had in my heated doghouse. They are 1 week and then all of sudden the doghouse heat went off in the middle of the night due to a socket had tripped due to snow. the temp went down to 35 degrees. I made the mistake of trying to heat the doghouse up quickly with a doghouse heater and she moved the kittens to another heated cat home, I built for our other feral cats. I know it was stupid, but I attempted to move one kitten back to the doghouse where it was previously, and the mother didnt like it and grabbed the kitten and dropped him in the snow. I picked him up out of the snow and put him back in where she put the other kittens. I went out for a little while and when I returned home I found the kitten decapitated. I was in horror shock. She killed the kitten, and i believe it was for the reasons you stated where the nest had been disturbed. I hope she doesn’t harm the others.

            Reply

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