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