We’ve all seen it. A mother cat breastfeeding her newborns. But her young might be ducklings or baby hedgehogs. What is going on? Why does a cat raise a duck and why does a duckling treat a cat as his mother?
This is the formula that makes it work – provided the timing is right:
Take lions, for instance:
Sometimes lions care for cubs that are not their own. They do this because it helps them to share the workload of hunting and suckling the cubs. Effectively, the lions form a “cub creche”. Cats can have a flexible approach to child care. The same applies to domestic cats. You’ll see one mother caring and for and suckling the kittens of another mother.
Cats are a slave to their own hormones and primed to care for young animals. Any young animals.
It is a question of timing. In the case of the cat caring for ducklings or hedgehogs; a few days late and she would not take on the baby hedgehogs as her own and might have eaten them.
So, cats might adopt another species. There are two powerful instincts at work. The cat is flooded with parenting hormones during a window of opportunity and the another powerful instinct at work is the imprinting of the cat as the duckling’s mother which can happen during this window.
Imprinting occurs when a newborn recognises and is attracted to his mother or a substitute. The substitute can be another animal or an inanimate object. There is probably a limit in respect of size.