Phoebe had had 1 litter of kittens before she came to live with us. I knew that much from talking with the woman at the shop where I found her. I also knew that every single one of those kittens had vanished — probably picked off by predators.
Phoebe got spayed and settled into her new life, but her maternal urges never went away. That fall, we brought 2 abandoned male kittens home: Phoebe adopted them immediately. She couldn’t nurse them, but she washed them, checked them over anxiously when I brought them back from the vet and behaved as though she’d given birth to them herself.
Since then, Phoebe has taken varying degrees of interest in every kitten that has come through here, teaching litter-box etiquette and the basics of purring. She once even beat up another cat who was bullying her favorite foster kitten.
A couple of my other females are retired breeders who had more litters than Phoebe ever did. And yet a whole battalion of kittens could pass by them, and they wouldn’t even twitch their tails. Wherein lies the difference?
Cats have symbolized motherhood since the time of Bastet, the cat-headed goddess of ancient Egypt.
Bastet was, according to Georgie Anne Geyer, “so holy that she had ties to the Virgin birth and perhaps, in the long scale of things, even to the Virgin Mary … In short, Bastet was not only the goddess of sexuality festivals but she was also the embodiment of the idea of ‘virgin motherhood,’ which has appeared with such startling regularity in cultures far removed from one another across the globe.”
The reasons for this? Cats are, of course, very fertile, as too many shelters and rescue groups can attest. They also tend to be devoted mothers. Every once in a while, a queen wants absolutely nothing to do with her kittens; however, that’s the exception rather than the rule. Most female cats are fiercely protective of their litters.
Until the kittens get older, that is. Sometime after the 12th or 13th week, the queen usually begins to lose interest. By then, the kittens are weaned and socialized, and nature is prodding her, telling her it’s time to get started on her next litter.
Mothers by Choice
There are some female cats who will kidnap another queen’s kittens and try to raise them as their own. The foster-mother urge, however, frequently has its roots in grief: a queen loses her kittens, and her “maternal instincts are frustrated,”
On this, Sarah Hartwell writes, “Often she goes looking for her lost kittens, apparently heartbroken and crying for them to come to her. Having failed to find her own offspring, she may look for substitute kittens to rear.”
Sometimes the adoptees are more than a little surprising. A cat with what Hartwell calls “good maternal instincts” will not limit herself to kittens: puppies, rabbits, and creatures she might normally consider prey are all acceptable adoption options.
Once a cat has given birth, her “hunting instincts are partly suppressed so she rears the kittens rather than eating them,” Hartwell says. This same policy extends to her non-feline charges — at least until everybody’s weaned.
Female wild cats will also do this. Between 2003 and 2004, Saba Douglas-Hamilton filmed a lioness named Kamunyak (“Blessed One”) in the Samburu National Reserve in Northern Kenya. That documentary, “Heart of a Lioness,” chronicled Kamunyak’s continued attempts to raise oryx calves on her own.
Curiously, the lioness would not hunt when she was in mother mode and became extremely gaunt during those times. And when one of the calves was killed by a lion, Kamunyak’s agitation and grief were very real.
Check out this amazing story of a cat and her multi-species brood:
The Mothering Instinct Lives
Getting spayed doesn’t kill a strong mothering instinct — in fact, some females maintain it their entire lives.
Writer Caryn Anderson tells the story of Key, an American shorthair, who “was spayed around her 4th year, after successfully giving birth to a litter of kittens. After her spaying, she continued to clean, lick and nurture every kitten who crossed her path.”
Phoebe gets that. At 11, she can sometimes be a little testy with her grown-up adoptive children. But she still grooms and looks after them, even though most of them are much bigger than she is now.
She is, as the saying goes, all mother.