I was puttering around in my study when I heard a faint feline cry.
I didn’t make much of it at first. Finally, I turned around — and gasped. There was a wide swath of blood leading from a table to the under-the-desk lair of Madame X, the pregnant feral I was fostering.
And beneath the table was a bloodied newborn kitten.
The striped kitten was so cold, I was sure she was dead. Then she opened her mouth. I picked her up and brought her to Madame, who hissed at us both and wanted nothing to do with her baby.
Long story short: I rushed the kitten, a.k.a. Stripey, to the veterinarian to get warmed. Another Animal Friends of Connecticut volunteer helped me get Madame to the clinic for what we hoped would be a successful mother-and-child reunion. But she continued to reject the newborn, and Stripey was handed over for bottle-feeding.
This wasn’t Madame’s first litter. What had gone wrong?
Mother Cat Love
One of the most heartwarming sights imaginable is that of a queen with her newborn kits. In fact, I just recently watched a video of a cat blissfully kneading the air while her kittens nursed.
“Most cats are naturally good mothers,” writes Betty Lewis. “In most cases Mom will provide pretty intensive care for her babies during the first 3 weeks of their lives, when they’re at their most vulnerable.”
So, if you come across kittens without their mother, don’t automatically assume she has abandoned them. Feline moms are always on the lookout for new hiding places. Also, they’re more inclined to take breaks as their babies get older.
This is true of most stray and feral mothers, too. Do not scoop the kittens up right away. “If you move the kittens,” Lewis cautions, “she won’t be able to find them when she returns.”
Wait. And check to see if they are “basically clean, alert (or sleeping contentedly) and nestled close together. This is an indication that Mom is in the middle of important business and that she’ll be back soon enough.” If they look scrawny, sickly and not groomed, however, the odds are good that something has happened to Mama. Then and only then do you step in.
Love Isn’t Always on Time
Sometimes it takes time for the maternal instinct to kick in. Safra “became extremely anxious while the kitten was being born and after it was delivered,” explains Safra’s human, Claire Forrest. “She was not able to attend to it immediately. Although she looked at it and licked it momentarily, mostly she was pacing, trying to get out of the crate and looking to me with a pleading expression.”
Within 35 minutes, however, Safra had begun tending to her kitten and “behaving like a very caring, attentive mother.”
Forrest believes that Safra’s anxiety and confusion over her baby were “fueled by the intense hormonal changes that occur during and after giving birth.” Anyone dealing with a cat giving birth should be prepared for the unexpected and have Bach’s Rescue Remedy (affiliate link) and Zylkene on hand. Both are proven stress relievers.
The Medea Syndrome
Medea was a powerful sorceress in Greek mythology. When her lover, Jason, spurned her and their sons, she killed the boys to prevent them from becoming slaves.
Mom cats will sometimes pull a Medea if they think there’s some danger threatening their kits. According to blogger Sarah Hartwell, it is “a frustrated protection instinct. Unable to protect her kittens against a perceived threat, she kills them in a futile attempt at protecting them.”
Watch this heartbreaking — and ultimately uplifting — video of a cat who was born to be a mother:
Yes, occasionally, female cats do kill and even eat their kittens. This more likely happens with inexperienced mothers. They get frightened and take the kittens into their mouths to protect them, inadvertently swallowing them.
There’s also belief that queens will kill their kittens if humans handle them. Disregard it. Mother cats will move their kittens if this happens, yes — kill them, no.
Handling kittens as soon as their eyes are open is actually a good idea — it helps with their socialization. But don’t let kids handle them, as they may not realize how fragile the babies are.
Why Madame X rejected Stripey isn’t entirely clear. The birth had been traumatic. Perhaps she associated the kitten with the pain she’d endured.
Safra and Little Bit have bonded, however, and the kitten is thriving. Perhaps there are no hard-and-fast rules about mothering in the cat world any more than there are in ours.