Do All Cats Have Maternal Instincts?

Lots of animals reproduce and seem to know what to do with their offspring right after giving birth. Cats also seem to carry this instinct.

Moonlight and her daughter Sunrise. By: T.J. Banks
Moonlight and her daughter Sunrise. By: T.J. Banks

Our Phoebe is an earth mother cat. She had had at least one litter when I found her hanging around a little antiques shop, but they’d all vanished, according to the woman there. Coyoted, probably.

Months later, we adopted 2 abandoned kittens, and our fluffy, friendly little cat morphed into Mama Phoebe. The little tabby boys more than took the place of the kittens she’d lost.

One day I brought them to the vet for their vaccinations. Phoebe came running into the room as soon as we got back. She checked the boys over anxiously. Even Derv Jr., whom she was less fond of — Cheshire was her pride and joy — got a thorough sniffing over.

Since then, Phoebe has taken a paw in raising just about every kitten that has come through in my home, playing with them, breaking up fights and chasing off any bigger cat who tries to bully them.

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A couple of summers ago, my son Zeke was fostering kittens. They were at that tromping-through-their-dishes stage, and one of them began walking over me with clammy kitten-food paws. I swore loudly, and the partly ajar door creaked open a little farther.

Phoebe stood there glaring at me. You don’t talk to kittens like that, her green eyes snapped.

That Old Maternal Feeling

The mother feeling has been strong in most of the cats I’ve known.

Because of some complications, Dawnie, my red Abyssinian, ended up giving birth at the vet’s office. “I knew Dawn was going to be a good mother when she heard the dogs barking and crouched over the kitten,” Tom, my veterinarian, told me later by phone.

Moonlight and son.
Moonlight and son. Do all cats have maternal instincts?

I’ve seen cats share babysitting duties, even nursing each other’s kittens — and not just barn cats. Moonlight, my lilac Abyssinian, once fostered a Cornish Rex kitten from another cattery.

Cats that have given birth often show this instinct, too. My Cricket mothered everything from her toy soccer balls to a couple of younger kittens. Then Zeke came along.

Cricket took it upon herself to play governess. She’d drag her toys around outside his playpen to amuse him, or maybe she was to teach him how to play-hunt. She’d supervise his bath, chasing away any other cat who tried to get in on the act. After all, this was her baby.

Slackers and Nightmare Moms

That’s not to say that ALL female cats have this instinct.

The late Mary Ellen Hape, who owned Singin cattery in upstate New York, used to tell me how some of her Abyssinians would dump their kittens off with other females as soon as possible.

And Fey, our Somali, views all of our foster kittens with a “been there, done that” expression.

Then there are the horror stories of mother cats eating their own kittens.  Fortunately, these monster moms seem to be exceptions to the rule. The theory is that they are usually not much more than kittens themselves, overwhelmed and unsure of what to do.

Interestingly enough, Judy Levy, director of Animal Friends of Connecticut, tells me that in 30 years of rescuing cats, many of them feral, she has never come across that particular horror. What she has seen is a testament to the powerful bond between mother cats and their offspring.

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Reuniting Mom and Kittens

Animal Friends of Connecticut recently rescued a black cat whose tail had been burned. She was immediately taken to a nearby emergency veterinary clinic, and her 5 kittens were found 5 days later huddled in a window well. They were brought to the clinic. As soon as their mom “heard them crying, she jumped up and wanted to get to them,” Levy recalls. “As soon as they were put in with her, her motherly instinct kicked in, and she started washing them and nursing them and washing them.”

Phoebe would understand. The other night I bathed Freya, one of our foster kittens, then wrapped her up in a towel and handed her over to Zeke. After a while, though, she got tired of being held and squirmed her way to freedom.

When I found her, she was curled up on my bed nestled against Mama Phoebe, who had the most beatific look on her face.

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