River doted on her newborn kitten. It was almost as though she knew that the not-so-tiny “singleton” was her last shot at motherhood before being spayed. She savored every second of it, and Li’l One grew bigger and more beautiful.
Then, around 4 weeks later, Kathie, River’s human, found a gaping wound on the back of the kitten’s neck. Li’l One went to the vet, was treated with antibiotics and was separated from her mom. Kathie and the vet did everything they could to save the kitten. But the infection had gone too deep — Li’l One died at the end of the week.
River grew very depressed. She didn’t understand why her baby had been taken from her or her part in it. The humans involved didn’t understand it completely themselves. River had been such a loving mom to Li’l One in the beginning. What had driven her to harm her pride and joy?
Since ancient Egypt, cats have been associated with motherhood. They are utterly wrapped up in — and fiercely protective of — their kittens. We’ve all seen or heard how females in feral cat colonies often nurse each other’s kittens. Frequently, these cats are related. Or, as John Bradshaw writes in his book Cat Sense, “Cat society is based on females from the same family.”
But he doesn’t believe that the queens in a colony are “consciously helping each other. Rather, many female cats, especially those with kittens, seem not to distinguish between their offspring and those of other cats with whom they are already friendly; in the wild, these are most likely their own daughters and sisters — cats they have known and trusted their entire lives.”
These female cats work together for the common good, the kittens who will keep their tribe/particular genes going. The queens strive “to monopolize the best sites for dens in which the kittens can be born and to stay as close as possible to the best places to find food.” And they fight off marauding tomcats like furry little Amazons.
The Maternal Urge
Only problem is, not all female cats have that strong maternal urge. Or sometimes, as in River’s case, something happens to it.
I saw one recently rescued feral cat abandon her kitten at birth. Now, the kitten was unusually large, and there was a lot of blood; presumably, the birth was a traumatic one. Or maybe she was simply played out (this was not, I had been told, her first litter). All I know is that she looked at that kitten with total indifference.
Some queens will take it up a few notches and kill and/or eat their kittens. There could, as blogger Sarah Hartwell points out, be something wrong with the kittens, and “[t]he mother simply does not want to waste time or energy in raising kittens that have little chance of survival. In addition, she … may eat all or part of some of these kittens in an attempt to recoup some of those losses (just as she eats placentas) and to dispose of ‘carrion’ that could potentially lead predators to her nest.”
Don’t think that this just happens with feral or barn cats. The breeders of purebred cats sometimes find themselves confronted with the same issue and have to separate kittens from their moms as early as 3 weeks.
The important thing here — apart from getting the kittens safely away, that is — is to avoid demonizing the mother. Writer Anne S. Moore tells the story of a breeder who had a queen euthanized as “punishment” for eating her babies: “The cat was quite nice in other respects and would have made a lovely pet for somebody. Do not blame the cat if its instincts go awry.”
Feline Postpartum Depression
Actually, there’s not much written on the subject. We don’t, as someone pointed out in an online discussion, “really understand it in humans. … Whether animals can suffer postpartum depression depends on how you define postpartum depression. Technically speaking, the current clinical definition only applies to humans, so a clinician’s answer would be ‘no.’”
But one woman in the same forum talked about how her affectionate young female cat turned into a little ghost-cat after her kittens were born: “I can’t give her a cuddle now, she just walks away … or hear her purr, just feel it in her chest.”
Another person who worked in a shelter had dealt with a mother cat who “went from very sweet to psycho kitty” in nanoseconds, and this was after her kittens had been taken away so that they could be socialized. The cat’s hormones finally settled down after spaying, and she reverted to “her sweet self.”
After losing her own babies, this cat adopted rescued kittens:
Dr. Thomas Morganti of the Avon Veterinary Clinic in Connecticut doesn’t see why postpartum depression should apply only to humans. “As the kittens are weaned, the oxytocin levels drop because the mother’s not nursing anymore. And oxytocin is ‘the hormone of love.’” He believes that postpartum depression “happens in all species. It’s just that the changes are subtle. Somebody else might not notice it, but you might in your own cat.”
It would also explain River’s behavior, Kathie feels. “You find a lot of women suffer from postpartum depression in different degrees. I’m sure cats suffer it, too. The hormones are there. Where do they go? Something has to happen to them.” River, like the shelter cat in the discussion group, has mellowed considerably since her milk dried up and is more like “the sweet, lovable, not-so-needy cat” that she was before Li’l One’s birth. “She’s out of her funk.”
We make a lot of assumptions about feline behavior, and this is one area that really calls out for exploring. Hopefully, someone will take that step.