Mum’s the World: Exploring the Relationship Between Kittens and Their Mothers

Our mothers are a big influence in our lives and it’s no different for our cats! This Mother’s Day we take a closer look at the relationship between feline mothers and their kittens and why it is so important for a kitten’s normal development.

A mother cat has significant influence over her kittens developing normal cat behaviours.

Like many animals, kittens learn many key skills through observation and for kittens raised by their mother, she is usually their first teacher. An example of learning in this way can be during interactions with people. If the mother cat shows calm and positive behaviours towards people, her kittens will observe her and often learn to respond to people in the same way.

As well as behavioural development, close contact with their mothers also helps a kitten’s normal emotional development. Again, if a mother behaves in a calm and positive way around people, this has been found to reduce anxiety in her kittens and encourages them to interact with people. Research studies have also found that confidence in kittens grows when they are accompanied by their siblings during initial interactions with people. Kittens that are deprived of having any close contact with their mothers during the first 8 weeks of their lives have also been found to be at a higher risk of developing fearful or aggressive responses to other cats, as well as showing impaired learning abilities.

Such is the bond between mother and kitten that being separated from their mothers and siblings has been found to cause significant distress for young kittens, regardless of whether they are in a familiar or unfamiliar place. If they are taken to an unfamiliar place, then having their mother or siblings with them helps to reduce their distress. An example of this might be a visit to the veterinary clinic for vaccinations or neutering.

Avoiding separation distress in kittens is therefore important. But how can we help reduce kitten distress caused by separation from their mother?

The following are some practical tips to try!

  • When kittens need to go to the veterinary clinic for health checks and vaccinations, they should be transported together and where possible, their mother should go on this trip too (particularly when the kittens are very young, although it may be safer to transport her in a separate carrier depending on the age of the kittens and how the mother responds to travelling).
    • This advice is the opposite of how adult cats should be transported – separate carriers should always be used for each adult cat.
    • If a mother gets very distressed however, when travelling, it may be better to leave her at home as the kittens may learn from her to be scared of travel.
  • Make sure no kitten is left on its own in the carrier during the veterinary consultation – keeping them together is ideal.
  • For kittens that have to be hand-reared, they should be kept with their siblings and not separated from one another or go to different hand-rearers. Providing kittens without their mother or other siblings with something warm to cuddle up to can provide them with comfort. Pet friendly heat pads, well covered hot water bottles or cuddly toys make good substitutes. Adding the sound of purring can also help reassure kittens. Providing a ‘mother substitute’ is important to prevent over attachment to their human carers as this can lead to behavioural issues as the kitten gets older.

Some tips for easing separation distress when rehoming kittens

  • Some kittens are re-homed as young as 8 weeks and this will likely be the first time they are separated from their mother and siblings (unless they are rehomed with one or more of their siblings). Having had their contact for the first 8 weeks of their life, suddenly not having that, coupled with a whole new environment can be very daunting. It is recommended that before kittens go to their new home, they get used to spending increasing amounts of time (initially just 1-2 minutes) away from their mother and siblings while in their current familiar location. During this time of separation, lots of positive things should occur to help the kittens associate being away from their mother and siblings as nothing to be concerned about. For example, the kitten could be played with, gently stroked or fed.
  • As well as teaching the kittens to be comfortable being separated from their siblings and mother in the week or so before they are ready to go to their new home, making sure they transition to their new home with items that smell of their mother and siblings (e.g., bedding that has been slept on) can help make this transition as least distressing as possible.
  • Kittens are all individual in their coping abilities but making changes gently and providing as much familiarity as possible will help the kittens take these changes in their stride.

This article originally appeared on iCatCare for the UK mother’s day.

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3 thoughts on “Mum’s the World: Exploring the Relationship Between Kittens and Their Mothers

  1. retrodee says:

    My Holly had kittens before we adopted her. By the time we adopted her, her kittens had already been adopted for at least several weeks. However, Holly still showed signs of motherhood. She would carry a toy mouse around with her ALL the time, like it was her baby. She would even hide it places! And if she heard kittens coming my computer or i-phone while I was watching a video, she would come running within seconds, looking around to see where the mewing was coming from! Now, over a year later, if there is mewing coming from online, she doesn’t even bat an eyelash. And she gave up carrying her mouse around months ago.

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