A mother’s love transcends species. So, when your cat loses a kitten, they may act a bit different than usual as they adjust to life without their baby.
Mother cats (also known as a queen) will lick the dead kitten believing that it is just sleeping. In other cases, the mother may take the dead kitten to their human parent or bury it. And in a twist that may seem almost unfeeling, the mother may eat the dead kitten.
A study called the Companion Animal Mourning Project by the ASPCA, carried out in 1996, found that there were signs of grieving in cats. But before we delve into the signs of grieving, here is what to expect when a mother cat loses a kitten.
Keep in mind that different cats behave differently. Some cat owners have said their cats completely went off the remainder of the litter and refused to care for them. Others have reported the queen getting quickly distracted and moving on to caring for the rest of the litter.
Below are some of the typical reactions you can expect.
1. The Cat Will Bury Its Kitten
Cats are prolific diggers, so when their kitten dies, one of the things that come naturally is burying it.
This is a protective measure that instinctively comes to the cat to keep itself safe from predators. In the wild, the cat will bury the kitten to keep predators from tracking it down. The dead kitten attracts predators, especially scavengers.
Here is the underlying reason for this self-preservation behavior: Dogs care about who they are with, while cats care more about protecting their turf and where they are. The buried kitten is less likely to smell and attract attention.
You will find the dead kitten in the place where the cat prefers to dig in. Some will bury the kitten in the garden which may be their favorite digging spot. Or you can find the little one in the cat’s litter box.
2. It Will Lick the Kitten to Revive It
Licking the dead kitten is to ascertain whether the little one is asleep or dead.
Usually, when the kitten is immobile, the mother cat licks it to get it to respond. Licking is another instinctive behavior in queens that begins immediately after the kitten is born.
It will lick the newborn kitten to clean it, stimulate breathing and remove fluid from the kitten’s lungs.
So, when the kitten is dead, the mom will keep licking it, expecting to stimulate breathing. Not only will it lick the dead kitten, but the mother cat will also cuddle it as well, waiting for it to respond.
The cat will continually lick the kitten for an extended period until it eventually accepts the kitten is not going to respond.
Now, don’t be disappointed in the cat. It only abandons the dead kitten to take care of the remaining live ones.
3. It Will Alert the Pet Parent
Alerting you to the condition of their kitten is the ultimate request for help. The cat is not sure what is going on and wants you to fix it.
That is not a common occurrence, but it happens in some cases where the mother cat trusts their parent completely. You are their surrogate family, and you can help them revive their kitten.
The mother cat is entrusting her kitten with you expecting you to keep them both safe.
4. It Will Abandon the Kitten
You may come across the dead kitten left abandoned as the seemingly uninterested mother goes on to tend to the living kittens. The queen has to continue to tend to the remainder of her litter, and to do so, she has to remove the dead one to create space.
It is a practical approach that to humans may seem devoid of feeling, but that is actually good mothering on the part of the queen.
5. It Will Eat the Kitten
Eating the dead kitten doesn’t make your cat a bad mother. Unfortunately, some kittens will not survive after birth. And your cat will eat them to get the nutrients that allow her to continue nursing the other surviving kittens in her litter.
That happens more often with malnourished cats that did not receive enough nutrients during and after pregnancy.
Does the mother cat only eat kittens that have died of natural causes?
No. Sometimes the mother cats may do the killing before eating the dead kitten (s).
Here are four more reasons why a cat will eat her dead kitten.
i) Mercy Killing
In this case, the kitten or the entire litter may be in inevitable danger of being eaten by predators. The mother cat will kill the kittens to prevent them from becoming another animal’s meal.
Unfortunately, the threat can be real or perceived. That means your cat and her litter may actually be in real danger, or they just view everyone and everything as a threat. She may even see you as a threat.
The fear of the unknown can cause stress, and a stressed animal may eat kittens from their litter to stay safe.
ii) To Provide
Your cat may have a very big litter and is unable to provide milk for every kitten. So, they may kill some kittens to ensure that they have enough milk for the remaining members of the litter.
iii) Survival for the Fittest
Eating her stillborn kittens is second nature to your cat. It is a case of survival of the fittest as your cat needs to live, and the kitten is a means to that end. If it is dead, it makes another meal.
Interestingly, a domesticated cat will often not eat healthy kittens. But their feral counterparts may attack healthy kittens in their litter to survive, especially when the food supply is low.
Also, labor can be extremely difficult, and the mother cat expends a lot of energy. To replenish themselves, the cat may eat one of its newest family members plus the placenta.
iv) First-Time Mothers
First-time queens may have a delay in bonding with their kittens because of delayed production of prolactin. Prolactin is the hormone that can help with breastfeeding and bonding the mother cat and her kittens together. When it is not produced, the mother cat may feel disassociated from the kitten, and as a result, it may turn on them.
The Feelings Mother Cats Experience With Dead Kittens
Animal behaviorists have differing opinions about how cats behave when they experience loss. Those opposing the argument that cats mourn, offer the reason that felines are not pack animals, so they are not social.
On the other hand, proponents believe that since cats feel and have emotional attachments to people and other pets, they also feel the pain of experiencing loss.
So, who is right and who is wrong?
Well, remember the Companion Animal Mourning Project I earlier mentioned? The answer lies in that study which produced the following findings:
- At least 46% of felines in the study experienced a reduction in appetite after the death of a fellow feline companion
- 70% of the cats showed a noticeable change in their vocal patterns, including meowing more than usual or growing quieter after the death
- Some cats suffered from insomnia while others overslept
- Some cats became more protective and clingier to their owners
- Other cats changed where they slept in the house
Now, these findings are related to a cat losing a family pet, but they can also be manifested when your cat loses its kitten(s). That is why a cat keeps licking her kitten to revive it, buries it, or brings it to you for help.
Cat experts believe that there are three stages to the cat’s grieving process.
- Vocalization, searching, or pacing (Some mother cats will search for their kitten for weeks on end)
- Lack of interest in the ongoings around the cat’s environment
- Acceptance of the death
Some queens can experience hair loss because of overgrooming or self-comforting by grooming too much. That happens especially when the kitten was a bit grown and had already developed a bond with the mother.
For a mother cat, the grieving period lasts a few days to weeks as she quickly becomes consumed by caring for the remainder of the litter. Mourning occurs when the cause of death is a predator-related or unexpected death.
If the cat killed her kitten, she will not mourn.
Reasons for Death of Kittens
Now we know why mother cats kill their kittens but that is not the sole reason for the death of the little ones. Typically, pedigree cats have a higher number of kitten deaths compared to non-pedigree cats.
Kittens that die unexpectedly suffer from what is known as the fading kitten syndrome. This refers to the failure of the kitten to thrive, and it is not confined to one particular disease.
There can be many underlying issues that contribute to this syndrome, including human error in raising the kittens, environmental reasons, parasites, infections, or congenital defects.
Below are some of the factors behind fading kitten syndrome:
This typically happens if a kitten finds its way outside the house and gets hit or hurt with a blunt object. The types of trauma likely to happen to a kitten include being hit by a car, falling off a tree or high platform, or being hit with a ball.
Their skeletal frame is not yet developed, and so even a small bump is enough to cause the kitten a lot of damage.
Kittens are more likely to ingest toxic substances because their adventurous nature can make them experiment with anything they come across. Some of the toxins known to be most accessible to kittens include:
Human medication: Pets tend to have a higher sensitivity to most of the prescription medication we buy over the counter. I can’t tell you how many times I have forgotten painkillers like Ibuprofen on the table only to jump when I see my tabby sniffing at them.
Ibuprofen and other similarly constituted anti-inflammatory medication will cause kidney damage and intestinal/stomach ulcers.
Acetominophen medication like Tylenol is extremely toxic to cats because they result in a quick death of the kitten. Unfortunately, like my Ibuprofen, Tylenol is one of the most likely drugs to be ingested by a kitten.
House plants: Kittens love to nibble on green plant matter and, in some cases, even flowers. One of the flowers that are readily available in many homes is lilies. And lilies are can cause severe kidney damage, which quickly leads to failure.
Azaleas cause vomiting, severe diarrhea, or put your kitten in a coma. They also cause death.
Daffodils, on the other hand, damage the heart and cause convulsions. Tulips have a similar effect on cats.
Household cleaners: Household cleaners like bleach cause respiratory and stomach problems.
Unfortunately, it is much easier for kittens to find household products and insecticides because we tend to store them in low-lying cabinets. Unless the cabinet is secure, you run the risk of poisoning your pets, including kittens.
Rodent poison: It is a poisonous substance that is meant to kill the offending rodents, but it will also impact cats or kittens when they ingest the dead rat.
In the colder months, it is very common for kittens that find themselves away from the litter to die from the cold. A kitten cannot regulate their body temperature, so they rely on their mother and the environment to keep them warm.
When they move away from the mother’s body and encounter freezing temperatures, they cannot survive the dipping body temperatures.
Low Sugar Levels
Low sugar levels in the kitten result in hypoglycemia, which means the kitten doesn’t have enough energy to do basic things like breathing and moving towards warmth. Ultimately, the kitten may experience seizures, go into a coma and die.
Hard Labor and Birth Issues
Kittens born after a difficult birthing process are more likely to die.
That is because during the process, they are at high risk of lacking oxygen or experiencing trauma as the queen strains to bring them forth.
Some breeds like flat-faced Persian experience more issues while birthing.
Some of the issues include kittens born with different blood types from their mom dying because of the antigens reacting. This condition is known as Neonatal Isoerythrolysis (NI) or Hemolytic Icterus.
Low Birth Weight
Some kittens are unfortunately born with low birth weight. These become more susceptible to hypothermia, respiration infections, and complete failure of the respiratory system. Congenital diseases and maternal malnutrition also contribute heavily to a low birth rate.
While in the womb, anything that may result in poor blood supply to the placenta will cause the kitten to be born with low birth weight.
The normal weight for a newborn kitten is between 90 and 100 grams only. Then a one-month kitten gets to one pound, a two-month-old should be two pounds, and a three-month-old should be three pounds.
You see the pattern here? A kitten’s weight is typically equal to its age in months until it gets to six months.
Alternatively, you can keep adding 100 grams to the kitten’s weight every week to monitor if they have the right weight for their age. But the most reliable way to weigh your cat is to have a scale at home
That makes it easier to tell if your kitten is not gaining weight which can lead to poor development. A kitten born with a birth weight of fewer than 75 grams is at a higher risk of death.
The less hygienic the kitten’s environment, the more susceptible they are to infections. The environment may be peppered with intestinal worms, which cause the kitten not to thrive and develop, leaving it weak and unable to survive. Some of the worms found in unhygienic environments include roundworms and hookworms.
Feline Leukemia Virus
Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) is lethal, especially for cats with compromised immune systems like kittens. It is transmitted through saliva and bites, urine and feces, ingesting milk from an infected queen, or during birth.
The virus further suppresses the kitten’s already underdeveloped immune system and also causes anemia. That leaves the kitten susceptible to all types of infections that can prove fatal.
Unfortunately, the communicability of this disease can mean that your queen may lose her entire litter.
General Symptoms of Fading Kitten Syndrome
Early signs include:
- Poor nursing or complete lack of interest in nursing
- Constant whining
- Sleeping separately from the rest of the litter
- Less elastic skin
If you notice these signs with your kitten, make sure that you quickly get it to a vet to discover the underlying issue. Also, the vet will provide supportive care for secondary symptoms.
What to Do with A Mother Cat with Dead Kittens
The most you can do is to be there for the cat but allow the cat to set the agenda. Do not be too forceful in your process of helping your cat deal with the loss. Here are a few tips to consider:
a) Give Her Some Space
Your cat needs to get used to not having the dead kitten around. She will come around even if it takes a couple of weeks. Just like the human mourning process is individual and gradual, so it is for your feline friend.
Do her the courtesy of giving her the time and space to mourn her little one until she is ready to move on. She will come around in time. Not your time but hers.
b) Spend Quality Time
Yes, your queen is still looking for its lost kitten. But there are pockets of time when she is not searching.
Make use of these times by stroking her, groom her, and even initiating a little play.
Remember, you are her surrogate family, and getting comfort from you helps forget her pain, even momentarily.
Cats love attention which helps them thrive. Spending quality time helps to distract the cat and eventually leads it back to normal life before the kitten died.
You can consider bringing in a new distracting toy to offer a better distraction. This is the time to pull out all the stops in making your cat happy. These are the things that can help to lift the queen out of her gloom.
c) Clean Up
You need to clear the dead kitten away from the mother cat’s space for two reasons: it is hygienic, and it helps kick start the grieving process if the queen is to experience it. That is especially crucial if the kitten dies during the weaning period.
During the weaning period, a deeper bond develops between the queen and her litter. After all, the mother has been cleaning, feeding, and even helping the little one to poop for quite some time now. The kitten is socialized to be around the mother and the rest of the litter and vice versa.
Losing a kitten when the bond has formed may cause the mother cat to become visibly upset. That can be denoted by yowls, listlessness, hiding away, moving slowly, or oversleeping.
Cleaning the environment where the kitten was may help the queen to begin to move on. You can even change the room where the cat and the rest of the litter sleep.
If your cat loves play dates, consider arranging one for her.
Having other cats over may help distract your feline from feeling lost. Plus, another feline companion can do more good than even you could. If you don’t have a feline companion for a play date, even someone in your family or friends stopping by will offer some variety that your cat will appreciate.
e) Medical Therapy
Sometimes your cat needs more than you can give. A little medical therapy will help if your cat is experiencing a prolonged grieving process. Vets may offer some medication to help your cat regain their balance and get right.
The good news is that cats tend to tolerate most of the modern antidepressants and antianxiety drugs well. The worst side effects may be gastrointestinal upsets like vomiting, stomach aches, or diarrhea. Other effects, like lethargy, may disappear after the first week.
But look out for seizures, inflammation of the liver, and other severe signs of toxicity. Sometimes you may have to leave your queen on the medication for a while until she becomes stable.
Stability comes in the form of fewer instances of overgrooming, eating better, sleeping normally, and no unexpected aggression.
Expect some trial and error from the vet until they find the best solution for your cat.
Empathy will help you understand what a mother cat does with dead kittens. Your cat needs you when they are at their worst. After all, she makes a great companion when at her best. She deserves a bit more TLC when her chips are down, and it doesn’t get more down than a dead kitten.
Also, consider the fact that your cat may not be the only one in mourning. Maybe you feel a bit sad as well. Face it, the dead kitten was adorable, and you may have gotten attached to it, seeing as it needed extra help coping with living.
Understandably, you are sad about its death. So maybe you and your cat can find solace in each other. No one understands your cat’s feelings better than you.
Allow me to point this out once more: You are her surrogate family. And who better to hold you when you lose your kitten than family.
Writer: Mercy Nandika Amatieku