Do Mother Cats Get Sad When Their Kittens Leave

It’s natural for a mother to want her children near, and to mourn when they’re separated. Sorrow is a very human feeling– do cats feel the same?

Most mother cats do miss their kittens when they are separated. The mother cat might mourn and search for their kittens, but this period will last only a few days. But the separation is completely natural and necessary, and mother cats will soon move on.

Most cats will instinctually leave their litter, anyway, and they aren’t programmed to remember or grieve their kittens the way a human mother would.

Separation

It’s natural for kittens to leave their mother. In fact, most predator animals– even those as small as a domesticated cat– will leave their mothers and start their own lives. In preparation for this separation, mother cats will wean their kittens off their milk, and teach them to hunt and fend for themselves.

Kittens should never be separated from their mother until they are fully weaned. If they’re separated before they’re ready, they may lack the necessary nutrients from their mother’s milk and may suffer malnourishment and health complications in the future. Although waiting until the kittens are 12 weeks is preferred, they can be separated at a minimum of 8 weeks, if they have been weaned. Kittens should never be separated earlier than 8 weeks.

Some kittens may be just fine; but most likely, they will suffer from life-long psychological issues. Even as an adult, these sort of early-separated cats will try to nurse on anything possible.

The early separation will hurt the mother, too– if she’s lactating but has no kitten to nurse, her mammary glands and associated hormones will be damaged.

Even when a kitten has been weaned, they will still need their mother a little longer. This period is when a kitten learns to be a cat; the mother cat will teach them to hunt and to socialize in feline social groups. This is why experts recommend leaving kittens with their mother and siblings until 12 weeks old, even 13 weeks old. A well-socialized kitten is confident, friendly, and quick to learn about its environment.

A kitten who was separated too early will most likely have poor learning skills and will display aggressive or fearful behavior.Once weaned and able to hunt for food, the kittens are old enough to leave their mother– this normally happens at around 10 to 12 weeks old. If the kittens are left with their mother long enough, the separation won’t harm the mother or kitten at all.

Rejection

In fact, if left to themselves, mother cats might even begin to drive their kittens away. She might suddenly turn cold toward them, hissing and nipping at them– this will eventually drive the kittens to leave on their own and start their own lives.

In some circumstances, a mother cat may reject her litter, even when they’re newly born. This can happen because one or more of the kittens is sick or deformed, the mother is ill or in pain, or if the litter is too large or small. New mother cats may even reject their first few litters because of the stress of motherhood.

If your cat abandons her kittens, take her and the litter to a vet to check for possible sickness or abnormalities. Your veterinarian can also advise you on bottle feeding and hand-rearing the kittens; if at all possible, your vet may also be able to help you find a nursing foster mother for the litter.

However, the longer a mother and her kittens are allowed to stay together, the longer this nest smell will continue to bond them together, and the stronger the bond grows. Feral cats will form large, social-familial groups; usually made of mothers, daughters, and their many kittens, as the adult males will leave for bigger territories. These groups will work together, hunting for food, as well as nursing and taking care of the kittens.

Once the mother and her kittens have been together for this long, it’s very traumatic and damaging to try to separate them; the separation would ruin the family’s social structure, and cause a lot of unneeded stress to the whole group.

Mourning

Kittens rely on their mother for everything– food, grooming, protection, and warmth. While she raises her kittens, a mother cat’s life is completely consumed with caring for her litter– her every waking moment is devoted to them. So it would only make sense that when such a large part of her life is suddenly taken away, she would mourn the loss.

When kittens are first taken from their mother, the mother cat may be a little upset. She may search for her babies, meowing and expecting an answer. This period will usually only last a few days, and then she gets over the loss and moves on. This may seem a little cold, but again, it’s natural– and there’s a scientific reason behind it.

Mother cats are naturally programmed to ensure their kittens survive. To survive through adulthood, kittens need to be independent. The mother cat will begin to distance herself from kittens, to make them grow less dependent on her.

When a mother cat and her kittens nest together, they share what’s called a “nest smell”. This scent marks kittens as siblings and helps the mother know what kittens belong to her. However, once the kittens are separated from their mother, the smell is quickly lost. Within a few days, kittens will lose the nest smell and gain their own unique scent.

Once the nest smell is gone, the mother cat won’t recognize her babies at all. The kitten may not recognize their mother, either. In fact, reuniting a mother with her baby after the nest smell is gone is most likely to be a stressful experience for both cats.

The separation for a mother cat and her kittens hasn’t been extensively researched. There’s no way to predict how your cat may react to being separated from her litter. Your cat may easily move on from the separation, or she may mourn. It’s common for a mourning mother cat to search the home for her kittens, meowing and calling for them.

This all depends on the cat’s personality. Just like humans, different cats will have different reactions, depending on their individual personalities. Most mother cats will mourn their kittens when separated; others may not seem to care at all. In fact, some mothers may be all too ready to get rid of their children, which may lead to them abandoning their kittens too early. And although most male cats won’t want anything to do with kittens, some have a soft spot for them and may step in as a pseudo-mother figure.

How a mother cat reacts to losing her kittens depends on her personality and experiences. An experienced, older mother who’s had many litters come and go may not react at all when separated; a newer mother may have a serious depressive period while she mourns.

Cats are well-known for hiding their feelings, but grief is something very hard to hide, and easy to spot if you know what to look for. Here are other signs of feline mourning to watch out for:

  • Listlessness
  • A decreased appetite
  • No desire to play
  • Sleeping more than usual, or insomnia
  • Slow movement, sulking
  • Choosing to be alone more than normal
  • A change in vocal patterns– meowing more or less than normal
  • More affectionate, clingy

This behaviour should fade within a few days, and the mother cat will resume her normal behaviour and return to the schedule she kept before she had the kittens. Keep an eye on the mother cat and monitor her symptoms. If she continues to act strangely, you may need to seek professional help.

How to Help

Some experts say it may help to gradually remove the kittens, instead of taking them from her all at once. This way, the mother cat has time to get used to missing kittens, instead of losing them instantly. On the other hand, this may make the separation worse, and the mother cat may become possessive and over-protective of the remaining kittens. Gradual removal will most likely prolong the mourning process, as the mother cat will mourn for each kitten as they are separated.

Remove anything that may be marked with the kittens’ scent or the nest scent. If she can still smell her kittens, the mother cat will remember to check and feed them, and she will go looking for them. Once the kittens have gone to their new homes, gradually remove anything with their scent– don’t make too many changes at once– and replace it with clean bedding. As the nest scent gradually leaves the environment around her, the mother cat will lose her instinct to search for her kittens and she will settle into her normal routine once again.

Mourning

Just like with humans, the mourning process takes time. Grief is stressful, especially for an animal as small and finely-tuned as a cat. Try to help your cat during her mourning period, but do it gently. Don’t force your attention on your cat if she doesn’t want it.

If your cat has lost her appetite, try sitting with her during mealtimes to encourage her to eat; try warming up her food to make it more appealing. Don’t try to change her diet; the change can cause her more unneeded stress. Try to keep the same routine– a sense of normalcy will help your cat begin to move on.

If her symptoms continue for more than a week or two, take her to a veterinarian. If at any time you think your cat’s symptoms are severe enough to cause her harm, especially if she refuses to eat, see a veterinary professional. Prolonged grief and stress will affect the cat’s immune system, and leave her exposed to other diseases.

A vet may be able to prescribe medicine to treat anxiety and can examine your cat for any underlying medical problems she may have. Always, always, check with your veterinarian before changing your cat’s diet or medication. If your cat refuses to eat for more than 24 hours, they risk developing feline hepatic lipidosis, a serious and potentially fatal condition– see a vet immediately.

As mentioned before, most of a mother cat’s time is spent taking care of her litter. Once the kittens are gone, she’s going to have a lot of free time. Without her kittens to occupy her, she may grow listless, losing all her energy and motivation.

Provide plenty of stimulation for your cat– help to get her mind off what she’s missing. Groom her, give her new toys. Studies have shown that reward-based training can bring cats out of depression faster than usual; teach your mother cat a few new tricks. But keep in mind that all you do should be gentle, fun, and unforced.

Consistency

Be consistent. Cats tend to keep a strict schedule and pattern of behavior; they, as a species, don’t adjust well to change. When your cat is already stressed and mourning, the last thing she needs is another drastic change– don’t do anything that might stress her further, like bring home another pet or move houses, or even something as seemingly menial as changing her brand of cat food or litter. Of course, there are times and things you have no control over. But try to be consistent with what you do have under control.

Feed your cat at the same times every day, groom and brush them, nap with them if they like to cuddle. Spend quality time with your cat, to keep her from becoming lonely and depressed. Try to remain stable, and provide plenty of time to help your cat adjust to the separation. Time, patience, and tender loving care will help her return to her normal self again.

And of course, the entire situation could be circumvented if you have your cats spayed and neutered, preferably before they are old enough to reproduce. If your cat has serious depression and anxiety after being separated from her litter, it’s likely more merciful to have her spayed and spare repeating her trauma in the future.

Rochelle

Rochelle is a self-claimed crazy cat lady and proud cat mum to Owlie! She has owned, rescued, and fostered cats throughout her whole life. Rochelle created Cats On My Mind as a hub for likeminded cat parents to get all the information they will ever need to give their fur babies their best life!

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