On Losing a Litter of Kittens: Do Mother Cats Grieve?


Anyone who has lived or worked with cats has probably heard a variation of this story: A pregnant cat comes into a shelter. When her kittens are born, the whole family contracts an upper respiratory infection — the plague of shelter life and the reason shelter and rescue workers get pregnant cats and kitty families into foster care as soon as possible — and the result is tragic.

That’s what happened to Mickey, a tuxedo cat rescued from an open-admission shelter by Los Angeles-based rescue group Cats at the Studios. A day after her kittens were born, she came down with the dreaded URI. She nursed her kittens for only one day, but that one day of exposure was enough to transmit the virus to her babies, whose undeveloped immune systems couldn’t resist the disease. Despite heroic efforts by foster caretakers, all the kittens perished while mama cat was fighting for her life in a veterinary ICU.

When Mickey recovered from her illness, she realized that her kittens were no longer there. She became depressed. If you’ve ever seen a grieving cat, you know there are few sadder things in the world, especially if the object of grief is a litter of kittens.

That’s not surprising when you think about it. Like humans, cats release a hormone called oxytocin while giving birth. It helps to facilitate birth and the flow of milk, and it also is a key component in the creation of the maternal bond. Oxytocin creates the rush of intense emotion that happens when a mother sees her baby for the first time, which is, as some mothers have told me, "the most intense love I’ve ever known."

Even if you don’t believe cats are intelligent, you’ve got to imagine that they have feelings. Even if those feelings are only what scientists refer to as "basic emotions," love is by all means a basic emotion.

Grief is also a basic emotion. I’m not talking about the kind of complicated grief we humans experience when, say, a relative with whom we had a difficult relationship dies. I’m talking simple, straight-up "someone I loved with all my heart is gone!" grief.

I’m sure it would have been only a matter of time before Mickey, weakened by her heartbreak, became sick again, if a miracle didn’t happen … but one did.

Two weeks after Mickey was rescued, Cats at the Studios got another call. A litter of four orphaned kittens needed a mother.

Volunteers united Mickey and the motherless waifs, and Mickey took to them right away. She started grooming them and allowing them to suckle, and soon enough they were bonding just as if they really were a biological family.

I’ve seen this happen before. My family’s cat, Iris, was just weaning a litter of her own when a group of young orphaned kittens needed a mom. Iris stepped right up, and within 10 minutes, she had them all groomed and purring at her milk bar.

Having been without her kittens for a couple of weeks, Mickey didn’t have much milk to offer at first, but the kittens got her going again — thanks, once again, to oxytocin, which is released when the nipples are stimulated and causes production of milk.

Everybody’s doing great now. The orphaned kittens are growing, and Mickey is healthy and in good spirits. The universe’s act of generosity toward a bereaved mama, and a mama cat’s generosity to a litter of motherless babies, have resulted in happy endings all around.

Check out the whole wonderful story of Mickey and her kittens in this video from The Pet Collective Cares:

Have you ever witnessed a mom-cat miracle like this? Do you believe that cats grieve? Let’s talk in the comments!

About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their cat advice column, Paws and Effect, since 2003. JaneA dreams of making a great living out of her love for cats.

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