If your female cat is expecting a litter of sweet kittens, you might be horrified to find out that mother cats will sometimes eat their kittens. We know that this can be a distressing thing to think about or contemplate your cat doing.
But this is an extremely rare event and not something that most pet parents will ever have to worry about.
By learning more about this uncomfortable topic, we can find out why a cat might feel the urge to eat one of her kittens. The good news is that if you notice any of the warning signs, then you can safely remove a kitten from the litter and speak to your veterinarian for advice on what to do next.
The scientific term for an animal eating their own young is “infanticide,” and it’s been well documented as part of the natural cycle of life for many different animals. Hamsters, pigs, birds, primates, fish, and big cats like lions will all occasionally eat their own young.
Science shows us that it can help benefit the parent animal by increasing their access to limited food resources, providing additional nutrition, and preventing predators, as well as increasing reproductive success in large cats if a female kills a solo kitten to focus on having another, larger litter later on.
Many of these studies focus on the reasons for infanticide in wild animal populations. Even though cats have been domesticated for thousands of years, they still share plenty of the instincts of wild animals.
Before we take a look at the reasons that a mother cat might sometimes eat her kittens, there is one post-birth behavior that’s normal, and you don’t need to worry if you see your cat doing this.
Cats chewing the kitten’s umbilical cord and eating the afterbirth is normal
A mother cat will often chew the umbilical cord of her kittens to sever it. She will chew it off around 1 inch from the kitten’s body. If she’s having trouble, you can tie dental floss around the cord, then cut the cord with sharp scissors, leaving the floss between it and the kitten’s body.
Some mother cats will also eat the placenta, or after birth. The placenta can provide essential nutrients to help a cat regain her strength and produce plenty of milk for her babies.
This is good mama cat behavior, and seeing this certainly doesn’t mean your mother cat is thinking about eating her babies.
Now, let’s take a look at the rare scenarios where a mother cat might indeed consider eating a kitten.
Kitten was stillborn
If one of your cat’s kittens is stillborn, then her instincts will kick into play and tell her that to keep herself safe from predators, she needs to remove the body to give herself and her other kittens a chance of surviving.
As well as attracting predators, a stillborn kitten in the wild poses a hygiene risk to the rest of the kittens if it’s left near the surviving kittens.
So, while your fluffy queen doesn’t have to worry about predators while she’s in your kitchen, her instincts haven’t quite caught up with reality. If your cat does have a litter that includes a stillborn kitten, you can gently remove it, allowing your cat to see you doing so.
Your veterinarian will be able to advise you on the best way to dispose of the little kitten’s body.
Kitten has birth defects
While a kitten may look normal to you, a mother cat can often sense if a kitten has birth defects. She may realize that the kitten won’t survive long, and she will eat it to prevent the problem of having a dead kitten attract predators.
More normal behavior in the case of a kitten with an illness or birth defect is that your cat may remove it from the litter and concentrate on taking care of the rest of her babies. While this may seem cruel, it’s an evolutionary behavior to ensure the survival of the rest of the litter.
If you see your cat removing one kitten repeatedly or ignoring its attempts to feed, it’s best to gently remove this kitten yourself and speak to your vet about hand-rearing it instead. If the mother cat has rejected the kitten, it can be difficult to persuade her to accept it back into the litter.
Your cat feels threatened or stressed
Cats are sensitive creatures, and this will only increase as your cat prepares to give birth. Loud noises, sudden changes in the environment, or too many people crowding your cat as she births her litter are all factors that will increase the amount of stress that your cat is under.
If your cat feels that these perceived threats and stressors aren’t going away, her survival instincts may kick in and tell her that she’s at risk from predators, and instead, she may choose to eat her young to give herself a chance of survival. Young female cats with kittens are more likely to suffer from high-stress levels.
And yes, your cat may think that your normally friendly pet dog peering into her nest is predatory behavior.
You should take steps to reduce the stress that your cat may feel as she prepares to give birth by making sure you’ve set aside a quiet and secure spot for her to have her kittens. Limit visitors (even family members) until the kittens are a little older, or your cat seems happy and safe in her surroundings.
Don’t move your cat’s nest to a different place simply because it’s more convenient for you. Remember that she will have spent time and energy locating the place in your house where she feels safest. Moving her and her kittens is a sure-fire way to increase stress for some mother cats, depending on their temperament.
Clues that your cat feels threatened can be that she starts pacing, moving the kittens, or hissing. Take the time to work out how you can make her feel more secure.
Your cat is severely malnourished
A cat who doesn’t have enough body fat or isn’t eating enough nutrients to support her kittens may decide to eat them, especially if she doesn’t have a large litter. She will instinctively know that she can’t support them or produce enough milk to prevent them from dying.
A female cat in this position may choose to eat one or two kittens to provide nutrients for herself and ensure the survival of her remaining kittens in the meantime.
To prevent this scenario, make sure your female cat has plenty of nutritionally balanced food before and after she gives birth. Your vet can advise you on the best type and amount of food to make sure she can take care of her kittens without losing health herself.
If your female cat seems to get very thin as she’s nursing her kittens, ask your vet about a phone consultation or home visit rather than subject her to the stress of a trip to the veterinary clinic. You may need to increase her rations or bottle-feed some of the kittens to supplement their nutrition.
Your cat has mastitis
Mastitis is an infection of the mammary glands that can cause extreme pain when your cat is trying to nurse her kittens. It can also put kittens at risk of infection when they do manage to drink milk. To reduce the pain, a cat may abandon her kittens or eat them. In the wild, this would eventually cure mastitis because her milk production will dry up.
If you suspect that your cat may have mastitis, then schedule a consultation with your veterinarian right away before it gets worse. Usually, antibiotics will help clear up the infection.
What to do if your female cat eats her kittens?
Whatever you do, don’t punish her. She’s just following an evolutionary instinct that’s telling her this course of action is the best way to ensure her survival and that of her other kittens. It doesn’t make her a bad mother, and she’s only doing what she thinks best.
If you suspect that your cat did eat one of her kittens, then speak to your vet immediately, and they can help you figure out why she may have done it and what you can do to protect her remaining litter.
Make sure you’re providing everything your cat needs to feel safe, secure, and strong enough to take care of her kittens.
We hope that by outlining the main reasons that a mother cat can eat her kittens, we’ve increased your knowledge and understanding of this subject.
Remember that this is rare behavior for mother cats, and it’s likely that your cat will give birth to her kittens and bring them all up successfully.
Paying attention to any of the warning signs we’ve listed above, as well as making sure your cat is well nourished and feeling secure, are ways that you can help ensure a healthy litter of kittens, as well as a healthy mother cat.
Featured image credit: Azami Adiputera, Shutterstock