View Full Version : How does a male cat recognize his offspring?

05-21-04, 02:42 AM
How does a male cat recognize his offspring?

How can he sense whether a certain offspring is not his -- and he therefore kills it?

Practical problem:
We have a situation at our house: The neigbour's cat has kittens in our shed; there were four kittens in the beginning.

There are altogether some 10 cats in our street, 3 males and 7 females (+ 2 castrated males), not counting occasional visitors.

One of the 3 males is really big and aggressive, and he wishes to rule the territory. I don't think that the kittens in our shed are his though, they don't look so.

I think he knows about them, already for a week or so, but he hasn't killed them. Yet two kittens are missing!

What is going on?

Dr Lou Natic
05-21-04, 04:06 AM
Well, going from what I know about lions, I don't think they can tell if babies are their's but they can tell if they were birthed by a female they haven't fornicated with.
How I'm not sure, probably the smell.
Male lions will kill babies they don't think are their's but sometimes aren't sure and let babies that aren't theirs live and even hassle them and share their food because to them there is a possibility the cub could be theirs.

John Connellan
05-21-04, 04:49 AM
I have heard before that it is smell. Apparently their genetics codes for a smell "fingerprint" from which the adult can derive its family line. Can't remember the reference though :(

05-21-04, 08:06 AM
then what could have happened to the other two kittens Dr Lou Natic

05-21-04, 08:10 AM
might help. As far as I know there are very few studies of domesticated cats, because they are hard to monitor, and no one really cares. The studies that I’ve seen are based on farm cats, in where a female rule and the males scamper…
I think the killing relies more on if the tom encounters a scent marking of another male in the area, not a different scent marking on a kitten.

05-21-04, 05:37 PM

Thanks for the link. Some things said in that article apply to our situation here:


Some kittens are born with abnormalities that humans cannot detect. For this reason they may not thrive, they may even act or smell 'wrong' to the queen. Where one or two kittens are either killed or abandoned, these kittens are often found to be somehow 'faulty'. The mother simply does not want to waste energy on raising kittens that have little chance of survival. In addition, she has expended a lot of energy during pregnancy and she may eat all or part of some of these kittens in an attempt to recoup some of those losses (just as she eats placentas) and to dispose of 'carrion' that could potentially lead predators to her nest. The same goes for kittens which have an illness - she can smell the problem, humans cannot.

This may be the case. When there were still all four of them, I noticed that one was smaller and much more vibrant than other kittens, and another kitten had a slightly oversized head and eyes further apart than what seems normal. -- It is these two kittens that are now gone. The two remaining ones seem very normal.

It is well known that a mother cat may kill kittens if the nest is disturbed, especially if she is confined and cannot move or hide her litter. This is attributed to a frustrated 'protection' instinct.

But this may be true as well: The cat first made her nest in an unstable place in attick of the shed, then removed them to an even less stable place, which was better hidden though. But it was more dangerous, as it was on the top of a logwood stack leaning against the shed, and two of the kittens (one of which is now missing) fell behind the stack. So we had to put away the logs to save them -- but the kittens seemed ok. We then made a new nest in a safe place in the shed, and the cat came back to the kittens and fed them. It was a day after that that two disappeared.

The mother cat is some 8 years old, and has already had many litters, and is experienced with humans around, even though she is not tame.

Sometimes she will kill the kittens because they have been handled by another person or animal. Her own scent has been obscured and she either no longer recognises them as her own or she feels threatened and unable to escape.

This is what I was fraid of. But we had to save the kittens from where they fell into, so touching them was unavoidable. But like I said, after we re-placed the nest, she did come back to the kittens.

Where several litters have been born in one colony it is not unknown for one queen (generally the more dominant one) to either kill her rival's kittens or to 'kidnap' them.

Even that could be the case, as another, very powerful cat in the neighbourhood also has kittens.

We really have a complex situation here ...

Fraggle Rocker
05-21-04, 05:59 PM
Well, going from what I know about lions, I don't think they can tell if babies are their's but they can tell if they were birthed by a female they haven't fornicated with. How I'm not sure, probably the smell.
Male lions will kill babies they don't think are their's but sometimes aren't sure and let babies that aren't theirs live and even hassle them and share their food because to them there is a possibility the cub could be theirs.Dogs are like that too. It's not a smell thing, the males just remember which females they've mated with. This from an animal that can't remember he peed on the floor ninety seconds ago and that's why you're punishing him. . . . I know, the universe loves its little jokes.

Anyway the females learned how to deal with this: When they're in heat they mate with every male the can find. That way all the males think that at least one of the puppies in the litter is theirs. Not only do they not hurt the puppies, they actually defend them. Female dogs can be really tough, going around killing each other's babies. The males stop them. They'll actually sit there with the babies while the mother goes out for exercise and keep all the other females away.

Our females even go out of their way to mate with our neutered males. (If you didn't think a castrated dog could get an erection and a tie, well like I said, the universe loves its little jokes.) That way even those males will protect the pups.

This seems to be one of the few differences that dogs have evolved since they became domesticated. DNA analysis shows that they are really the same species as wolves, but there are a few differences in the two populations. A wolf pack will actually take in a litter of orphaned cubs if the parents are killed.

I shouldn't be so harsh on dogs, not all females are that violent. In many cases if you have two nursing females and one of the pups wanders over to the wrong teat she'll just go ahead and let him nurse anyway. But in breeds with a high incidence of the alpha gene like Lhasa Apsos or pitbulls, a female who's trying to propagate her genes can be a real killer.

Buckaroo Banzai
05-21-04, 08:05 PM
About domestic cats, I've seen in tv I guess, that is different than the case of lions, because famale cats are promiscuous, unlike lionesses, so the cats are never sure if the offpring is their or not. But I wouldn't take the risk myself, but is interesting that apparently when I had to take care of some very small kittens (more or less 20cm head to tail, I guess) and eventually they needed to share the (almost) same space, when they actually met each other, the adults seems more to be scary of them, hissing, and menacing, but I removed them before seem if the things go uglier than that. But many times that wasn't even necessary, the adults actually run away (I think that is important to say that they're not exceptionally cowards, as it may suggest). I also had the impression that when they were going to attack they are not using claws.... but as I said before, I'd not bet the kittens safety on that impression...

Dr Lou Natic
05-21-04, 09:40 PM
I think someone should study the behaviour of cats and dogs in neighbourhoods.
Cats obviously are never restrained to their yards, and are wandering around neighbourhoods interacting and so on so it would be interesting to learn the little details of what they are doing the way we do with wild animals.
Dogs too, people are getting better at keeping their dogs in their yards but not everywhere.

I remember when I was younger our dog would take himself for walks everyday without fail. Even if we tried to exhaust him with long walks and extreme exercise, he would come home have a nap and then get out and take himself for another walk. No fence could contain him, if he couldn't jump it he'd dig underneath it and my dad put barbed wire around the bottom of the fence and large rocks but he'd just knock the rocks out of the way and crawl under the barbed wire. He actually seemed to enjoy the way the barbed wire would scratch his back. When we tried to chain him up he snapped the chain and when we got a bigger thicker chain he pulled it out of the wooden kennel it was attached to and dragged it around the streets.
He really really needed to patrol his territory everyday and there was nothing we could do to stop him.
It was a pretty lower class neighbourhood and synomous with that is that just about every dog would get out of its yard (if they had one) and would be wandering around the neighbourhood.

I came to a realisation when watching a documentary 'wolf battle field' that that neighbourhood I lived in as a child undoubtedly had a secret world of complex dog activity, with alot more to it than 'dogs just wandering around'. They were living a life as significant to them as going to work and partying and etc is to us. They were going about serious business establishing territorial boundaries, competing in a complex heirarchial social system and breeding and so forth.
I personally would love to see a documentary on the secret lives of cats and dogs. A really well made one, similar to 'wolf battlefield' but about a suburban neighbourhood of out of control dogs and cats.
Perhaps I'll make it one day :D except time is ticking because people are really cracking down on dogs running loose and neighbourhoods overrun with loose dogs and cats would have to be becoming rarer. Also the documentary would be interupted constantly by owners finding their dogs and swearing at them for running away. Also swearing at me for sitting their filming while their prize winning show dog is being impregnated by a mangy mongrel.
I wish I could travel back in time, the neighbourhood I lived in when i was 10 years old would have been perfect.

05-22-04, 05:14 AM
I think we should start a thread on cat and dog behaviour in our neighbourhoods, exchanging observations we have made.

It could be start for your show, dr. Lou.

05-22-04, 07:50 AM
maybe they just ran off

05-25-04, 04:41 AM
Yup, they're all gone now. But they were too small to run off themselves.

05-25-04, 08:52 AM
Sounds like your momma cat is a bit of a cannibal. It is possible that you interfered with her natural rythms too much. You said she's not tame. A wild animal will often kill it's young when it feels there are threats about. The dangers of interfering.

Did they go one by one?

05-25-04, 08:56 AM
Well I’m not convinced that she’s not just moved them somewhere else. I worked in a stable and we had loads of cats all from one maternal old grand cat. When ever we stumbled over them they’d be moved in a couple of days. It wasn’t unusual for her to move half of them and then wait for a few days to see if they were found.

05-25-04, 11:08 AM
First, there were the two of them missing, gone at once. The last two went one by one, about 12 hrs difference.

In my native language, we have the saying "To move something around the way a cat moves around her kittens" -- meaning 'to move around a lot'.

Maybe this was the case here.

05-25-04, 11:13 AM
I would think that it would be by sent.