Copyright 2008, S Hartwell

There are frequently cute images and heart-warming reports in the press of mother cats that adopt puppies, orphan squirrels, young rats and even chicks. In more laughable cases there are reports that a female cat has given birth to puppies or to mouse-like kittens. This behaviour is not restricted to domestic cats as the documentary ďHeart of a LionessĒ indicated Ė an adult lioness kidnapped and tried to mother a succession of oryx calves.


Kittens are small and make high-pitched noises, just like many of the prey species hunted by cats. When a cat gives birth, the hunting instincts are partly suppressed so she rears the kittens rather than eating them (this isnít foolproof and some females cannot overcome their hunting instincts). In the usual scheme of things, outside of the nest the mother hunts; inside the nest with the kittens, she mothers.

What happens when a rat or mouse enters the nest with the kittens? Sometimes, the suppressed predatory instinct means the mother cat tolerates it. The interloper may pick up enough of the kittensí odour for it to avoid detection.

In Madaba in Jordan, a one year old cat called Nimra cared for seven chicks alongside her four kittens. In China, a mother cat allowed an opportunistic wild rat to join her kittens. A 2006 report of a mouse-like kitten revealed it to be an opportunistic rodent (possibly a gerbil) while a Reuters report of a Brazilian woman convinced her cat had given birth to 3 puppies (also explained as or cat-dog hybrids or deformed kittens) as well as 3 kittens found the cat had simply found a litter of newborn puppies and adopted them. The mother cat was attuned to the behaviour of her newborn kittens and her maternal instincts apparently took over when she found the abandoned puppies.


If her own kittens are removed or die, a mother catís maternal instincts are frustrated. Often she goes looking for her lost kittens, apparently heartbroken and crying for them to come to her. Having failed to find her own offspring, she may look for substitute kittens to rear.

Even cats whose litters are doing fine may have excessive maternal instincts which extend to fostering other species. The maternal instinct can even cause her to kidnap small animals to raise as part of her litter. Other kittens, puppies and small domestic pets may be kidnapped by mothers whose maternal instincts have gone into overdrive.

In animal rescue, cats with good maternal instincts often become foster mothers for orphaned kittens, squirrels, rabbits, skunks and suchlike. Even where the orphans donít suckle, she can provide warmth and protection.

A few cats have strong maternal instincts even when they donít have offspring of their own and in spite of being spayed. Some even adopt plus toys and I had one cat, Kitty II, that periodically adopted my carpet slippers and tried to get them to suckle even though she was both elderly and spayed.


Some maternal cats go as far as kidnapping other animals Ė another catís kittens, puppies or even kitten-sized small pets such as small guinea pigs. This has been observed in the wild. A lioness kidnapped a succession of oryx calves and attempted to mother them. As long as the oryx didnít trigger her predatory instincts she washed it and protected it. Unfortunately in protecting it she prevented it returning to the mother oryx to suckle and those oryx calves that didnít manage to escape ended up starving.

In another case, a young leopardess hunted and killed a female baboon that was had a days old baby latched to its nipple. Instead of eating the baby baboon, it triggered her maternal instincts and she took it to safety up in a tree. For a while, the baby baboon followed the leopardess around and the confused cat attempted to mother it. Predictably, this relationship did not last.

For the predator-prey relationship to play out in the normal way, the prey has to act like prey. If it doesnít behave in the expected manner, the catís instinct to kill may not be triggered. Unsure of what to do, the catís next instinct seems to be a maternal instinct. It has caught the other animal, the other animal isnít acting like prey so the logical assumption (from the catís viewpoint) is that the creature is offspring. After all, if it isnít prey, what else would it being doing so close to her? Once the prey gathers its wits and tries to escape, the hunting instinct usually cuts back in and the temporary foster-child becomes a meal. In the very unusual lioness and oryx case, the lioness persistently retrieved the oryx calf. It is possible the lioness had a neurological issue leading to this aberrant behaviour.


If the interloper is a prey species and is wise, it will leave after the kittens are being weaned and when the motherís maternal behaviour is waning. At this point the mother may well recognise it as prey. Some mother cats, having become accustomed to the interloper, may continue to view it as part of the family and lifelong friendships are not unknown.

The kittens, having grown up alongside a species normally considered prey may end up viewing other members of that species as ďnot preyĒ. In laboratories, kittens and rats that are raised together tend to view each other as companions rather than developing the normal predator/prey relationship.