Monday, November 16, 2009

My First Litter from Hell

I was lucky when I started breeding Maine Coons. Sure, I had the usual issues of finding a suitable stud to breed to Sassy and then her daughters, making my way into the show halls, learning as much as I could about showing and feline health. But I was lucky in the sense that I didn’t have a single kitten fatality for the first three years of kitten mid-wifery. I had a friend in my cat club, Susan, who started the same time as I did. Susan’s breed of choice was silver shaded Exotics, the short-haired version of the Persian. For as long as I stayed in touch with Susan, she never had a viable litter during those few years. I felt guilty over my cats’ breeding success whenever I spoke with Susan. That all changed when I brought in an adult female, a pretty but shy little silver tabby girl named Isadora or “Izzy” from a Maine Coon breeder in Massachusetts.

Izzy got off to a bad start when I stupidly assumed she’d follow the habits of my other females and deliver between 66 and 68 days of gestation. I kept her my bedroom at night, but allowed her to roam during the day. On day 62, December 12, 2004, Izzy gave birth in Kelsey’s room in the afternoon. I found her with blood soaking into the carpet, surrounded by 7 kittens. They were cold and crying. I yelled for backup and the whole family kicked in. We moved Izzy and her litter into our bedroom and we each took a kitten to rub dry. Jay took the non-moving one and tried to revive him, but to no avail. My first fatality. I still feel guilty for not being there when he arrived; maybe it would have made a difference if he were warmed immediately. Or maybe he was stillborn. Seven is a large litter, especially for a first-time mom.

Izzy seemed to settle in nicely to the tent I have for a kitten nursery. The tent zips up in front. When the kittens were 2 days old, Izzy wanted to move them. Suddenly she was frantic. I put a blanket over the tent for privacy to try to calm her and kept the front zipped, hoping she’d calm down. When I check on her a few minutes later, she was clawing at the tent, holding a kitten’s paw in her mouth, still trying to get out. I had to pry her jaws apart to get the kitten away from her. Trying to keep Izzy happy, I moved the litter into a basket in my bathroom and she calmed down almost immediately. Then I saw the blood on my hand. I examined the kitten I’d taken from her mouth and panicked. By picking her kitten up with such a strong grip by the foot, Izzy had skinned him; the flesh was exposed from his wrist down to his paw, shreds of the remaining skin and fur still hanging onto some of his toes.

Little Eddy - note the red bandage
My vet, Karen Brown of Stonington Veterinary Hospital, showed me how to change the kitten’s bandage every day, giving me a supply of gauze and antiseptic gel. The theme for this litter was Christmas names and this little brown boy was called St. Nicholas originally. As I stood there while Karen tended to the little guy and his mangled foot, he became Edward Scissorhand. I took little Eddy home with his front leg bandaged all the way up to his shoulder and then the real hell started with Izzy and her kittens.

Izzy seemed content with her kittens now in the bathroom and didn’t try to move them again. However, when one cried, she would jump up from nursing them, anxious to see what was wrong. Sometimes she’d lay on them, then freak when she heard a kitten cry and jump up again, never seeming to understand that if she laid down carefully and stayed there the kittens would be quiet. If she was nursing and I walked in, she’d rush to the door, hoping to get out of the room. I likened her to a 13-year-old human mother, not mature enough to want to stay with her babies, ready to go on with her life as it was before. The day after Eddy’s accident, Izzy killed one of her kittens. I found it with two puncture wounds in its chest from her teeth and flattened by her weight. My vet and I theorized that she became frustrated with the crying and bit it to make the crying stop. This is not something normally seen in cats, but isn’t that uncommon in some breeds of dogs. By this time, we determined that Izzy may be suffering from severe post-partum depression and unfit to leave alone with her kittens.

The kittens stayed behind a closed bathroom door and Izzy had to stay in our bedroom. She seemed to want to be with her kittens desperately, but it was now supervised visits to nurse only. She would wake me up in the middle of the night for that feeding and I would escort Izzy in, sitting on the bathroom floor with my head leaning against the bathtub while she nursed them from 2 until 3 am. I supplemented the kittens with a bottle, especially Eddy and one of the little girls, Noelle. Noelle at times seemed to be fading, then she’d rally. Finally at 6 weeks, she gave up the fight and we lost another one.

Eddy’s paw developed a major infection, swelling all the way up his leg and the pus finding an exit in his chest. The chest wound had to be reopened regularly to allow the infection to drain. Every night, Jay and I would unwrap the little guy’s leg, listening to him cry as his raw flesh was exposed to the air. Sometimes the gauze would be stuck to him and we’d have to run his foot under water to get the gauze off without removing any new skin. One such time, it was so heart-wrenching when Eddy looked at me and cried I got nauseous. This was four years ago but I still remember how ecstatic I was when little Eddy finally got his weight over 6 ounces. He was way behind his litter mates in size, but still gamely scrambled for the milk bar, dragging his bad arm behind him. Over and over, I told Eddy, “You will NOT die on me.” I was emotionally vested in this kitten. Writing about him even now gets me choked up with the memories.

Over the Christmas holiday, we took Izzy and her kittens with us to my sister’s house in Harrisburg, PA. I still supplemented with a bottle and weighed them all daily, but Izzy had since visibly gotten past her post-partum hormonal issues and settled down to a trust-worthy mother. It’s funny, but when the kittens were about a week old, Izzy suddenly became a rational cat again; I swear I could see the change in her face.

Then more bad news: when the kittens were about 10 days old, the female, Silver Belle had a swollen foot and I noticed that two of the male kittens had rib cages that weren’t shaped correctly. Pectus. The sternum (front of the chest) actually curved in. When I got them in to see Karen, she confirmed my diagnosis. I could already tell the Pectus Boys had labored breathing and feared that their organs would eventually get so crowded in the compressed rib cage they’d die too. This was the first time I broke down sobbing in my vet’s office. I had been to her office 8 times within two weeks. She was good enough to dismiss most of the charges. I was ready to have the kittens with pectus euthanized, but Karen told me to think about it over the weekend. They held their own and shortly after the Pectus Boys starting walking, gravity pulled their sternums down enough to give them room to grow. Both are normal sized Maine Coons today, living normal healthy lives. Belle’s swollen foot was x-rayed, but the cause remained a mystery. The swelling went down on its own.

Silver Belle all grown up
Four kittens remaining out of seven. One has a deformed foot as he lost a couple of his toes. Two have pectus. The other seemed okay. I eventually decided that Eddy deserved a home where he could be spoiled properly. I couldn’t show or breed him and a very patient woman really wanted a brown tabby male, deformed or not. So I let Eddy go live with Susan and John.
Oscar, one of the Pectus boys, and friend in his new home
When Susan and John got their second kitten from me a year later, I delivered her personally to their home so I could see my Eddy. I even brought a strip of his red bandage I still had. Eddy was renamed Merlin (they had a close relative named Eddie and didn’t want to confuse things). Little Eddy-Merlin grew into an 19-pound handsome, friendly cat where he lives with his people, his 20-pound little sister Feebe, two Great Danes and 3 parrots. It was wonderful closure for me to see him again. His right foot is stunted, but he walks and plays normally.
Merlin, formerly known as tough kitty
Izzy was spayed and found a nice quiet home nearby where she plays fetch with their teenage son. When I went to visit her shortly after she left, she seemed more concerned that I would take her back. Motherhood isn’t for everyone, even cats.

My Litter from Hell challenged me a lot that winter and indoctrinated me into the tragic side of breeding. It was the kind of challenge that persuades many to give up breeding for good. It was probably a good thing I'd had healthy kittens and cats with excellent mothering instincts for the first three years to build up my confidence. I still try to see the positive side of things: the beauty of a healthy litter of newborn kittens who instinctively know how to root around their purring mother's belly; the thunder of 8-week-old kittens chasing each other and any victim that dares to move; the love the owners and my kittens have for one another. Fortunately, that’s still the case most of the time.

NOTE: For more pictures of Dracoonfly kittens after they're all grown up, visit my Pictures Pages.


  1. You have titled this, "My First Litter From Hell". Will this be a part of a series describing all the litters from Hell, followed shortly by litters from Purgatory or Heaven?

    I have heard of situations (like the runt of the litter), where the idea is that the mother somehow senses her children are sick or deformed in some way and is taking effort to remove them from the healthy children. Since Izzy's kids seemed to have a series of health problems, did your vet ever suggest that this might be the reason for her aggressive attitude towards her children?

  2. You know, you might be onto something there, but the title reflects the sad fact that I have had other difficult litters since this first one. The story of Eddy is one that remains fresh in my memory and Izzy was the worst mom cat I've ever had. Maine Coons normally don't behave that way and cats in general make very good mothers.

    Eddy had nothing wrong with him until his mother injured him and infection set in. Usually if a kitten isn't doing well, the mother doesn't seem to notice unless it cries a lot. Izzy never tried to harm the two kittens with pectus, so I don't think that was the reason for her poor mothering skills. I really think she was just too nervous and hormonal following their birth to think rationally. After Izzy was spayed, she remained skittish, but was affectionate and interactive with people she knew.

  3. It's a great story! Well-written and intriguing.


  4. Sharon, I remember when you had this litter, and how frustrated you were the entire time. I admire your tenacity to keep going after was rough. You're such a good kitty-mom!!

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  6. Excellent !!! Very very nice photo. I can understand that you have been waiting for this kind of dracoonfly kitten/cat. This kitten is so good looking and I can not find anything wrong with the type. This is really how dracoonfly kittens should look like. I like the wildness in the eyes and expresion in dracoonfly and I hope it keeps going in the brown for a long time.

    Melinda Storer

    "dofollow"> Persian Cats

  7. I'm glad you like the photos Melinda, however I feel I need to explain "Dracoonfly". Dracoonfly is the name of my cattery, like a kennel name but for cat breeders. The breed is called a Maine Coon cat. Each breeder has their own unique cattery name.

  8. I remember that Christmas very well. Still amazed the kittens and Izzy made the trip pretty well.