Friday, November 26, 2010

Cooperation (or Who's Going to Raise the Kittens?)

Many cat breeders will plan the birth of litters close together, just in case the mother of one litter needs help from the other mother.  Other breeders find this difficult to do if two females don't get along or they don't have the space.  When you read or watch news stories about how a mother dog or cat adopted a wild baby animal like a fox, skunk, squirrel, rabbit, etc, the reporters always express surprise that an animal would choose to nurse its natural enemy or prey.  The maternal instinct is incredibly strong and shouldn't be underestimated.  A crying baby calls to a new mother like no other, even to the point where my cats once came to the defense of one of my distraught baby chicks.

The first time I planned two litters together was for the simple reason of giving my stud male the confidence to breed.  I wrote about this in my blog "Cat Sex Therapy 101" Bugger was intimidated by Sassy because she'd bullied him as a youngster, but he grew up with Ginger and felt very comfortable with her.  I let Bugger build up his confidence with Ginger so that he felt "man enough" to breed a very willing Sassy two days later.  Eleven kittens resulted between the two of them and after a few growls and hisses, the two moms agreed to combine litters for space reasons.  Since Ginger had seven kittens and Sassy had four, I figured it would help Ginger's kittens to have a foster mom and even out the load. 

Sassy and Ginger with Their Combined Litter of Eleven

The most likely time a kitten will need a foster mom will be when it is a singleton, an only child.  It is not uncommon for the mother of one kitten to feel disconnected from her offspring.  One theory is a single kitten does not trigger the same hormonal release a normal sized litter does so the new mom goes into heat again very quickly, her body telling her to move on and get pregnant.  Also, since cats are designed to have multiple births, she instinctively feels like the kitten won't survive anyway.  If no other lactating queen with similar aged kittens is available, the breeder is left with bottle feeding and filling in for the mother, often with a decreased survival rate.

My black tortie, Amy, started out with 3 singleton litters in a row.  She went into heat by the time each kitten was two weeks old and Amy was ready to move on.  Luckily, each time I had another litter arrive a week before or after Amy's so she had another queen to take on her mothering duties.   The most memorable combination of litters was between Amy and Boom Boom.  The two queens couldn't look more different physically; Amy a small, dark, busy cat and Boom Boom, the largest breeding female I've had, 16-pounds, long, beautiful coat, somewhat shy.  Boom Boom delivered first as I recall and a pregnant Amy jumped right in to assist with the birth.  Initially, I found Amy's interference a nuisance, but I noticed that Boom Boom really didn't mind the help.  Amy cleaned up the kittens and Boom Boom.  All Boom Boom had to do was push.  They made a beautiful working team.  Later the two were very happy to nurse each other's kittens. 

Boom Boom and Amy - a Terrific Team

My cats have also fostered other breeders' litters, sometimes a singleton, sometimes an entire litter if the mother was sick.  Most were from fellow Maine Coon breeders who needed a lactating queen.  The funniest of these was when we took on a completely different breed, a sable Burmese from my friend Priscilla.  He was a singleton, his mother had lost interest in him and he was failing.  I warned Priscilla that I wasn't sure if I could save him since he had no suckle reflex anymore.  Ginger had a litter of 3 red males at home who were two days older than the Burmese.  The Burmese is one of the smaller breeds of cats, so you can imagine how a week-old kitten looks.  I called him Mouse.  When I first introduced Mouse to Ginger, I held him carefully, not sure how she'd react to a such a different-looking kitten.  She sniffed him and looked confused.  Then Mouse cried a little kitten meow. "Oh! It's a kitten!" Ginger immediately started licking the little guy.  Mouse thrived with Ginger's care.  She seemed to know he needed extra attention and kept his whiskers trimmed down to his muzzle, the way the Burmese do.  If Mouse cried, Ginger came running. He was louder than his Maine Coon brothers and developed more slowly, but he played just as rough and developed into a very confident Burmese cat.  Ginger and I were heralded as Mouse's saviors that year and I made lots of friends in the Burmese world as the word spread of Mouse and Maines.

Mouse the Burmese with His Maine Coon Brothers

Our current litter combo was one initiated by the mother cat.  Olivia had her litter of five in the cat cage in our bedroom since that offers more space.  I like to keep the cage door open so the moms can use the litter box in our bathroom, further away from my senses at night.  Trifle's litter of two were in the basket in my bathroom, two weeks younger.  Last week, I found Trifle in the cage, happily nursing Olivia's kittens while Olivia stood by looking perplexed.  The two litters are combined now and the mothers tag-team most of the time, with Trifle happy to carrying most of the load and Olivia glad to let her.
Trifle and Olivia et al

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