Monday 15 May 2023

Do male cats kill kittens? (The disturbing truth)

There are a lot of theories about if and why male domestic and stray cats (tomcats - unneutered) kill kittens. There are different points of view about this. I've seen all those points of view and it's confusing. That is the disturbing truth! It appears to me that we are unsure about the reason and how rare it is.

I've just watched a video with the same title as this article and I don't think the person who presents that video is accurate (see video at base of page). Essentially, they say that male adult domestic cats kill kittens because they are threatening and they threaten to upset their territorial objectives. I don't believe that. I don't think kittens are threatening to adult male cats. I can't see how that can happen. So, I believe there is a lot of information on the Internet on this topic which is misleading.

Image: MikeB

A person I admire and respect, Sarah Hartwell, tells us that a tomcat will normally establish a territory which contains a number of female cats. I agree that. She then goes on to say that "it is in his own interest to repel other males and to destroy kittens which may have been fathered by another male and which contain the genetic complement of his rival". 

She goes on to explain that a tomcat will be able to recognise his kittens through their smell and their appearance. She is more or less reciting what people say about lions in the African Savannah when they kill kittens produced by other male lions within a pride as part of the process of taking over that pride.

I'm not sure that she is correct to be perfectly honest. I tend to prefer the thoughts of another person I admire, Dr. Desmond Morris (a great zoologist and author). He states in his book Catlore that the male domestic cat has been looked upon as a sex maniac for centuries. He disagrees that tomcats (unneutered male cats) destroy the litters of kittens in order to get the females back on heat again more quickly. This, once again as a reference to how male lions behave when taking over a lion pride. He says the story has lasted "well during the past two millennia and many people still believe it".

He doesn't see any "possible biological advantage of such a reaction on the part of tomcats". He, too, appears to have got that wrong because male lions do this in order to father their own kittens in order to further their breeding line. But do unneutered domestic cats do this?

Dr. Morris likes to refer to observations of the European wildcat. He is referring to the ancestor of the domestic cat which is actually the North African wildcat but there is no difference between that subspecies and the European subspecies in terms of behaviour.

He says when you observe the behaviour of the wildcats you will see that "far from being kitten-killers, the males sometimes actively participate in rearing the young."

He adds that:

"One tom was seen to carry his own food to the entrance of the den in which a female had given birth and placed it there for her. Another tom did the same thing, supplying the female with food while she was unable to leave the nest during the first days after producing her litter."

And this tomcat became very defensive and threatened human visitors in a way that he had not done before the kittens were born. These observations took place in a zoo where he says it would be more likely to see tomcat aggression towards their young.

In the wild, cats have very large territories. The chances of a tomcat coming across a female in her den with kittens is remote. This means there is little possibility of a male cat providing parental care or parental infanticide. In a zoo which is crowded and in which the cats are in closer proximity there will be an increased likelihood of tomcat/kitten encounters where four types of reactions might occur:

  1. The male cat simply ignores the kittens.
  2. The male cat behaves paternally towards them as mentioned.
  3. The female attacks the male soon as he approaches her nest and drives him away before he can do anything concerning the kittens.
  4. The male cat kills the kittens.

The fourth reaction is the traditional one that we read about a loss on the internet. But it is, in reality, extremely rare.

Dr. Desmond Morris states that a female cat sometimes experiences a false heat a few weeks after she has given birth. This may excite a nearby tomcat. The female normally fights him off and drives him away.

The male cat is in a great state of sexual arousal at this point. He is frustrated. If he meets a small kitten at this time, he may try to mount it and mate with it.

This may be enhanced by the low crouch to posture of the kitten which is similar to the sexually responsive posture of an adult female cat.

The kitten is unable to move away quickly when the male cat mounts it which acts as a sexual signal to the overexcited male cat. This, Dr. Morris says "seals the fate of the unfortunate kitten".

The male cat does not deliberately attack the kitten but when mounting the tiny offspring he performs the normal neck bite that he employs when mating with a female in order to keep her passive. For a kitten, this feels like their mother maternally grabbing the kitten when moving them to a new den. The kitten does not struggle. Indeed, it responds by keeping perfectly still. This is the sexual signal from the adult female that tells the male that she is ready to mate.

This compounds the misunderstanding which causes disaster when the "mounted tomcat discovers that the kitten is too small for mating. He cannot manoeuvre himself into the correct position. His response to this problem is to grip the kitten's neck tighter and tighter as if he is dealing with an awkward adult mate. In the process he accidentally crunches the tiny kitten's delicate head and it dies.

Once the kitten has been killed it may trigger off a new reaction in the tomcat. Dead kittens are often devoured by their parents as a way of keeping the nest clean. As a consequence, the male cat's sexual frustrations may now lead to the kitten being eaten as a further anomaly in the feline mating sequence.

These are rare instances but they led to stories of tomcat cannibalism painting the male cat as a savage monster intent on slaughtering and eating their offspring.

Dr. Morris goes on to say that often rare events when they become established become the "norm". They become part of folklore. But they are exaggerated and over-egged stories based upon, as mentioned, extremely rare and unusual instances.

That, in a nutshell, is what Dr. Desmond Morris states about tomcat killing and eating kittens. It does happen. I will leave it to you to decide what you think is the right answer. There is one certainty; it's a rare event and people should not think that it is normal male cat behaviour.

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