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Orphaned Cats - Their Mental and Social Needs

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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If women believe it's hard to find a family-oriented man, consider this: For more than 95 percent of mammalian species, the male plays no role at all in raising the young, leaving the entire parenting business up to the mother. So when a young cat finds himself without his mom, he is effectively devoid of all parental attentions and is alone in the world.

A kitten receives a lot of care, attention and education from his mom. If possible, it is clearly in the youngster's best interests for it to latch onto an alternative parental source at the first possible opportunity. The worst-case scenario is being left with no nurturing resource and no siblings – in other words, being completely deprived of all company and attention. Not quite so bad, in terms of psychological detriment, is for an orphan kitten to lose his mom but to retain the company of his own littermates. In this situation, things may be pretty bleak but there's always reinforcement to be gained from being a group member. There's strength in numbers.

Some orphaned kittens may fall on their feet by being adopted by a caring human foster parent. In this situation, the youngster won't lack care and attention. Just the opposite may occur, in fact: Too much care and not enough direction. From the youngster's point of view, this may seem a bonus but if there is no direction given and no discipline metered out by a well-meaning human caregiver other problems (e.g. over attachment) arise down the line.

Finally, it is sometimes possible to raise a young kitten with a foster family of the same species if timing, know-how and luck are all favorable.

The Worst-Case Scenario

In nightmarish deprivation experiments, it was shown that young monkeys become depressed, rocking back and forth and sucking their thumbs; isolated pups become markedly disturbed, fearful, depressed or hyperactive; and isolated kittens cried upon separation, became uninterested in their surroundings, became increasingly withdrawn, and were poor learners. The unavoidable conclusion is that moms and littermates are necessary for proper mental and social development.

Littermates but No Mom

This is another far from ideal situation but one that is several orders of magnitude better than being entirely alone. Mom normally provides nurturing support in times of stress. Nursing, for example, is more than simply for a kitten to obtain food; it is a comfort behavior, too. Being groomed by mom is more than a bath; it aids in developing close bonds and facilitates more rapid and sophisticated mental development. Kittens deprived of opportunities to nurse in times of stress may displace their nursing drive onto littermates' appendages or onto a human caregiver. Kittens that do not receive the benefits afforded by grooming will develop more slowly and not to their full potential. On the plus side, they will be able to enjoy the friendship and challenges provided by their littermates, and through play and other mutual interactions, even conflict, will find themselves with appropriate social skills with respect to other members of the same species.

Whether people are recognized as friendly and cooperative depends on the degree and type of human-pet interactions that occur at this time. The sensitive period for learning about social interactions for kittens is between 2 and 7 weeks of age. Kittens that have been raised for 7 weeks without human company will never be entirely comfortable in peoples' presence.

Human Foster Parents

People who have the energy and thoughtfulness to foster orphaned kittens deserve a medal. Because of their great compassion, they will probably not fall short in the attention-giving department. But knowing how to interact with kittens is not intuitive. Human-to-animal fostering skills must be learned, and foster parents must be prepared to flex and bend in their learning experience. The kitten's natural mom gives a lot of attention to her kittens but has certain expectations and sets limits. We must be prepared to do the same if we are to raise kittens to become good feline citizens. One tip that helps prevent kittens from becoming overly cowed is to direct rather than correct unwanted behaviors. Harsh or physical punishment is never appropriate. On the other hand, it is always best to meal-feed youngsters and to try to train them to receive food and treats on cue. This practice keeps you in the driving seat and helps prevent the kitten from becoming an overly pushy adult.

Same Species Fostering

This is not often possible but can be done if a receptive, preferably nursing mom is available. Under these circumstances, the kitten may have the very best chance of a normal development, as long as you arrange for all-important socialization to people during the sensitive period.

Kittens mature quickly and much of their critical learning will have occurred by 3 to 4 months of age. Even their moms encourage them to be independent at this age because they know that their work is done and that independence is in the best interest of the kittens. We all have to grow up sometime, but for kittens, the witching age is reached frighteningly early.

Many hand-raised orphan kittens have not had much, if any, social experience with other cats and many grow up to be socially inappropriate. They just don't seem to have a proper understanding of feline social etiquette and do not communicate well with others of their own species. Cats are not big on social signaling but can develop confidence around members of their own species (or not) depending on early social experiences. Kittens that have not grown up around other cats may be much less tolerant of other cats in a multi-cat household situation.

Other common problems exhibited by orphaned cats include:

  • Over-attachment to human caregivers
  • Owner-directed bullying/dominance
  • Displaced nursing behavior – such as woolsucking and finger and ear lobe sucking

    These problems, and the more dramatic effects of total social isolation during the first few weeks of life, illustrate the importance of moms and littermates in the developmental experience. Our pets' behavior may be genetically programmed to some extent, but proper mental and social development is highly dependent on the correct social influences that a family provides. To foster youngsters unfortunate enough to lose their mom, we would do well to turn to nature for lessons on how to go about this. To this end, mimicking mom and the experiences she provides you can't go far wrong. Nature always seems to know what's best.

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