Monday, May 21, 2012

When kittens have kittens

Feline reproduction evolved in harsh desert environments where, despite being predators themselves, small cats tended to become the prey of larger animals. Being able to produce many offspring starting at a very young parental age was necessary in order for the survival of the species. Needless to say, the modern human-populated environs many cats today call home are a far cry from those their ancestors lived in. Which is one reason there are so many feral cats.

So, as I've written before, in the absence of any evidence that cats are banding together to start their own family-planning clinics. it falls to us -- the humans who share communities with them -- to help them out in this department. Mind you, I wish there was some way to do it that did not involve surgery, but the way things are now, the consequences for cats of not being spayed or neutered are frankly tragic. I won't go into any graphic descriptions here, as I'm sure most readers already know what I am talking about, but suffice to say that I would be totally fine with calling a moratorium on "breeding" cats until all the existing  ones get homes.

But I digress. The title of this post refers to a situation that I've seen happen -- or almost happen -- more than once in the local colony. Right now there's a beautiful, TINY tabby cat named Bella (Matt named her, and no, he was not making a 'Twilight' reference!) who currently looks like she's managed to swallow a whole cantaloupe. Unfortunately I have no pictures of her yet but I will try and get one. According to Matt's mom, Bella has been hanging around the house a lot lately (very common when female cats are 'nesting' -- even feral ones will tend to become much braver around humans if they see putting up with us as a sensible tradeoff for the safety of their babies).

I don't know how old she is, but probably under a year -- I'd guess seven months or thereabouts.  She's one of the little females that managed to evade the last round of trapping, and who then seemed to disappear for a while, only to show up quite thoroughly gravid. Still, her overall body size (aside from her belly) looks like that of about a typical four month old kitten, probably because this is not even her first litter. She's had at least one prior to this, though Matt's mom found the resultant kittens after they were born and they appeared to have either been stillborn or just too small to have managed to live a day.

But in any event, while I know some cats are just genetically small, I suspect that Bella's size is largely due to growth attenuation caused by early pregnancy and consequent nutrient deprivation. I have no idea if this impending batch of kittens will be born viable but either way, I plan on making sure it is her last litter...that way she might at least get to finish growing up herself. All I can think of when I see her is how there but for the grace of chance goes Cora -- who herself first went into heat at a mere 4 months of age!


  1. Even if the cats are not feral, but live in a household with humans, early pregnancies in cats are fairly common - because the "owners" think that a cat can't get pregnant before they are 6 months old or so. Our third kitten we adopted came from such an early litter...

  2. streepie: Yes, you're right about early pregnancies being common in non-feral cats as well. That's actually a major contributor to the feral population in the first place. I.e., human adopts kitten, kitten reaches puberty and either manages to escape the house in the throes of hormonal motivation or is banished to the yard (this seems to be very common with male kittens, who are exiled for spraying indoors). Then the kittens have kittens outdoors, who become the founding generation for a neighborhood feral colony (or simply add to an existing colony).

    It amazes me (as you point out) how many people don't even realize how young cats can get pregnant. With Cora it was absolutely unmistakable when she went into heat, as she was rolling around on the floor, dragging herself along objects, sticking her rear in people's faces and howling. But when people don't know that it's even possible for a 4 month old cat to enter estrus they won't necessarily attribute what they're seeing to the right cause. I read an advice column thing once where someone was worried that their 6 month old kitten (who, from the description, was *definitely* in heat) had broken her tail due to how she was acting.

    I've also encountered people who think that cats won't mate with relatives, when in reality of course cat culture holds to no such taboos. And so on. Bottom line for me...TNR is very important, but so is (a) making sure people who choose to adopt cats understand the particularities of feline reproduction and (b) increasing the availability of free and low-cost spay/neuter clinics (and making sure information about them is proliferated throughout the community).


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