Back to Client Info Index

Maternal Behavior

Behavior Before and After Delivery
Pregnancy in the bitch (female dog) and queen (female cat) lasts about 60 days, give or take a couple of days. Make a note of when the female was bred or when the estrual period ended, so you can more easily predict the litter's arrival. In most cases, the queen prefers to choose her own nesting site and will ignore one prepared by her owners. Most often, this is a quiet, dark corner of a closet, or under a bed. During labor, the queen is often restless and may ignore any newborn kittens, other than licking at the placenta and breaking the umbilical cord of each kitten. She may appear preoccupied, presumably with the physical discomfort of labor, even stepping on the kittens. The interval between birth of each kitten may be as long as 1 hour but is frequently shorter. Consult your veterinarian immediately if you fear that things are not proceeding normally. After delivery of the last kitten, most queens settle back to nurse the kittens. Kittens locate a teat to nurse by pulling with their front legs, paddling with their rear legs and turning their head from side to side. Milk production is stimulated by the rhythmic kneading of a kitten's front paws. This kneading behavior continues in adult cats and is associated with contentment. Like the queen, the bitch gives little attention to her litter until the last pup is delivered. Puppies emerge at intervals of about 30 minutes, but this may take as long as 2-3 hours. Unnecessary intrusions can interrupt labor and should be avoided. Puppies stimulate milk flow by pushing their muzzle into the area surrounding the teat. For the first several weeks, the bitch and queen lick the anogenital region of each pup or kitten to simulate urination and defecation. In orphaned puppies and kittens, this must be stimulated by human caretakers. Ask your veterinarian about the special needs of orphaned newborn pets. The mother normally ingests her newborns' waste to keep the den clean. Young pups and juvenile dogs may begin to eat their feces if fecal matter is not removed from the area by the owner.


Maternal Neglect
Not all females are instinctively good mothers. You may be required to aid in the delivery and rearing of her litter. First-time mothers may be overwhelmed with the experience. A female that seems indifferent, agitated or confused should be examined by a veterinarian to eliminate the possibility of infections or other complications of pregnancy and birth. Neglectful mothers should be separated from the litter to prevent malnutrition or injury of the young. The mother may refuse food initially, but keep fresh water available nearby. Do not crowd a pet during labor, and discourage frequent disturbances by visitors. The calm, reassuring presence of a familiar caretaker may be helpful, but this is not vital for most pets. Both the bitch and queen may need more time to bond to their young if the litter was delivered by cesarean section. After this surgery, the mother is separated from her litter until she has recovered fully from anesthesia. If her milk is plentiful, the first quantities (colostrum) are collected and administered to the offspring by dropper to provide them with antibodies for protection against disease. Occasionally, a mother may purposely neglect her offspring. Such neglect most often involves a newborn that is sickly. A neglected newborn merits veterinary attention so that it can be treated or humanely destroyed. Runts (undersized young) may be prone to more medical or behavioral problems in their adult lives.


Defense of the Young
Female dogs and cats can become aggressive toward other animals and people that are perceived as threats to their offspring. Defensive maternal aggression may be most intense when the litter is newborn and most helpless, and declines as weaning approaches. Some of this aggressiveness may be associated with fatigue, irritability and anxiety resulting from the physical discomfort of labor and lactation. Hormonal fluctuations also may contribute to temperament changes. The bitch may be very docile with familiar people but may not tolerate those she does not recognize. Maternal aggression is a warning that should not be ignored or taken lightly. If unleashed, the attack will be swift and intense. Pups that have wandered away from the den are not carried back. Rather, the bitch licks at the pup's head to encourage it to follow her back. The queen retrieves her kittens to the den area by carrying them by the scruff of the neck, or by gently holding the kitten's head in her mouth.


Aggression Directed Toward Offspring
Aggressiveness by a bitch or queen toward her own litter may be intentional or unintentional. In the process of severing the umbilical cord and licking each newborn dry, some females unintentionally injure the abdominal wall. Grooming can become so excessive by an overly anxious mother that the newborn cannot nurse and may die from lack of nourishment and loss of body heat. Some kittens or puppies may be accidentally smothered by their mother. Cannibalism occurs in both dogs and cats but is infrequent. A mother that has cannibalized her offspring should probably not be bred again. Male dogs and cats should be supervised near young offspring. They do not recognize their own offspring and do not participate in their care. Males are threats to the young and many females protect their litter against any perceived threat. Intact male cats, in particular, may pose real threats. Male cats commonly kill young kittens.


False Pregnancy (Pseudopregnancy, Pseudocyesis)
Nonpregnant female dogs commonly display physical and behavioral signs consistent with pregnancy. This is infrequent in female cats. The abdomen may appear somewhat swollen and milk may be produced in the mammary glands. This is associated with hormonal imbalances and ovarian abnormalities, but it can also occur in spayed females. Signs of false pregnancy may be subtle and unnoticed. The bitch may redirect maternal urges by carrying toys or other objects, presumably surrogate offspring, to a nest she has prepared. She may be restless and irritable. Aggressiveness may be more easily provoked during this period, perhaps because of hormonal imbalances, though other factors are certainly involved. False pregnancy may resolve without treatment, but recurrence is common in subsequent "heat" cycles and complications are common. Medication may or may not temporarily resolve false pregnancy. Unless the pet is of particular breeding value, pronounced false pregnancy justifies spaying.