Can Male Cats Recognize Their Own Kittens?


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Can Male Cats Recognize Their Own Kittens

I’m sure even the best parents out there would find it difficult to recognize their own newborn baby, but it seems that female cats can sniff their own litter from miles away.

Living in a house with two of the smartest male cats I wonder if they would have the same response to their kittens if of course they weren’t neutered.

Can male cats recognize their own kittens? Most likely not, since in feral colonies cats will breed repeatedly and can end up with a litter from more than one father. This can make it difficult for tomcats to recognize their kittens, but some can recognize their offspring through scent.

Of course, in the feline world, there are all kinds of exceptions, and if you want to find out more about whether tomcats are good fathers and how they interact with their kittens then you’re in the right place!

Can Male Cats Recognize Their Own Kittens?

Kittens are born under different circumstances that can affect how male cats see their own offspring. Feral or stray cats, both male and female for example experience different power dynamics between each other, and each feline colony isn’t identical to one another. There’s this misconception that cats are antisocial, but cats in the wild or on the streets are capable of building social groups.

These colonies are mainly consisting of queens (female cats) and their kittens. Similarly, to a lion’s pride, tomcats are more concerned with their territory which they do by marking it with their urine. Debra Horwitz, DVM, explains that “cats will mark their territory to signal “ownership” and to advertise sexual receptivity and availability.”

So, fathers don’t usually participate in raising their own litter, and they turn to the colony during the breeding season. The absence of males from the lives of their kittens means that oftentimes they don’t become familiar with their scent, and they most likely are unable of recognizing their offspring as the female cat would.

What’s important to mention is the fact that queens can give birth to a litter that was birthed from more than one male. This is also known as “heteropaternal superfecundation” and according to a study, it’s more common in urban populations than in rural colonies.

So, if a female cat has a litter that has more than one father then it’s more likely that tomcats wouldn’t recognize their own litter. Some female cats could also try to avoid inbreeding by avoiding mating in their own group and both situations can make it extremely hard for tomcats to identify their own.

All those circumstances are part of a feral colony experience which can be quite different when the breeding happens between indoor housecats. Due to the close proximity and the limited number of male cats, the father will most likely be able to recognize their kittens.

Do Kittens Recognize Their Father?

Cats rely heavily on their sense of smell which is much stronger than ours and they also have a special organ called Jacobson’s organ, that can pick up chemical substances that have no odor. According to Ryan Llera, DVM, “this organ enhances the sense of smell that newborn kittens need to find their mother’s milk source.”

More importantly, he adds, “Kittens can identify their mother from other nursing dams via their sense of smell. If a kitten is placed between two nursing mothers, she will move to the one that gave birth to her.”

This means that kittens can recognize their mothers, and since their sense of smell is awesome they most likely can also recognize their littermates due to close proximity. When it comes to their fathers this can prove difficult. As I’ve mentioned earlier, male cats in feral colonies are all about territory and not so much fatherhood.

Female cats according to researchers can recognize their male relatives, including their father, in order to avoid mating with them. So basically, a kitten can only recognize their father if they’re female or if the tomcat was involved, otherwise, they might simply sense that their scent is somewhat familiar or completely unfamiliar.

Do Male Cats Care For Their Own Kittens?

By now I think we’ve established that most stray and feral tomcats aren’t dedicated to fatherhood, while female cats are the ones to help and care for their family. John Bradshaw, a cat behavior expert, explains that feral cat colonies are “based around multigenerational cooperation between females—grandmother, her daughters, [and] their kittens.” Male cats on the other hand aren’t involved in raising kittens.

Studies have also shown that queens can distinguish between kitten calls that show different levels of urgency and react in the most appropriate way. For example, if a kitten is in distress or they’re hungry the mother cat will come to help it or feed it. The male cats on the other hand don’t seem to adjust their response in a similar way.

The researchers in this study found that “cats responded about 10 percent faster to kitten calls that conveyed high arousal” while the males did not show a more urgent response to such cries. Prior experience in motherhood or fatherhood also didn’t play a role and new mothers would still respond faster to their kittens’ cries.

While this might be the common rule, it doesn’t mean that there are no exceptions. Another study done by Cambridge University showed “friendly-fathered cats were not only friendlier to unfamiliar people but less distressed when approached and handled by them.

Take a look at this protective father, you wouldn’t want to get in his way!

This means that there are tomcats that can be more invested in their kitten’s life and have a positive impact on their sociability. This kind of relationship is most likely to be developed in a house, rather than outside on the streets where male cats have more important business to attend to like marking their territory and breeding.

Can A Male Cat Harm Kittens?

It might sound like a terrible thing to happen, but male cats can harm kittens under certain circumstances. Since male cats aren’t part of the female groups that raise the kittens, they don’t have any attachment to them, on the contrary, they can try and harm or kill the kittens, so the female comes back into the breeding condition sooner.

This behavior has been studied by the researcher Dominique Pontier, and she points out that “all infanticidal males were fully adult and sexually mature unknown males. All kittens killed were within their first week of life.”

She also adds that “the killing pattern was generally the same as that described in lions. All females reacted aggressively but could not prevent the infanticide.” Similar to lions, in most cases though, male cats would kill kittens that they hadn’t father, to make sure that their genes would be spread.

If the queen was carrying kittens from different tomcats this litter was also in danger. But for indoor cat breeding, the chances of a male cat hurting their offspring should be much slimmer. You might instead observe the father biting and asserting his dominance over the kittens. Still, this behavior could end in an accident or even the death of his litter.

Would A Neutered Cat Attack Kittens?

Neutering your male cat won’t change their personality, but it can reduce certain behaviors like spraying, aggression, roaming, and sexual attraction. This means that they’re usually less competitive with other cats, but this doesn’t mean they can’t show signs of aggression.

Socialization is what makes a cat more acceptable to strangers whether that be a human or other pet. So, if your neutered cat is introduced to kittens and he hasn’t socialized as a kitten himself then they might react negatively.

I have two cats that with time became quite bonded, but when I first introduced them, one was an adult neutered tomcat and the other one was a 4-week-old kitten. At the time the kitten was very energetic and playful, something my lazy tomcat didn’t like so he kept attacking the poor thing, and he hissed and growled when the kitten ate his food.

Basically, introducing a kitten to a neutered cat is like any cat introduction. It takes time and according to veterinarians, it takes one to two weeks. Reducing competition over food, space and your attention can make the transition smooth. Of course, there are male cats that are very sociable and will respond positively to a kitten whether it’s a newborn baby or a bit older.

No matter how well your cat behaves around a kitten, monitoring each interaction is important because even neutered cats can attack kittens for their own reasons, and even through play they can end up hurting them just because of the size and strength difference.

Should I Let My Male Cat Be Around Newborn Kittens?

Male cats are not known to get along with kittens, even if they are the father. Of course, it’s not impossible for a tomcat to care for his kittens, but there are many things that can go wrong.

Even if the cat father wants to care for his kittens, his way might be less gentle and could accidentally hurt his litter in an effort to discipline the newborns as they grow. The birth of kittens could also create problems between male and female cats. Since scent is so important to cats, the tomcat might attempt to attack the mother because she smells differently after giving birth.

The mother could also become overprotective of her litter, which can lead to fighting and trigger an aggressive reaction in both parents. The father might try to attack both the mother and the litter or if the mother senses that her litter is in danger, and won’t survive she might instinctively kill her kittens instead.

Make sure you pay attention to the male cat’s mood and behavior after the birth, whether they’re in the same room with the litter or behind the closed door. According to the ASPCA, aggressive language in cats involves:

  • Growling, hissing, and yowling
  • Pupil Dilation
  • Flattening of the ears
  • Tail held low or below the legs
  • A crouched position and stiff body

If you notice any of these signs you should remove the male cat immediately. Of course, this doesn’t mean that things should reach the point of aggression, that’s why it’s important to keep the father away from his kittens, prior to the birth, during, and after the birth.

How Can I Prevent My Male Cat From Attacking Kittens?

The best preventative measure you can take that will ensure the safety of the female cat and her litter is, removing the male cat. Even if you know that your male kitty is the most gentle creature on earth different circumstances, especially ones that are stressful can bring out unwanted behaviors in cats.

Since tomcats have a reputation for killing kittens it’s important to keep the queen and her litter in a safe space, perhaps a spare room where she can go through the birth and raise her children in privacy. Stress can cause queens to become aggressive, not take care of their babies properly, and in some instances even cause extreme behaviors such as cannibalism.

With a possibly dangerous or agitated male cat, this puts mothers in more danger as well as the kittens. During this time, it’s important that both parents are happy and stress-free. The male cat shouldn’t be neglected, but instead offered plenty of space so he doesn’t feel threatened.

Play with the tomcat to satisfy his hunting instincts, and make sure he has all the essential resources he needs. If you don’t have the luxury to keep the cat family separated, I’d suggest asking a friend to keep the male cat for a time, at least until the kittens are old enough to be introduced to him.

When Is It Safe To Introduce Male Cats To Kittens?

It’s important to keep the male away from his kittens when they’re newborns. If you feel that your tomcat shows signs of fatherly instincts then you can gradually introduce him to the babies, once they’re a bit older, six to eight weeks at least.

Scent Introduction

During the growth period, your tomcat shouldn’t live in a completely detached world. You need to make sure the kittens’ scent is always present around him because that will help minimize the potential aggression during the physical introduction.

Place different toys, blankets in the litter’s den to transfer their smell onto them. You can then place these things in the spots where your tomcat enjoys sleeping and spend his time. You can move his food and water closer to the room where you keep the kittens so he can associate the mews and cries with something pleasant.

Supervised Introduction

As with any cat introduction, this needs to be a gradual process, and you need to be ready to remove the tomcat from the room, at the slightest aggression, even if it comes from the mother towards the father. The small size of the kittens and the inability to escape a sudden attack makes them vulnerable to mature male cats. Watch how the adult male cat reacts when shown the kitten and keep the first meeting brief.

With time and positive reactions from both the tomcat and the mother you can prolong their interaction, but make sure to never leave them alone. When the kittens are capable of living on their own, they are generally considered safe from male cats.

If you’re not sure about how well you can control your male cat when he meets his offspring, then you can use a physical barrier, like a baby gate. Or you can have them in a crate and make the first introductions during feeding time for a positive association.

Closing Thoughts

Male cats might not win the award for father of the year, but not all male cats are terrible fathers. Different circumstances breed different father figures, and some tomcats have taken the role of caregivers or foster parents to kittens in their own homes or in animal shelters.

At the end of the day, cats aren’t humans, and they have their own way of dealing with their families. So, all we can do is make that process as safe as possible for everyone involved!

How about your tomcat, has he been a good father, does he at least recognize his own kittens?

Marina Titova

Marina was cat-struck 8 years ago. It was early autumn when Dante, her grey cat, found her and adopted her. They’ve been inseparable ever since. Dante has been a great cat-teacher and BetterWithCats.net seemed like the perfect place to share his cat-knowledge.

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