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I have two female cats, one of whom gave birth about a month ago. She made a nest in a cardboard box, and the kittens have lived there since they were born. Yet recently, the non-pregnant cat (unspayed) has taken to nursing the kittens, licking them and even growling/hissing when I approach the kittens. The mother can't even get into the box, so the kittens have to climb out to feed. Is this normal behavior?

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This is not common but normal. The mothers who lost their litter are especially prone to this condition, but it can be seen with any female cat.

Most animals have a more simplistic understanding of the maternal bound. In River of Eden, Dawkins describes that female turkeys nurse anything that has some redness and makes sound like a turkey chick, whether she laid the egg that developed into that chick, even whether that is a chick.

Similarly, female cats are triggered by crying kittens. All females that I have tested this with, regardless of being spayed or not, responds to crying kittens. This is a method I use to find female cats that hide in the house or in the garden. This trigger can also kick the maternal instincts in, making females want to nurse the kittens. The females who lost their litter are already flushed with hormones so their maternal instincts kick in very fast at the slightest trigger.

Unfortunately, this behaviour can cause harm to the kittens, especially if the female is not producing milk. I know that some stray kittens died because of this.

One solution that comes to mind would be spaying the female if you already plan to do that at one point. Spaying should reduce the maternal hormone levels in time. Consult a vet before going through this irreversible process. You can also try giving the non-pregnant cat some toys that produce crying kitten sounds. (Just shove an old mp3 player into a small plush cat.) I am not sure how she will react to this, but it can't hurt. Otherwise, you can think of limiting access to the kittens.

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    It can depend... If the non-parent female is producing milk and both females get along reasonably then this would (if anything) tend to be beneficial for the kittens, since they would get 2x as much milk and care. The best way to tell is to weigh the kittens regularly and make sure they're gaining weight. Alloparenting/cooperative breeding is successful for feral cats, putting all the kittens together and taking turns at child care gives each mother a break. (The behavior stuff might be an issue in this case, but also maybe not if the original mom is happy to have more free time.) Mar 29 at 14:11
  • ...and also if they are already ~4 weeks old they should be starting to taste solid foods and are on target for the mother spending more time away/out of the nest box, as well as the kittens getting out and exploring a bit. In another week or two they will be impossible to keep in the nest box and driving all of the adult cats crazy. Mar 29 at 14:18
  • @user3067860 I certainly do not know enough to disagree with you, but the situation described in the question suggests that the females are not getting alone well. I myself never encountered two females raising their litters collectively, but some cats might be doing this.
    – C.Koca
    Mar 29 at 17:53
  • It's not really clear from the OP, I think. It says that the second female hisses/growls at a person and the original mom isn't going into the box, but the kittens are coming out of the box to the original mom. So it's not really clear if the original mom is bothered that she can't get in the box or not (or even if she could get in the box if she wanted to, but just doesn't want to since she has free child care). So...it depends. The main thing is that I wouldn't assume they are being harmed by this, but look for more evidence (weigh the kittens!) to decide if there's a problem or not. Mar 29 at 20:12
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    Hi, just to clarify the two cats get along very well. The kittens seem to be doing fine too (they are still feeding plenty of times a day), my main concern was that maybe there was something affecting the non-pregnant cat.
    – adrian
    Mar 29 at 21:34

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