How does a mother cat get on with her grown-up kittens?
It is not an uncommon scenario – your cat has kittens, and you find homes for all of them. Well, nearly all, because there's that one kitten that is just too cute to give up. And his mother seems to really miss the other kittens, so why not keep just the one, and become a two-cat household?
The question is – what's the relationship going to be between mother and son once that cute kitten has grown up? Will it be different to the dynamic in other two-cat households, or will there always be a tight family bond between the pair? Will the mother always remember that the other cat is her own kitten or will she eventually forget and start to treat him like any other cat? If that last sounds impossible to you - how can a mother forget her own child? - remember that you are thinking like a human. It's different for cats.
Let's start with a two-cat household where the cats are not related. Quite often you may think that you have a two-cat household, but in reality you have two one-cat households. That is, your cats have worked out that they have to live together, but that does not mean they have to like it. So while they share some common areas, such as the food bowls, by and large they live in separate parts of the house and get on with their own lives. This can happen also with cats that are related.
By and large, cats are less inclined to be pack animals than are humans, so they are quite happy living on their own. However, as anyone who has cared for cats is aware, every cat is an individual, and some of those individuals are more sociable than others. So if a cat has another cat that she likes and trusts, they may be inclined to hang out together. This is often the case with a mother and kitten, since the pair have bonded early. As a result, even when memory of the familial relationship has faded away, the enjoyment of the other cat's companionship remains. It all depends on the individual personalities. As with many parent-child relationships, it can also happen that by the time a child is a teenager, parent and child can't stand the sight of one another.
As ever, sex complicates things. The ideal relationship – mother and child snoozing nose-to-nose on the rug and playing together in the garden - will only happen if both cats have been neutered. This is because an un-neutered mother cat is ready to have kittens again when her last litter is around 12 months old.
At that point her grown kittens are no longer her offspring but simply rivals for the food and resources she will need to rear her next litter. Don't be surprised if at this point the mother turns on her first litter of kittens and tries very hard to drive them out of the house. She is simply acting according to her biological programming. This is particularly the case if one of the kittens is an un-neutered tom – driving away this kitten seems to be nature's way of avoiding inbreeding. But make no mistake, if both cats are un-neutered and kept in the home, inbreeding will occur.
It has been shown in studies of feral cat colonies that where cats are related, they are all female. If food is abundant, a mother cat may selectively drive away her male children but tolerate the presence of the females, whether or not they are spayed. However, unspayed females are just as likely to see their mother as a rival for resources when their turn comes to breed, and once again, fur will fly.
Since there is no health benefit to keeping either a male or female cat un-neutered, it seems that if you want a happy multi-cat family in your home, the answer is to take mother and kitten to the vet and neuter the pair as soon as it is safe to do so. Don't rely on the mother-child bond to keep your cats together thereafter. It's very probable that after her kittens are grown, mother regards them as being just other cats. But cats, like people, can get along and form close friendships without family ties to keep them together.