After the "Cats 6" essay, I felt I need to teach more about feral kitten mortality. If you have not already learned from my previous cat essays, you will know by the end of this essay that it is not possible for cats to devastate an ecosystem and they are definitely not going to conquer the world the way the cat haters make it sound.
The first thing you have to know is that there is a very significant difference between domestic cat behavior and feral cat behavior, especially concerning kittens. With domestic cats, that are mostly or complete kept in the house and consider you to be part of their family or clan, they are very trusting and open to you seeing and holding their kittens, though it is best to not over do the holding part. This makes it very easy for you to monitor the progress of the kittens and quickly intervene when problems arise.
Feral cats, which are mostly or completely outside and regularly facing dangers tend to be much more protective of their kittens. I have had females I raised on bottle ask me to put down their kitten when I picked it up, especially when the kitten protested me picking it up. They tend to hide their kittens from sight and even don't like you looking at their kittens much until the kittens are roaming around freely, after about 6 to 8 weeks. This makes it extremely difficult and even impossible to monitor the progress and health of their kittens, much less intervene.
When there was just one female producing kittens on my property, the kitten success rate or percentage of kittens that survived to be one year old was very high, with all of her first three litters surviving.
Then two years ago (in "Cats 6" I said three years ago but I was counting this year because there are already kittens this year but it is more correctly, by most people's thinking, two years ago) I found myself caring for 22 orphaned kittens from 4 litters ranging from 6 kittens at 1.5 weeks old to 7 kittens at about 6 weeks old. The older kittens were easier to take care of because all I had to do was feed them in dishes, provide water, and provide a potty box along with regular servings of KRM (Kitten Replacement Milk) in a dish to make sure they were getting everything they needed.
The youngest kittens were a nightmare because I had to bottle feed them about 10 to 12 times a day and night plus, by the grace of God, I have an old female who is too old to have kittens but is loving and caring of kittens so she did the rest, such as cleaning them and causing them to potty.
The oldest kittens had already been running around outside for weeks by the time they were orphaned, were familiar with the rest of the small clan, and I only had to keep them inside at night until I knew they were grown enough to quickly climb trees and otherwise evade danger.
I had the policy of taking kittens outside for a few hours in the evening to run and play with and learn from the older cats as soon as the kittens could walk but kept them indoors at night until I was sure they could reasonably evade danger, at which time, I let them begin spending nights outside.
You have to understand that the older cats teach the kittens what they need to know to survive. Survival in the wild is no more genetic for cats than it is for humans. Survival is a learned trait.
While I was caring for them, I always rounded up all of the kittens to be fed, fed them all at once, and made sure they all got enough food. It was a very controlled feeding system that worked extremely well with a 100% success rate and was based on my training in science, working with vets, and my personal observations.
You have to understand that tiny little kittens don't have to go very long with INSUFFICIENT food before they weaken and die, forget about going completely without food. The first thing that happens when a kitten is getting insufficient food is they slow their growth rate, next their growth stops, and then they begin to weaken making them very susceptible to disease and death. Small kittens have to get ENOUGH food to continue rapid growth or they get in trouble very quickly and can be dead within days, especially when facing the increased dangers of being outdoors.
With the prior success I had with the one previous feral female, my extremely high success rate with the 22 kittens, and my prior success in the 1990s with some domestic cats, I expected to have a very high success rate last year but was in for a really big surprise, well, OK, huge surprise. None of the kittens were orphaned and I expected the mother cats to have at least an 80% success rate, especially with a little help from me, so when their success rate was only 20% WITH me saving about half of those kittens by intervening, I was stunned and it was difficult to handle. Believe me, it is no fun picking up dead kittens.
We got hit by every problem imaginable and quite a few unimaginable. For example, something I had never heard of before, two first litter mother cats, who had their kittens on the same day, didn't even start lactating to feed their kittens, which all died within days and before I realized what was happening. By the time I realized the mother cats couldn't feed their kittens and tried to intervene, it was too late.
Check to be sure the mother cat is lactating, especially with their first litter.
There are a number of ways that feral mother cats inadvertently cause or contribute to the death of their kittens. The first is that, if they get up too early from feeding before the kittens have had enough to eat and then they too regular do not return to feeding. This causes the kittens to become nutritionally deficient and, if this happens too frequently over a brief period of time, the kittens will become weak and die. The kittens really need to be fed adequately and regularly.
Within a cat clan, there are dominant and recessive females. The dominant females will often attack the recessive females (though usually not when feeding) to maintain control of the area and food supply for her kittens. They are not being mean or evil, they are just being protective cats. If a recessive female is feeding her kittens and a dominant female comes close, the recessive female will stop feeding and get up so she can run, if attacked by the dominant female. Even though she is rarely attacked when feeding, she will get up and not return to feeding after the dominant female passes leaving her kittens nutritionally deficient. This tends to happen frequently enough that most, if not all of the recessive female kittens will become weak and die.
Also, competition within the litter for milk will cause the stronger kittens to push the weaker kittens away from the mother's teats providing the stronger kitten with more food to get even stronger and causing the weaker kitten to get weaker. It is not unusual for these weaker kittens to give up, stop eating, and die.
The mother cats do not try to regulate the kitten feeding in any way. They just lie down and let kitten warfare break out over the old teats.
For herding animals like deer and gazelle, these weaker offspring tend to end up being quickly eaten because, when predators cause the herd to run, the weaker offspring will not be able to keep up with the herd and will become dinner for some predator.
I have noticed that some feral mother cats tend to abandon weak kittens to let them die and conserve the mother cat's energy for the healthy kittens. They will simply move the litter away from the weaker kitten that night and you find a dead body the next morning. Note that this does not always happen.
There is an interesting phenomenon where the strongest, healthiest kitten in the litter is running and playing more than the rest of the kittens in the litter and then suddenly just stops eating and playing and, within days, is dead. I have learned to start watching kittens who suddenly stop playing and, if they also decrease eating, I start pumping KRM, canned food, and cooked meat down their little throats to get their health back up.
Unfortunately this is not always enough because, when they become weak, they can easily become sick and nothing will save them. I have seen the kittens of a recessive mother become weak, a disease gets in the litter, and the disease wipes out the entire litter.
You have to understand that a kitten not getting enough to eat not only physically weakens the kitten but decreases the antibiotics they are receiving from their mother making them even more susceptible to disease.
There was one mother cat who birthed and raised three strong, healthy kittens in my house, took them somewhere outside, one of the kittens kept coming to my house to be with me, and, after a few weeks, I realized the other two were probably dead. Then that mother cat got frustrated from losing the other kittens, abandoned the remaining kitten, and, because it was coming to my house, I was able to save it. If that kitten had not kept coming to my house, it would have died with the other two kittens and I still have no idea where she took the kittens.
BTW, the kitten I saved when it was abandoned is lying next to me while I write this. He is now doing very well.
All too often, by the time I realize a kitten is in trouble, it is too late to save it.
To prevent this, I try to get the kittens to all be friendly with me so they will always come to me so I can monitor their health. This doesn't always work either because the feral mothers often teach their young to stay away from you in spite of the fact you provide them with food and the mothers will often come to you for petting or affection. They teach the kittens to not trust humans to protect the kittens from bad humans.
If you think your life is tough, just try being a female feral cat for two years. Most of them lose most of their kittens within the first few months. Their ability to save their kittens when those kittens get in trouble is surprisingly limited compared to humans. Show me one female feral cat that can save 22 orphaned kittens at the same time.
The more I work with and watch these feral cats, the more I realize that God has really blessed us humans and we cause almost all of our own problems. It is so much easier to understand why the mortality rate in the wild for all species is so incredibly high.
BTW, these feral cats have so totally devastated the local ecosystem that I have a pet gecko. My kitchen light draws bugs to my kitchen window and he walks around on the outside of the window hunting bugs at night. Yeah, the cats have really devastated this ecosystem. Oh, and I also keep hearing Gambles Quail just across the street in the desert, easily within 20 yards of the road.
Someday, God willing, I should write a book about these guys.
John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.