By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 12 May 2011)
Many people believe that tom cats (unneutered male cats) wantonly kill their offspring in order to bring female cats back into heat. The reality is that while some tom cats ignore their kittens, others behave paternally if they have access to them, though they may not get the chance, as females often drive males away from the nesting area once kittens are born.
Male cats, though more inclined to ignore their kittens, may also choose to be active participants in raising them. Males have been observed bringing food for the mother and young and defending them against people and other animals. Some males even take over mothering duties if the kittens are orphaned or the mother is incompetent.
It is uncommon for a male cat to kill his own kittens. This tragic event tends to occur as a result of mistaken identity resulting from sexual or predatory drives. In rare cases, a male mistakes the crouched posture of a kitten for the heat pose of an adult female, particularly if he has recently been repelled by an adult female and his sex drive is frustrated. The male may accidentally kill the kitten when he employs the neck bite used in mating. Also, the small size, erratic movements, and high-pitched voices of kittens occasionally confuse the cat’s hunting drive, causing a kitten to temporarily be viewed as prey by either a male or a female that has never had kittens. Despite these rare exceptions, females are usually very good mothers and males are either helpful or indifferent rather than hostile to their kittens.
Tom cat responses to kittens sired by other males vary from one cat to the next. In some cases, toms will kill another male’s kittens as a lion would kill cubs to bring females into heat sooner, particularly if there are other tom cats in the area and competition is intense. However, they are just as likely to tolerate or ignore those kittens, though adult feral males may drive juveniles away from the group when they reach sexual maturity. Because of the risk posed by strange males, feline fathers may run them off or groups of females will work together to defend against them.
See the Pregnant Cats and Kittens Page for information on caring for pregnant cats, kitten development week by week, kitten training, kitten care, and more. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- Hartwell, S. (1996). “Cats That Kill Kittens.” MessyBeast.com.
- Morris, D. (1987). Catlore. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.