Why Mothers Refuse to Mother

This isn’t an entirely uncommon scenario

Published: September 25, 2017
Photo courtesy of DepositPhotos

A recent question started me thinking about the times that things don’t go well between puppies, kittens, and their parents.

The question posed was: My momma dog gave birth two days ago to a litter of nine pups. She is trying kill all of them. What’s the best way to keep the pups alive without the mother being around?

Sad to say, but this isn’t an entirely uncommon scenario.

Luckily, nature has given most kittens and puppies a head start in life by imbuing their mothers with a strong set of maternal instincts that protect them and make sure that most of them see it to adulthood. (The doggy and kitty fathers are usually long gone by this time.) But sometimes those maternal instincts either don’t appear or something throws a monkey wrench in the works and endangers the lives of the little ones.

I always think of a few things whenever a question like the one above arises, but the first thought I usually have is, “This probably isn’t going to end well.” When something happens to wreck the vital connection between life-giving mother and her young, usually the humans involved are going to have a terribly bad and sad time, and the young involved may not all survive.

In some cases, it’s just a question of adjustment. Perhaps the mother is a first-timer and just needs a day or so to adjust to the new arrival of mewling life that now surrounds her. In that case, as long as the young aren’t in any danger, it’s usually just a matter of waiting. But if like our hapless friend above, the mom seems hell-bent on doing harm to the wee ones, we need to step in and remove the little ones from a dangerous situation. This is where it gets hard on the humans.

When you have to bottle-feed orphan puppies or kittens, you’ve just agreed to an almost full-time job 24/7 for a month. If you work long hours and can't make it home for lunchtime feedings or need your full 8 hours of sleep to function, bottle feeding orphans isn't for you. (Read more about caring for orphan puppies and kittens.) 

Here’s what young orphaned puppies and kittens usually need:

  • Bottle feeding formula every 2 to 3 hours during the day and every 4 hours during the night for about 2 weeks.  The orphans can usually start having solid foods mixed with formula starting between 2 to 3 weeks old while supplementing with bottle feeding. Weaning from their mother happens around 6 to 8 weeks old.
  • Stimulation to urinate and defecate. The mom usually uses her tongue, but most people raising orphan pets use a warm washcloth to gently stroke the area under the tail. Puppies and kittens need to learn how to poop, and mom or foster mom have to help them do it until they get the hang of it.
  • Be kept in an 85-90⁰F environment until they can maintain their proper temperature by themselves.
  • Be kept clean and dry.
  • Protected from other pets, diseases, and anything else that could hurt them.

That’s a LOT of work! Always better if furry mom can take care of it, but that’s not always possible.

What might make a new mom reject her young? Is this some sort of doggy post-partum depression?

In most cases we just don’t know, but I have seen enough cases like this to know that for some of these unfortunate events, the mom has a good reason to abandon her new young: there’s something very wrong with them. The sad cases that I can recall involve dedicated foster dog and cat parents who did everything in my list above letter-perfectly and still lost the whole litter. While sometimes this can be due to the young ones not receiving critical antibodies through the mother’s milk to fight infection (the same type of colostrum people have), in many cases the young are later found to have severe congenital defects that somehow the mother knew were there. She simply doesn’t want to expend the energy to take care of young that are doomed to die, as sad as that is to say. And sometimes, as with our poor friend who posed the question, she does more than just neglect them: she tries to kill them. It is utterly heartbreaking for everyone involved.

Luckily, even though it does happen, neglecting or killing their young is still a rarity when compared to all the young dogs and cats that are raised with love by their moms and the humans who love them.

Have you ever had to foster a litter of puppies or kittens that the mom neglected or tried to kill? Share your experiences in the comments section below.


Laurie Lopez
January 22, 2018

I have several kitty litters that I had to take over, mostly because mom was ignoring them. There was one time my mama cat ate the foot and partial leg of a baby that was just a few days old. The kitty died. I was shocked and took the liter away from her and fed them myself. Good thing I had retired on a spine injury. I was able to keep them alive and healthy.

Dawn cedotal
October 5, 2017

Ive had to do several times with all kinds from pups to raccoons squirrels. Most of time i had good turn out with them. Its a how lot of work and u get frustrated but at the end when u see them bouncing around playing makes it all worth it.

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