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Effects of a surrogate mother on misdirected oral behaviors in orphaned neonatal kittens

W19-035: Effects of a surrogate mother on misdirected oral behaviors in orphaned neonatal kittens
(EveryCat Health Foundation grant progress report, Year 2)

Principal Investigators: Dr. Karen Vernau, Dr. Melissa Bain, Dr. Tony Buffington, Dr. Mikel Delgado, University of California-Davis

Abnormal sucking behavior is common among kittens, affecting up to 30% of orphaned kittens. This behavior involves suckling on littermates in lieu of the queen, often on limbs, genitals, or the anal area. This can result in damage to the suckled kitten, as well as ingestion of urine or feces by the suckler, leading to malnutrition and disease. Separating kittens may relieve suckling but at the expense of reduced social interaction. As such, the use of a “surrogate” mother may be helpful to redirect behavior while maintaining social interactions.

The authors have utilized an artificially cat model called “SurroKitty” in their research. The SurroKitty is a stuffed animal that is covered in faux-fur, is heated, and creates a purring sound. It seats up to six nursing nipples (the Miracle Nipple), which can be attached to bottles.

The objectives of this study were:
(1) to determine risk factors related to the development of misdirected oral behaviors in orphaned neonatal kittens; and
(2) to determine whether an artificial surrogate mother reduces the presence or severity of these behaviors

At the point of issuance of the update, 39 kittens were enrolled in the study, with plans to enroll an additional 50-75. Kittens have been recruited from rescue groups focusing on neonatal kitten care. The goal of the study is to investigate the effects of SurroKitty on cross suckling, though the exact methodology has not been reported.

The authors have not yet investigated any effect of the surrogate mother on neonatal mortality, risks of aspiration, or other health variables. They have also not investigated the long-term effects of this surrogate model, as the research is specifically focused on cross suckling behavior. Further work into these areas is needed.


See also: Winn/EveryCat Health Foundation Webinar: “Overcoming Adversity: Understanding the Health and Welfare of Orphaned Neonatal Kittens” with Dr. Mikel Delgado