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W19-035: Effects of a Surrogate Mother on Misdirected Oral Behaviors in Orphaned Neonatal Kittens

Thousands of kittens are separated from their mothers each year, either due to maternal death, neglect, or accidental separation. Many of these kittens are hand-raised by humans, but we have very little information about the potential adverse impacts of maternal separation, or how to mitigate impacts that do occur. Our ongoing research of domestic cats suggests that 20 – 30% of orphaned neonatal kittens will develop or otherwise be affected by misdirected oral behavior, in the form of frequent sucking on the bodies of other kittens (allosucking). Misdirected oral behaviors have been well-documented in early-weaned piglets and calves. Kittens who are victims of sucking may require medical care or even euthanasia due to preputial stenosis and other injuries. The kittens who suck on their littermates often ingest urine and feces, leading to digestive upset and reduced formula intake. Currently there is no established treatment for this behavior. Foster caretakers often separate kittens, but most kittens resume sucking on one another once reunited. Because kittens are persistent in sucking, some foster caretakers put clothing or headcovers on kittens. These methods pose ethical and safety issues. The proposed study will test the effectiveness of an artificial surrogate mother on preventing the development of, and reducing the frequency of, misdirected oral behaviors in neonatal kittens. Oral enrichment has been found to be effective in reducing tail biting and belly-nosing in early-weaned piglets. We anticipate that an alternative outlet for sucking behavior will prevent or reduce harmful allosucking in orphaned neonatal kittens.

Grant ID: W19-035

Status: Active

Year Funded: 2019

Amount awarded: $25,000

Investigator: Dr. Karen Vernau; University of California