Do Mother Cats Get Sad When Their Kittens Are Taken Away?

Pet owners have long suspected that cats form deep emotional connections to their kittens. Joanne recalls the heartbreaking cries of her cat Mittens after her litter was adopted out to new homes: “She would wander the house meowing and searching everywhere for her babies.” At first Joanne assumed it was just hormones causing this behavior. But as the days passed, it became clear that Mittens was genuinely sad and missed her kittens.

Do mother cats grieve when separated from their kittens?

This article will examine the emotional lives of cats, specifically looking at whether felines feel grief when their kittens are taken away. We’ll explore the maternal bonds in cats, signs of sadness they exhibit, and ways to ease a mother’s transition when her litter goes to new homes. While anthropomorphizing animal behaviors can be controversial, there is compelling evidence that cats do experience complex emotions – including mourning when separated from their young.

Maternal Bonds in Cats

Mother cats form extremely strong bonds with their kittens that begin from the moment they are born. Mother cats groom, nurse, and care attentively for each kitten for the first several weeks of life. They keep the kittens warm, safe, and fed. Kittens rely entirely on their mother’s milk for the first 4-6 weeks before transitioning to solid food. The mother cat patiently teaches each kitten proper litter box habits, grooming, hunting, and other essential life skills.

This intense maternal bond and care continues for at least the first 8-12 weeks of a kitten’s life. Kittens will naturally begin weaning and gaining independence around 2-3 months old, but may continue nursing and relying partially on their mother’s care and teaching until 4 months old. Most kittens are ready to leave their mother and littermates and transition to a new home at around 12-16 weeks old (Cats & Dogs Naturally).

Do Cats Have Emotions?

Scientific research indicates that cats do experience basic emotions like fear, anxiety, and contentment. A 2020 study published in PMC demonstrated that cats integrate visual and auditory signals to recognize human and feline emotions. The researchers concluded that cats appear to modulate their purring, meowing, and other vocalizations based on the emotional states of those around them.

Additional evidence of cats’ emotional capabilities comes from studies on the mother-kitten bond. Research shows that mother cats communicate with their kittens through purring and meowing, for example to soothe them or warn of danger. Kittens separated from their mother exhibit signs of distress, indicating an emotional attachment.

While cats may not experience the full range of human emotions, experts agree they feel basic emotions related to survival, social bonding, and contentment. Their behaviors, vocalizations, and connections all provide evidence of an emotional inner life.

Signs of Grief in Cats

Cats can exhibit various behavioral changes when grieving the loss of a companion cat or a beloved human. Some common signs of feline grief include:

  • Depression – The cat may seem listless, lethargic, or unwilling to engage in normal activities like playtime or cuddle time. They may sleep more than usual.
  • Decreased appetite – A grieving cat may turn up their nose at food, even their favorite treats. This can lead to weight loss.
  • Excessive vocalizing – Cats in mourning may meow, yowl, or cry more than normal, as if calling out for the lost companion.
  • Searching behavior – A cat may wander the house looking for the missing cat or person. They may wait by the door or windows expecting them to return.
  • Attention seeking – Some grieving cats can become more clingy and demanding of attention from remaining family members.
  • Agitation – A mourning cat may seem restless, pace, or overgroom.

According to VCA Animal Hospitals, these symptoms of grief in cats tend to improve gradually over 2-4 weeks. However, each cat handles loss differently based on their unique personality and bond with the deceased. Consulting a vet can help determine if medication is needed during the mourning period.

Anthropomorphism vs. Evidence

Anthropomorphism refers to the tendency to attribute human emotions and behaviors to non-human animals and objects. When discussing whether mother cats get sad when their kittens leave, it’s important to be aware of anthropomorphism and rely more on scientific evidence.

It’s understandable that we may see human-like emotions in cats when kittens go to new homes. We can imagine how we would feel sad and lonely in that situation. However, it’s problematic to assume cats feel and think exactly like humans do. As F Karlsson discusses, attributing human traits to non-humans can lead to misconceptions about animal minds and ethics [1].

Rather than just anthropomorphizing cats, we should look to scientific research on cat cognition and behavior. As D Mota-Rojas explains, applying rigorous scientific methods provides more objective insights into animal distress and emotions [2]. While cats may experience grief in some form, the extent likely differs from typical human grief.

Overall, being aware of anthropomorphism allows us to discuss cat emotions in a thoughtful, evidence-based way. We can acknowledge cats may be affected by kitten separation without assuming they feel exactly as humans would.

Kittens Moving to New Homes

When kittens reach around 8-12 weeks old, they are typically ready to be adopted and move to their new forever homes. While this can be an exciting time, it’s understandable that mother cats may experience sadness and grief during this transition. There are several best practices for minimizing separation distress when rehoming kittens:

Give the mother cat time to say goodbye. If possible, keep the kittens with their mother for at least 8 weeks before rehoming so they can properly bond. Allow the mother cat to see and smell her kittens before they leave. This provides closure.

Rehome kittens in pairs or groups if you can. Kittens do better in a new home when adopted with a littermate. This provides companionship and reduces stress (Source).

Find good homes. Thoroughly screen potential adopters and ensure the kittens are going to responsible pet owners. Follow up after adoption to get updates and pictures for the mother cat.

Provide extra attention to the mother cat. Spend quality time with the mother cat after her kittens leave, and give her extra playtime, petting, and treats. This helps distract her from missing her kittens.

Consider fostering another litter. If the mother cat enjoyed being a mom, fostering another litter of kittens can provide her that rewarding experience again.

Overall, remember that this separation is natural. In the wild, kittens leave their mothers around 6-10 months old to start their independent lives. With preparation and care, the rehoming process can minimize distress for both kittens and mother cats.

Lifespan Separation in the Wild

Feral cats in the wild live in colonies with complex social structures. Kittens typically stay with their mothers for 6-8 months before separating and living more independently within the colony (

In a feral colony setting, kittens nurse from their mothers for around 2 months and begin eating solid food provided by the colony after 4-6 weeks. At about 8 weeks old, kittens become more independent and start exploring further from the den site. They continue interacting with their mother and siblings as juveniles up until 6-8 months when they reach maturity.

At that stage, young cats naturally separate from their direct family and transition to solitary adult life within the colony’s social structure. They may still have casual interactions and loose bonds with siblings or their mother, but the close kitten-mother relationship dissipates as kittens grow into more independent juvenile and adult cats. This is the natural lifespan separation that occurs for feral cats in the wild (

Helping a Grieving Mother Cat

If you notice signs of grief in a mother cat after her kittens have been taken away, there are some things you can do to help comfort her:

Engage her in playtime with interactive toys like feather wands or laser pointers. Kittens moving away often leaves a void of activity for the mother cat, so engaging her in play can provide mental stimulation. Make sure to let her “catch” the toy at the end for a sense of reward. Multiple short 5-10 minute play sessions throughout the day can help distract her from missing her kittens.

Give her extra affection and cuddles. The warmth and intimacy can help soothe her nerves. Gentle petting along the cheeks, chin and back in calming strokes releases oxytocin, a bonding hormone in both cats and humans. Set aside relaxed quality time for just the two of you.

Keep routines for feeding, playtime, etc as consistent as possible. Familiar routines give cats a sense of stability. Make sure she has a comfortable space like a cat tree, cat bed or sunny window perch where she can retreat if feeling vulnerable.

Consider using synthetic feline pheromone sprays like Feliway or Comfort Zone to help relieve stress and anxiety. These mimic natural calming pheromones and help create a sense of familiarity and security.

Overall, empathy, patience and quality time are key in comforting a grieving mother cat. If signs of depression or anxiety persist more than a few weeks, consult your veterinarian for additional guidance.

When to Seek Help

If your cat is showing extreme signs of distress that do not improve over time, it may be necessary to seek help from your veterinarian. Indications that your cat’s grief has become concerning include not eating, excessive vocalizing, aggression, or other destructive behaviors. Your vet can assess your cat’s physical and mental wellbeing and determine if medication may help ease their anxiety.

There are some medications that can be prescribed to help with separation anxiety in cats, such as anti-anxiety drugs or synthetic pheromones like Feliway that can have a calming effect. Your vet may suggest trying a pheromone diffuser before resorting to medication. It’s important to closely follow your vet’s dosage instructions if using medication for your cat’s anxiety. While drugs can help in the short-term, they should be combined with behavior modification techniques to address the underlying cause of your cat’s distress.


In conclusion, while mother cats may not experience sadness in the human sense when their kittens leave, they do seem to exhibit signs of distress and grief, ranging from searching behaviors to lack of appetite. As highly social animals, cats form close bonds with their young, and separation can be traumatic. However, the sadness appears temporary, especially if the mother cat is introduced to a new litter. With time, patience and care, most mother cats can overcome their grief.

The important thing is to have empathy for a mother cat’s emotional experience. Even though her grief may be different from human grief, it is still real and deserving of compassion. By understanding a cat’s needs, we can help ease the transition when kittens move to new homes. With love and support, both mother cat and kittens can go on to live happy, healthy lives.

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