Female felines respond to kitten calls based on urgency

The mothering instinct is not just for humans. In fact, female felines share a unique communication with kittens, even if those kittens aren’t their own, according to a new study.

Researchers from Hannover Medical School and the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover in Germany found that independent of their own experience of raising kittens, female cats distinguish between kitten calls that convey different levels of urgency and react accordingly. Male cats do not adjust their response in similar ways.

The study was published in BMC Evolutionary Biology on Aug. 12.

The researchers recorded 14 calls from seven kittens—four males and three females, ages 9-11 days, in two contexts. In “low arousal,” a kitten was spatially separated from its mother and siblings for three minutes and left undisturbed. In “high arousal,” a kitten was taken out of the nest box for three minutes, lifted off the ground, and turned on its back.

"Surprisingly, male and female cats did not differ in their overall responsiveness to low arousal calls, but female cats adjusted their responsiveness if the state of arousal changed. Male cats did not do so,” said Wiebke Konerding, first author of the study.

“We were also surprised to find that prior experience at raising kittens was not necessary for female cats to respond differently to low and high arousal kitten calls."

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