How to make your new pet comfortable
Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 30 May 2013
Article by Lissa Christopher
Ideally, a kitten will spend the first 12 weeks of life with its mother. Poor little Cake had only four.
He was presented to the Cat Protection Society as a stray, his mother’s whereabouts unknown. Tiny, vulnerable and in need of the sort of comfort only a mother cat can provide, Cake then tried to suckle the warm but milkless bodies of other kittens – any nearby kitten would do. When he was separated from them, he contorted himself into a tight shape and suckled at his own belly. He was, of course, doomed to disappointment, but that didn’t stop him. He was compulsive about it.
The staff at the Cat Protection Society have seen this before. It’s common among kittens separated from their mothers too early. Some grow out of it but others, such as Cake, need help.
Cake’s help came in three parts: a cat-shaped cushion, a lavender pillow and a heat pad. He was basically encouraged towards the cushion whenever he looked like he was about to start suckling. It was warm and comforting and distracted him from worrying his own little belly raw.
If he had been left to continue, he was at risk of permanent fur loss, infection and increased long-term susceptibility to skin irritation, says Nerida Atkin, the feline services manager for the Cat Protection Society in NSW.
Some kittens with separation issues also go on to develop a sort of pica, “where they get obsessed with a particular material, such as wool or plastic”, Atkin says, and they will suckle that material and chew it and even swallow it. It might feel good but, of course, it’s not good for them. Chalkey, Atkin’s own adopted cat, has the pica problem. Plastic is his substance of choice.
“If you drop the top off a plastic bottle, he will chew it and you have to catch him before he ingests the whole thing,” she says. Chalkey was separated from his mother when he was just a day old, which put him at a huge disadvantage.
Atkin has high hopes for Cake, however. He is now 16 weeks old and has just found a new home, along with another kitten from the society. Cake’s cushion will go with him in case he requires its services but, “if he has another cat with him and if there are children in the home, that will help him get his mind off it”, Atkin says.
She is keen to raise awareness about the issue of kittens and early separation. Kittens are often found by members of the public where there’s no sign of a mother cat, she says, but if the mother is around, they need to be kept together if possible.
Given that female cats can wind up pregnant from about 12 weeks of age, the Cat Protection Society also sees a fair few cat owners whose young feline has surprised them with a litter. Under those circumstances, Atkin says, they are often keen to find new homes for the kittens and get their own cat desexed as soon as possible. “But we try to say to them that it’s best for the kittens to stay with mum [for at least eight weeks].” Apart from milk and comfort, “they learn so much from another cat that they can’t really learn from a human”, Atkin says. And a warm cushion might be soothing, but they won’t learn much from one of those, either.
A friend in need: A cat-shaped cushion helped ease Cake’s anxiety. Photo: Tamara Dean