A mother cat is an incredibly attentive mom. She grooms her kittens, teaches them right from wrong and purrs whenever they're near. It's hard to imagine she could ever forget them -- but she will. If mom and kittens are separated, they'll become strangers.
A World of Scent
Smell means a lot to Kitty. She'll use scent to mark the boundaries of her territory. You've probably noticed her rubbing against almost everything in your home, including you. This is because the act of rubbing leaves behind her scent on things. This is a signal not only to her, but to any other cat who may enter her turf. She'll also groom and rub against cats she is friendly with. This mixes their scents and lets her know she's friends with them.
In The Nest
For at least the first 10 to 12 weeks, Mom and her kittens will spend all their time together. The environment of the nest creates a distinct scent for both Mom and kitten. This lets them know this is their safe haven. As long as they're together, they retain the scent and will snuggle together and groom one another. She'll also recognize her kittens by their cry. Each kitten will has a distinct meow that Mom understands. When she hears their distress call, she'll come to the rescue.
If allowed, Mom and her kittens will often stick together. Even into adulthood, Mom will bring her kittens choice bits of foods and partake in purr-filled grooming sessions. For feral cats, female kittens are more likely than males to stay with Mom. A male kitten will head out to establish a territory of his own. A female kitten will stay with mom and may help her raise future litters of kittens. Even in your home, if they're allowed to stay together they will, happily cuddling and snuggling as long as they're around each other.
If a kitten is separated from his mother, it won't take long for her to stop recognizing him. As soon as they leave the nest, they pick of scents of their new environment. If Mom sees her kitten even a few weeks after separation, it's likely she'll see him as a stranger. Cats depend on scent, not vision, to recognize each other. This can be stressful for Mom. For a few days after her kittens are gone, she may look for them around your home. After a couple of days, she'll settle back in to her regular routine. It can be stressful for her kittens as well. Sometimes they won't eat for a couple of days or seem depressed after leaving the security of the nest.
- The Encyclopedia of The Cat; Michael Pollard
- Pet Place: How Mother Cats Take Care of Kittens