New study explores cross-sucking behaviour in cats

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 cross-sucking behaviour in cats
Photo: Andreea Constantinescu – 123rf

Young animals spend many hours a day nursing on their mothers; even when no milk is released, they will still suckle, which is called ‘non-nutritive sucking’. Unfortunately, when animals are separated from their mothers too soon, they may start sucking their littermates’ bodies.

This behaviour has been well documented in animals such as calves and piglets, and now, thanks to new research from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM), in domestic cats.

Many kittens become orphaned when their mothers die, or if well-meaning humans take them while their mother is away finding food. 

While studying the health and behaviour of orphaned kittens in local foster homes, SVM researchers discovered that 40 per cent of the litters were sucking on each other. Cross-sucking can lead to genital injuries and skin irritation, with some kittens harmed so badly by the relentless sucking that they must be euthanised.

To better understand this behaviour, Dr Mikel Delgado and colleagues surveyed foster caretakers of 1358 kittens less than 60 days of age—publishing their results in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

The researchers found that being orphaned increased the risk of sucking behaviour to almost six times that of litters raised by mothers. Being bottle-fed and separated from the mother earlier in life also increased the chance that kittens would suck on littermates. Male kittens were most likely to be targets of sucking behaviour, which primarily occurred on the stomach and genital region.

“Cross-sucking behavior presents serious challenges for foster caretakers, and 10 per cent of participants said they saw medical problems due to sucking,” Dr Delgado said.

Most survey respondents reported that they separated ‘suckers’ from their litters to stop sucking behaviour. Unfortunately, attempts to reunite kittens led them to resume sucking over 73 per cent of the time.

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