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The Cross-Species Mothering Instinct in Pets

The mothering instinct in animals crosses between species. Read more on Richmond pet sitter's blog.

Several years ago I had a Pekingese – Emma Sue – and a Lhasa Apso – Herbie. Herbie was very outgoing and loved everyone. Emma Sue was a little more selective about who she accepted into her circle of friends.

At the time, a woman working in the Pet Pleasers’ office also did rescue work and had a group of four newborn kittens that she was bottle feeding. If you have ever done this, you know that the tiny babies typically require feedings every two to three hours at first. These kittens had been orphaned at birth and had not known any “mother’s love.”

The sitter brought the kittens with her to the office. As you can imagine, kittens of that age make the most adorable and pitiful little mewing sounds and the dogs were curious to see what was in the box. Well, Emma Sue took one look and stuck what little Pekingese nose she had straight up in the air and walked away.

But Herbie had an absolute fit over them! He practically turned himself inside out wanting to get near them. We weren’t sure what to do, but he absolutely would not leave them alone. So after the kittens were fed, we decided to put Herbie in the box with them. He was small – about 15 pounds – so was able to get himself very comfortable in the box with the kittens.

Mothering Instinct Transcends Species

One look and we all knew — Herbie was in absolute heaven and so were the kittens. It was so touching to see them snuggle with him and watch him clean each one, from head to tail. He did just what the mother cat would do in stimulating them to go potty and cleaning them up.

Of course, they tried to nurse on him and he did his best to nurse them, but that wasn’t going to happen. But he was very successful at the snuggling and providing an unconditional closeness and love for them. It was priceless. Plus, those were the cleanest kittens in Richmond, Virginia!

As the kittens grew, their box got increasingly bigger. Herbie continued to be their surrogate mom and they were a very happy family. When they started to climb out of the box, Herbie was right behind them, dragging them back into the box. He was not fond of them leaving his side. During all of this “mothering,” Emma Sue stayed as far away from the nursery as possible. She wanted nothing to do with being a mom or sharing responsibilities!

Inevitably, the day came when the kittens needed to be able to run around, play and learn to use a litter box. Herbie followed them all over the office making sure they were safe and not getting in any trouble. They still came to him for reassurance, comfort and a snuggle.

Soon enough the kitties were ready to find forever homes. This was a very difficult time for all of us —  we had grown very fond of them and knew Herbie would be devastated when they were gone. He was and it was sad to watch, but his mothering skills were amazing.

Once a Caregiver, Always a Caregiver

Herbie went on to “mother” others during the course of his life — a handicapped pet bird, a group of baby possums and human babies too. Herbie was a natural caregiver.

In doing research on this phenomenon where the mothering instinct between species is triggered by the sounds that the baby animal makes. It brings out the instinct to mother no matter how divergent the species may be. Well, except for Emma Sue!


Author: Carole

Carole Tomas is the owner and president of Pet Pleasers, Inc. She is a graduate of Ohio University and a Charter Member of the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters. When she began Pet Pleasers in 1985, business was conducted Old School via a landline, snail mail and an answering machine the size of a breadbox. No internet, email, text messaging, digital photos, social media or mobile phones! What has remained constant over three decades: Carole’s love of animals and an unwavering passion for professional pet sitting.

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