Cats have big litters, so kittens have lots of brothers and sisters. And mothers care for their kittens for a long time. But whether they recognize each other once they are separated is less clear.
Cats understand that they’re related based on their scent. Mothers treat their kittens differently to kittens of other cats, and siblings get along well even once they grow up. That’s why adopting littermates is a good idea. But, if the cats are separated, they forget each other.
But cats are solitary creatures. So, even if they know that they’re related, that doesn’t mean they ‘love’ each other.
Do Cats Know They’re Related?
Cats do know that they’re related. A cat can recognize its father and mother, and its siblings based on their smell. That’s why cats can live in a group with their siblings and mother while young, even though they aren’t pack animals when adults.
However, if they haven’t seen each other for a long time, they may not remember each other. That’s because each cat will smell different to how it used to.
And even though cats can know that they’re related, that doesn’t mean that they understand family in the same way that people do. Once they’re fully grown, a cat won’t treat its family any differently to other cats.
The reasons why cats recognize their family when younger are evolutionary in nature. The queen (mother cat) will take better care of its offspring if it recognizes them and has some attachment to them. The kittens will stay with their mother if they recognize it.
But once they grow up, cats treat all other cats the same, regardless of whether they’re related. That means a cat will be protective over its territory and food, whether the other cat is a stranger or a sibling.
Do Cats Recognize Siblings?
Cats can recognize their siblings. Cats use their sense of smell to recognize each other. When all of the siblings are living together with their mother, they all smell the same. They smell of the mother, and of the same environment.
If a stranger cat which looked exactly the same were to wander in, the others would recognize it as a stranger immediately. That’s because it wouldn’t smell like the group’s mother, or of the same environment.
Again, the reason why groups of siblings recognize each other is that it’s evolutionarily advantageous. By rejecting strangers, they ensure that the group’s collective genetics will be passed on to the next generation.
By accepting a stranger, that would mean the stranger’s genetics are passed on to the next generation as well. This isn’t a major problem, but it’s best for the parents and the sibling group to ensure their survival, and not that of strangers.
However, once they grow up, the siblings may not show that they recognize each other. They may act as if they’re strangers, fighting like any two cats would over food or space.
Do Cats Treat Siblings Differently?
Cats treat siblings differently to other cats when they are still kittens. They are comfortable in each others’ presence. They play together, groom each other, eat together, and live in close proximity. If a stranger cat were to sneak into the group, they wouldn’t treat it this way because it doesn’t have a familiar smell.
As the siblings grow up, they may stay close to each other. They may still play and groom each other. This is in contrast to what happens when you introduce two stranger cats to each other as adults. Strangers usually reject each other.
But house cats aren’t like lions, living in prides/groups. Both male and female house cats are loners, and have their own territories. Even siblings may still fight with each other.
There is also limited evidence that siblings remember each other, even if they’re separated.
According to Behavior, cats that are related will mate less frequently than cats which aren’t.
The team behind the study looked at feral cats. Female feral cats mate with multiple males, but don’t accept every male that wants to mate with them when they’re in heat. The scientists observed a group of female cats during estrous to see which other cats they mated with.
According to the study, female cats would normally choose not to mate with any males they were related to. This indicates that the pair can smell something about each other, perhaps, which indicates that they wouldn’t make a successful mating pair.
Will Cats Remember Siblings after Being Separated?
Using smell to recognize other cats has drawbacks too. It means that if you separated one of the siblings from the rest for a while, it may not smell the same as it used to. In that scenario, the others and the mother may reject it.
However, this is unlikely to happen. That’s because kittens only rarely get separated from the rest of their siblings. The mother will keep a watchful eye on its kittens for the first parts of their lives. Only once the kittens are old enough to smell, hear and see the world around them properly will they start to go off on their own.
As for separating kittens to sell them, it’s not common practise to do this before the kittens are old enough to be weaned. Once they’re fully weaned, and have had time to experience the world around them, only then are they separated. After this point, the siblings don’t need to remember each other.
When Should You Separate Cat Siblings?
It’s a common misconception that you should separate kittens as soon as they’re weaned. The period after full weaning is just as important. It’s during this time that kittens first learn to socialize with other cats.
Cats learn to socialize with their siblings and parents during this time. Between roughly the seventh and fourteenth weeks of life, kittens learn a lot from observing their mothers.
According to the journal Animals, this is also when kittens learn to socialize with humans.
They watch as their mothers play, and do the same. They watch as their mothers’ groom, and do the same, to themselves and each other. If you were to separate a kitten from its siblings during this time, its social development would be stunted. So, after fourteen weeks is best.
Do Cats Treat Their Offspring Differently?
Cats do treat their offspring differently. They can recognize which kittens are their own offspring, and which aren’t, based on their scent. As in the scenario above, a kitten that sneaks into the sibling group can be instantly identified by the mother. The mother will then reject it, and not waste its milk on it.
That doesn’t mean that a cat will never help to raise the kittens of other cats. This has been known to happen. However, if the mother already has a large litter that it struggles to feed, attempting to take care of another kitten may mean that one of its own offspring dies.
Male tom cats also treat their kittens differently to the kittens of other cats. Unfortunately, a tom cat can kill the kittens of other toms. Again, this behavior stems from seeking an evolutionary advantage. If the tom kills the kittens of other cats, then its own kittens are more likely to survive.
Do Cats Remember Their Kittens Years Later?
The picture changes when the kittens get old enough to leave the litter. Once a kitten leaves the litter in the wild, it goes to live on its own elsewhere. When this happens, the cat and its mother are estranged and they treat each other as they would any other cats.
This occurs because cats are solitary animals. When you think of a cat’s idea of social structure, you may think of lions. Lions live in ‘prides’, large groups of many lions that live and hunt together. According to Current Zoology, even captive-bred lions still understand this social structure when reintroduced to the wild.
However, lions are the outliers of the cat family. Other cat species, whether small or large, are solitary animals. That’s why domestic cats enjoy spending so much time alone, especially compared to other pet animals that enjoy forming ‘packs’ with their owners.
When a cat leaves the litter, there’s no need for the pair to treat each other differently. That being said, it is possible that the pair still recognize each other. They may know that they’re related, but still fight anyway.
If you keep the cat and its grown kitten together in the same home, they may get on or they may not. They will fight over food and space like any two cats would.
Do Cats Recognize Their Parents?
When they are first born, kittens recognize their mothers. They imprint on their mothers soon after birth, and then will recognize them based on primarily smell, but also appearance. Imprinting in this way helps keep the kitten safe.
However, kittens wouldn’t recognize their fathers. That’s because the father doesn’t stick around to feed or protect its young once the mother gives birth to it. Kittens feed on their mothers’ milk, so the father can’t help in that way. In truth, the tom cat’s aim is usually to sire another litter.
A cat won’t treat its parents or siblings differently once it grows up and leaves to live on its own. It will fight them away from its territory, and won’t share food with them.
As for whether that means they ‘recognize’ their parents is unclear. They certainly don’t treat their parents as ‘family’ in the sense that people do.
Should You Adopt Littermates?
Having brothers and sisters living together is a good idea. There are multiple reasons why you should consider adopting more than one cat from the same litter.
They Have Each Other for Support
Moving to a new home is difficult for a cat. The new environment can be challenging: it can contain other pets, loud noises, new foods and more. This can all be stressful for a cat, and lead to lots of fighting and skittishness.
However, if the cat is with its sibling, it has the sibling for support. It will still recognize its sibling from having grown up with it and knowing its scent. This will lessen the negative effects of living in a new house.
Ideally, you should create a safe spot for your new kittens where they can sit and sleep together. This should ease the transition.
They Begin on Good Terms
Kittens begin life close to each other. They groom each other, play with each other, and share food. As they grow older, they may grow apart somewhat. But they at least begin their lives as adult cats on good terms.
The opposite may be true of two cats which are strangers. If you have one cat already, and get another to keep it company, the two may not like each other. The original cat will resent the new cat’s sudden appearance, and want it out of its ‘territory’ (your house).
The new cat will feel stressed because it has to live in the ‘territory’ of another cat. This can lead to fighting. The two may get used to each other over time, but won’t always. The two may dislike each other forever.
This doesn’t prove that cats understand what ‘family’ means. But they do at least get on better than two stranger cats.