For humans it may be simply unthinkable and repugnant to think of eating the flesh of an equal, especially one’s own child, but in nature this is not uncommon and there is a perfectly acceptable explanation for it.
Unlike humans, who usually have only one child at a time, many animals can have up to 10 offspring in a single litter, something unthinkable for those who need to survive in the wild, looking for scarce resources and protecting themselves from possible predators.
First, females can feed on a calf that was born with a disability and would naturally not be able to survive much longer. Another point is that the female may not be able to feed so many young at once, something that would weaken her and generally harm the very survival of the mother and the entire litter. By feeding on the young, she guarantees the nutrients needed to strengthen herself and increase the chances of survival of the remaining puppies.
As for predators, females may often prefer to feed on the young themselves, than give a predator the chance to do so, and strengthen themselves even more for it, or just abandon them, so that it can survive and, in this way, ensure that there are new litters in the future.
It is worth thinking that, if the mother dies, the chances of survival of the offspring in the wild is almost zero, but with the mother’s survival, new litters may be born in the future – and, consequently, the survival of the species.
A very common example is hamsters, which females have, on average, eight babies and can eat two of them. Laboratory tests found that removing a few pups after birth stopped this cannibalism, but adding more pups the behavior increased.
in home environment
Once the question of survival of animals in the wild is considered, what would drive domestic animals to eat their own young after birth? For this, there are also explanations and it is not something that owners should reprimand their pets for.
According to veterinary doctor Saula Cataneo, this is an instinctive issue and has nothing to do with the environment where the bitches live and can happen if the female realizes that any animal in the litter will not survive. “Usually more puppies are born than the mother can take care of, if the mother feels that the pup has difficulty feeding and is very weak, she has this behavior. It can happen, but it’s not that common,” she explains.
For Juliana Damasceno, master in psychobiology and specialist in feline behavior, this issue, in addition to puppies that are already born with no chance of survival, may be linked to the females’ inexperience with motherhood and the stress situations experienced by the female during pregnancy, although , she says, are rarer cases.
“When the pups are born stillborn, this is an adaptive behavior that happens in most animals, such as energy reuse and also cleaning the place, for asepsis”, explains the biologist.
Saula Cantaneo explains that the behavior of eating puppies is not directly linked to the mother, but when realizing that a pup has no chance of avenging. In the case of a weakened pup, but still alive, the veterinarian advises that females can have an assisted birth and the tutor can remove this pup from the litter and take care of it separately, as the chances of a smaller and weaker pup are greater, It is important to note if, as a mother, the female has assumed a more aggressive behavior and the way she deals with the young, not always being directly linked to the female’s instincts.
By feeding on the weakest pups, the female is also ensuring the survival of the stronger pups, as the weaker animal can also weaken those with the best chance of survival.
As Juliana Damasceno explains, when females give birth, they feed on the placenta, cleaning the pups, when a stillborn pup (when it dies still inside the uterus), the female has the impulse to feed on this pup, as a form of hygiene and energy recovery, essential for the survival of the rest of the litter.
Stress, depression or past trauma
For Saula, stress and depression should not be confused with this behavior, for her it is an anthropomorphic way of evaluating animals. “Animals are not conscious, that means they act by instinct, they act by what is genetically marked in them”, she says.
However, for Juliana, having gone through traumatic situations or chronic stress during the gestation period can lead to this behavior, as well as nutritional issues.
A female that is very aggressive, or that is hiding too much, may be experiencing a moment of stress and this can happen during pregnancy. “Is it over there [a gata] tends to get more aggressive, especially with other cats, which is normal, but there is a pattern of this aggression, when you go beyond this pattern, it’s a reason to be concerned”, explains the biologist.
Juliana also alerts to pre-existing behavioral issues that cats often go through and, due to lack of information, tutors do not know. “Unfortunately, in most homes there are stressful situations, conflicts with other cats, the presence of other animals (and difficulty socializing with these other animals), changes in routine. There are many factors that can influence a cat’s well-being, causing it to suffer from stress.”
As well as environmental factors, the pet’s physical health can also generate this stress, in the same way that agitation can lead to more serious health problems. “Stress leaves the animal immunosuppressed, making it more susceptible to having some physical complication”, says Juliana.
Inexperience in motherhood
In many cases the female is not yet ready to be a mother, so she will not have the maternal instinct to care for the young.
“This can happen in both domestic and wild animals. In the first calf, the female is not yet fully developed, either behaviorally or physically, to provide maternal care”, explains Juliana, who emphasizes that it is something rare to happen, but it is possible, especially in cases of puppies that are born with some deformity, or lifeless.
The importance of prenatal
Saula Cataneo highlights that it is very important that prenatal care is carried out to make sure how many puppies the female is expecting, but that, during childbirth, it is recommended that the tutor does not interfere or, if necessary, that he interferes minimally.
“In the case of assisted birth, the ideal is that the tutor is just supporting, as this can lead to rejection [da fêmea com o filhote]”, explains the vet.
“The mother will rip open the pouch and lick the pup, which is a critical process. This act of cleaning the animal stimulates the lung, clearing the airways. This is the expected behavior and the female needs to go through it”, highlights Saula, who adds that, if it is noticed that in a birth that should have four puppies, only three were born, and the female is very panting, she is experiencing complications. at birth and the tutor should take her to the vet immediately.
“Aid in childbirth should only be provided when necessary, as this moment is very much up to the mother. And if she rejects the puppy or shows that she can attack it, the tutor must isolate the newborn for a while from the female”, he adds.
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