Understand how the maternal instinct works in the animal world – Vida de Bicho

Maternal instinct in animals is a mechanism for the perpetuation of the species (Photo: Pexels/ umit ozbek/ CreativeCommons)

Almost a year ago, a case in Jaraguá do Sul (SC) caught the attention of residents of the region and animal lovers: a hen decided to become the “adoptive mother” of the puppies of a female dog that lived on the same property.

Who tells this story is the bookseller Maristela Klutckowskiwho followed everything and, in the end, decided to adopt the dog, named Mel:

“She was on the street with another dog on a leash. I fed them both in the morning and at night, when I passed by the place on my way to and from work. Until one day they both disappeared and I had already seen, before that, she crossing with another dog. So I got Mel neutered by the city hall and went in search of the pet”, he says.

Maristela then found them near the leash dog’s house and talked to the other animal’s owner to ask Mel for a temporary home until she could be spayed – which still couldn’t happen because the dog was pregnant.

chicken that

Chicken that “adopted” the puppies in Jaraguá do Sul (SC) (Photo: Personal Archive/ Maristela Klutckowski/ Reproduction)

He and his family took care of the dog on their property until the puppies were ready for adoption, and it was at this point that a new character entered the story: the hen.

“She was from (the tutor’s) family and, as soon as the puppies were born, she immediately welcomed the little ones. It was 5°C cold at that time and she was a very special foster mother”, she says.

The bird would enter the nest to protect the puppies, including placing them under its wings, as if it were hatching eggs. It was like a divided motherhood, because Mel was not jealous and calmly allowed the approach and care of the other animal.

“Time passed, the chicks grew and the hen continued to take care of them even though they nibbled on her. As the chicks were donated to responsible homes, the hen got sick, she didn’t eat anymore, she didn’t drink, she just sulked in the old little house – until it was gone”, says Maristela, explaining that the bird died of depression after being separated from the dogs.

Does maternal instinct exist among pets?

The maternal instinct can also arise in females that have not given birth due to environmental stimuli (Photo: Unsplash/ Jametlene Reskp/ CreativeCommons)

The maternal instinct can also arise in females that have not given birth due to environmental stimuli (Photo: Unsplash/ Jametlene Reskp/ CreativeCommons)

The relationship that the hen established with the chicks raises a question: does the maternal instinct also happen in the pet universe – and, if it exists, does it also occur between different species? The answer is yes, according to the veterinarian Juliana GilMaster in Ethology and Animal Welfare:

“Animals do have a maternal instinct. It is also important, from an evolutionary point of view, for the continuity of that species. And they manifest this instinct in ways that are often similar to ours, but always seeking protection”, he says.

This protection and care take place, for example, through breastfeeding, physical and mental stimulation, providing shelter and food, aggression against intruders and cleaning. “In the case of the little dog or the cat that licks, she is there doing a hygienic control to reduce the chance of diseases, for example”, she says.

the veterinarian Sabina ScarduaPhD in animal science with an emphasis on behavior and columnist for the Animal lifeadds that the maternal instinct also appears in individuals other than newly calved females.

“Although maternal behavior is strongly associated with the effect of specific hormones, such as oxytocin and prolactin, maternal and paternal instincts are present in most animals, to different degrees, as a result of genetics”, he says.

The allomaternal potential exists in individuals of the same species, but it can also occur between animals of different species (Photo: Unsplash/Brett Jordan CreativeCommons)

The allomaternal potential exists in individuals of the same species, but it can also occur between animals of different species (Photo: Unsplash/Brett Jordan CreativeCommons)

Thus, some animals that have not given birth can adopt other animals in different situations due only to maternal instinct, not necessarily through the primary action of hormones.

“Once something in the environment activates this instinct, from within, physiology responds, releasing specific neurotransmitters and hormones that then feed back with environmental stimuli, maintaining parental behavior”, explains Sabina.

She also says that the degree to which each individual is able to express care for their young is called allomaternal potential, which is very large in buffaloes, for example, in which females suckle not only their young but other females in the herd.

“It is common to see up to four calves suckling from the same female. In this species, each mother has only one calf per pregnancy. Primates and rodents also have strong allomaternal potential”, he says.

According to Sabina, this potential is measured not only in the case of breastfeeding other individuals of the same species – but it can also extend to animals of other species, as happened with the chicken and the puppies. In addition, the potential refers, in addition to breastfeeding, to protective care, play, food and hygiene.

rain of hormones

The release of oxytocin, which occurs from stimulation of the mammary gland, leads to more affiliative behaviors (Photo: Unsplash/Shayna Douglas/CreativeCommons)

The release of oxytocin, which occurs from stimulation of the mammary gland, leads to more affiliative behaviors (Photo: Unsplash/Shayna Douglas/CreativeCommons)

According to Juliana, all behaviors presented by animals are related to internal physiological responses coordinated by hormones, neurotransmitters and neuropeptides.

“When we think of maternal instinct, one of the most studied hormones is oxytocin. From research, we conclude that the increase in oxytocin is closely related to the care of the calf. It is known, even in the media, as the love hormone , precisely because with the increase of its release there are more affiliative behaviors”, he says.

Along with prolactin, oxytocin is released by stimulation of the mammary gland in mammals. This allows a very curious phenomenon: the production of milk without the occurrence of a pregnancy.

“In the case of an animal that has not given birth and is not lactating, if it allows a puppy to suckle on its teats, this sucking stimulus will activate a sensory pathway that goes to the brain and activates the pituitary gland to release oxytocin, which then falls into the bloodstream and goes to the mammary gland to stimulate the development of the glands and contraction to release the milk. Prolactin induces milk production, and, from there, that mother starts to have milk to breastfeed, even without having had a pregnancy “, explains Sabina.

Adoption by an individual of a different species

Endocrine disturbances or metabolic conditions can lead to a spike in hormones in animals and bring out maternal behavior (Photo: Unsplash/ Prasad Panchakshari CreativeCommons)

Endocrine disturbances or metabolic conditions can lead to a spike in hormones in animals and bring out maternal behavior (Photo: Unsplash/ Prasad Panchakshari CreativeCommons)

Juliana says that, although it is not uncommon to witness an animal taking care of the young of another species, there are not many studies that focus on the behavior and that it is something difficult to explain, since some scenarios bring a natural predator of the species as a mother. or “foster” parent.

“But, possibly, this care happens because that animal is acting under the effect of maternal instinct and is recognizing the puppy as its own. So the animal takes care, most likely because it has a high oxytocin”, he says.

Sabina argues that there are two possible reasons behind this behavior. The first is through the activation of the maternal instinct via environmental stimulus – when, for example, an animal just sees or smells the puppy and already activates the neuroendocrine cascades for the release of oxytocin, prolactin, serotonin and other hormones.

“The second way is when the animal has a hormone spike, due to a punctual endocrine disorder or another metabolic situation, and maternal behavior is very exposed. Some adopt stuffed animals, for example. If there’s a puppy nearby, that’s it! adoption will be quick and natural”, says Sabina.

Just smelling the puppy can trigger the production of hormones related to maternal behavior (Photo: Unsplash/ Karel Van der Auwera/ CreativeCommons)

Just smelling the puppy can trigger the production of hormones related to maternal behavior (Photo: Unsplash/ Karel Van der Auwera/ CreativeCommons)

She also explains that a set of factors intertwine to build maternal behavior, and the greater the genetic allomaternal potential, the greater the chance of interspecific adoption.

“Oxytocin and prolactin participate, but they are not the only ones responsible. In other words, there are super moms out there, of all species, and they were born that way. The environmental stimulus is just a trigger, but your body is already ready to release large doses of love and care”, he says.

In any case, there is an undeniable beauty in overcoming differences in the name of unconditional care for whom the animal considers as a child. For all mothers, from the pet universe and beyond, the team at Animal life wish you a happy day!

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