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girlofscience's avatar

How would a kitten know to nurse from a human nipple?

Asked by girlofscience (7553points) July 28th, 2009
9 responses
“Great Question” (3points)

Last night, I was unpleasantly awoken by our newest foster kitten. It seems Heidi thinks I’m her real mother now.

After getting over the weirdness/hilarity of this happening, I began to wonder, just how did she know to do this? How did she know this is where milk comes out of humans? Human nipples look nothing like cat nipples. What is inherent in the innate knowledge of nursing? Are nipples generalizable? And why me and not my boyfriend? Is gender acknowledged before being understood?

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ABoyNamedBoobs03's avatar

lol a tit’s a tit in the animal kingdom

hearkat's avatar

I have had grown cats sniff a nipple briefly, then go about their business… but never indicating any more interest than what seemed like passing curiosity. Are you saying she tried to latch on? (OUCH!)

Jeruba's avatar

This is pretty amazing, though I don’t doubt you for a second. I would have to wonder if she smells some kind of universal marker scent.

Of course, you are ascribing a reason. You don’t know that she thinks it’s a nipple. It is your inference that she knows this is where milk comes out. There may be some other reason for the nibbling, maybe equally instinctive but less obvious to us.

We had a cat that would bite my thumb. I’d be folding the laundry on the bed, for instance, and he’d jump on the bed and walk over and chomp my thumb. It wasn’t a soft bite, either. I don’t know whether it looked like some sort of naked prey to him or just moved in an interesting way, but I used to joke that he’d been weaned too early.

casheroo's avatar

How do you know he wouldn’t do it to your boyfriend? Maybe the kitten feels closer to you, as it feels you take care of it more? Were you the one to pick it out and rescue it? It may remember the initial bond.

I found this, about cats and kittens nursing. How old is the kitten?

This behavior is most often displayed by a kitten or cat who was taken or weaned from his mother too early. Keep in mind that just like humans, cats are individuals too, and some may need more time with their mothers for emotional reasons, than others. This behavior often is one that the cat will outgrow as it gets older; however, some cats never seem to outgrow this special babyish behavior. The way to avoid your cat “nursing” on an item of clothing or household item you don’t want him to suck and chew on, is to put something on the item that is distasteful to your cat, such as paprika, hair spray, or citrus-smelling agents. This also works well with cats who like to chew on electric cords. Be aware though that chewing electric cords is often thought to be directly related to your cat’s anxiety due to being separated from you.

I do think @ABoyNamedBoobs03 may be correct. A nipple is a nipple. They recognize this and will remember it, since it’s natural to them.

MrItty's avatar

Possibilities off the top of my head
1) if you are in fact nursing your own children, your cat may be able to detect the scent of your milk in that general area
2) kittens, like most other babies, basically suck on anything and everything they can. Your kitten just happened to awaken you at the right moment for you to spot him trying your nipples. In other words, coincidence.

girlofscience's avatar

@hearkat: I’ve had my grown cats do the same thing. This little girl was sucking with all her strength. Ouch is right!
@Jeruba: Good point.
@casheroo: You’re right—I don’t know that she wouldn’t attempt this on my boyfriend, as it only happened once, and there was an equal probability of her choosing either of us randomly, but I was still curious about whether a female nipple could be sensed differently. We both rescued her together on Sunday and have been spending equal amounts of time with her since then, so it was likely simply either a random choice or an innate female-nipple preference. Heidi is approximately 11 weeks old. No knowledge of when she may have lost her mother in the wild.
@MrItty: I have no children, so definitely not possibility 1.

YARNLADY's avatar

@girlofscience If the cat only sucks on your nipple, and not on your fingers and such, I would really be surprised. In my experience baby anything will suck at anything resembling a nipple.

ABoyNamedBoobs03's avatar

@YARNLADY don’t limit that to babies… I hear Dr. C will suck on pretty much anything, nipple likeness or not…

wilma's avatar

I have had cats in the past who would take an interest while I was nursing my children. They never tried to nurse but would sit and watch, and sometime try to take a sniff.
After a while when they were used to it they lost interest.
Since there was no milk production going on, I would guess that it was just a ramdom checking you out and then, when she came upon your nipple,” this looks like it might be a good thing to try and suckle.”

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