Parenting in animals takes many forms, depending on the species and situations. When we think of dogs and cats, our most common companions, we think of devoted mothers solely shouldering the burden of child care and nurturing with little help from others. (Sound familiar to any moms out there?) Interestingly, sole maternal rearing is often really a function of human-enforced husbandry.
Among cats returned to the wild, loosely associated colonies of related females form. In these groups, child rearing is a shared duty among all mothers. Queens will protect, nurse and nurture offspring of other mothers. Kittens stay with the maternal group until reaching sexual maturity. Communal rearing in a group allows better survival, and teaches kittens social and life skills more broadly. At adolescence, males are driven out of the group, and females join the matriarchal group. Like lions, if an adult tom cat temporarily joins the females, he will kill all offspring that are not his own. Domestic cats are reared largely as single litters, having contact only with the biological mother.
Dogs returned to the wild also form loosely associated groups. Unlike wolves, which form true packs that hunt as a cooperative unit and focus all attention on rearing a single litter from the alpha male and female, all pairs raise litters and individual dogs hunt and scavenge solitarily. Recent research in India demonstrates that dog pairs may remain monogamous for a breeding season, and that many fathers stay with the bitch and puppies, feeding and protecting them. This is a stark contrast to the typical practice of domestic dog rearing in the United States, where single bitches rear a litter without the support of other dogs.
Perhaps the least involved mothers in the pet world are egg-laying lizards like bearded dragons. Eggs are laid in a burrow four to six weeks after mating. In captivity where lizards cannot roam, it is necessary to remove the parents and incubate eggs separately. If adult beardies are in a shared space when eggs hatch, they regard hatchlings as a food source and will consume their own young. Among the approximately 20 percent of lizards that give live birth, like skinks, there is also generally no active parenting.
Rabbits and guinea pigs also get off lightly in the animal world of mothering. Bunnies are born helpless after a short pregnancy of about 30 days. Hormonal changes signal the doe to pull out hair and construct a secure nest to warm and protect the young. The doe only returns to the nest for nursing sessions of about five minutes’ duration once or twice a day. Generally, females breed immediately after giving birth and abandon their kits abruptly at about four weeks of age, at which time babies are incorporated into the social group or warren.
Guinea pig moms get off the hook of intense parenting for other reasons. Pregnancy in guinea pigs lasts 59 to 72 days, similar to dogs and cats. The young are born mature with eyes and ears open, capable of urination and defecation, and with full body hair and teeth. Although sows may nurse pups for as long as three to four weeks, these young consume solid food within hours of birth and begin association with the social group. Truly, little maternal care is offered.
Bird parenting in the wild shows sharp contrast with what has become standard psittacine rearing in captivity. In the pet trade, the young chicks or eggs are typically removed from the nest and reared with no contact with parents, nest mates or other birds. It is commonly accepted that syringe feeding by a human promotes docility and a better bond. This is a gross misconception, and hand rearing is now felt to be associated with many behavior abnormalities, such as feather destruction, self mutilation, screaming, abnormal pair bonding and aggression. In the wild, birds typically associate in flocks. After emerging from the nest, fledglings learn appropriate social behavior interacting with others. While in the nest or burrow, offspring are cared for and socialize with one or both pair-bonded, monogamous parents. Today, behaviorists and avian veterinarians prefer rearing that allows at least the hen to raise chicks and to incorporate frequent human handling.
Clearly, the challenges of raising well-adjusted offspring is not just the purview of human mothers.
Loving Hands Animal Clinic’s next free Pet Care University offering, “Healthy Mouth, Healthy Pet (Dental Care)” by Dr. Emily McManus, will be Saturday, July 20, from 3 to 5 p.m. For more information, check Appen publications and Loving Hands Facebook and social media pages.