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Keywords:

  • sibling competition;
  • teat order;
  • suckling performance;
  • aggression;
  • domestic cat;
  • Felis silvestris catus

Abstract

We studied the development of suckling behavior and weight gain in 11 litters (52 kittens) of free-ranging domestic cats until postnatal day 28 just before the start of weaning. In six of these litters, we also recorded milk intake and contests for access to nipples. Already within 12 hr of birth kittens showed a preference for posterior nipples, and by postnatal day 3 each had developed a preference for particular nipples. In fact, 86% of kittens used one particular nipple most often, and even when the mother changed the side she lay on to nurse. Contests for access to nipples occurred throughout the study period at an average rate of one to two contests per kitten per hour of nursing. Contrary to suggestions in the literature that kittens compete for more productive nipples, we found no relation between kittens' use of particular nipples and their weight gain, milk intake, or involvement in contests during suckling. We suggest that kittens' preference for posterior nipples as well as their establishment of an individual “teat order” might function to optimize the number of nipples remaining productive across lactation, and to reduce energetically costly scrambles and potentially injurious contests among littermates. © 2009 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Dev. Psychobiol 51: 322–332, 2009.