This article’s title could have easily been ‘Got Milk?’ as it’s all about what infant mammals do best: getting hold of their first food source, breast milk. After all, that’s how mammals got their name: in Latin, ‘mamma’ means breast.
Those who have witnessed a dog, cat or pig surrender to her pestering brood will understand that for moms of many species, nursing is not always easy: the babies pinch, fight, and sure as sherbet bite their tired mother’s teats. Yet there are times when suckling instincts seem just plain odd…
Breastfeeding is one of nature’s wonders, but there are cases of interspecies cooperation that make the mind boggle: yes, we’re talking about interspecies nursing. As we’ll learn, cats, dogs, pigs and sheep are especially generous when it comes to caring and sharing: without a fuss, they’ll push aside their own young to make room for one or several more, regardless of size – or species. But there are also even stranger cases of this behavior, as we’ll soon see. We might also wonder whether interspecies suckling happens more often than we’d guess, as our exposure to it in domesticated animals and pets is by definition limited. So what’s happening in the wild? Enjoy these stories while we speculate.
10. Pig and tiger cubs
This example of interspecies nursing is truly incredible: a sow has adopted and is nursing two tiger cubs. What might look Photoshopped at first couldn’t be more real. Like cats and dogs, pigs are clearly capable of nursing the orphaned young of other species. This one doesn’t seem to mind, anyway. With an average litter of 8-12, maybe one or two extra mouths to feed doesn’t matter much to sows. Hats off, we say! And did you know that piglets have also been widely documented suckling mothers of other species – including dogs, and tigers too?
9. Terrier and kitten
If this isn’t a heartwarming story of interspecies motherly instincts, we don’t know what is. One fine day in September 2011, at St. Francis C.A.R.E. pet shelter in Murphysboro, Illinois, a terrier mom was nursing her newborn pups. It just so happened that an orphaned kitten was being bottle-fed in the same room. So far, so ordinary. Then, however, one of the shelter staff members noticed the terrier mom getting agitated and showing interest in what was going on with the little black kitten.
The staff reacted quickly by placing the kitten in the terrier mom’s cage, where she was nursing her pups. Soon enough, there was one more happy suckling sound, as the little kitten had found its way to one of the mother dog’s teats. Neither terrier nor newborn kitten thought anything about it, and the pups also seemed happy to have one more sibling to snuggle up with. Aww, who said cats and dogs don’t get along?
8. Cat and baby rabbit
This young rabbit’s mother died when she was just a week old. It would have been tough going for Bubbles without the nourishing milk of her mother if Snaggle Puss the cat hadn’t taken the young orphan into her bosom.
In this adorable video, we see Snaggle Puss treat the baby rabbit just like one of her kittens – keeping an eye on her, carrying her around by the scruff of her neck, and then licking her to make sure she’s clean and fresh. Considering the fact that under different circumstances a cat might not be so friendly towards a rabbit, it’s quite a story! We just love happy endings!
7. Cocker spaniel and kittens
This lovely cocker spaniel mom just flopped on her side and willingly let these two little kittens drink some of her milk. We don’t know the full story, but it’s always heartwarming to see these animal moms making room for more despite having litters of their own. Makes you wonder how far our human maternal instinct would go.
Well, funny you should mention... In fact, there are many tales of women – from various different cultures and throughout history – suckling all kinds of animals – from young monkeys, deer, piglets and puppies through to bear cubs, raccoons and opossums. Such tales might sound alien to our ears – incidents that happened far, far away and long ago – but some of the cases are closer to home than you might imagine.
What’s more, we shouldn’t forget that most of us drink another species’ breast milk in one form or another every day. That’s right, we’re talking about cow’s milk, which (though it might sound hard to believe) is actually meant for calves, not for humans who love dairy products like butter, cheese and ice cream! Looking at it this way, perhaps we’re closer to interspecies nursing than we like to think.
6. Yorkshire terrier and kittens
This Yorkshire terrier, named Trix, decided it was okay to let kittens nurse as well – even though they were almost as big as their surrogate mother! Yorkies, as they are affectionately called, are known for their distinctive personalities, and for being pretty overprotective. That protective nature shines through here, though. That’s what we call having a big heart!
5. Cat and baby squirrels
One stormy night, the branch of a tree fell to the ground, which meant three little squirrels lost their home and mother. It would have been tough, if not impossible, for them to survive if a local resident hadn’t found them. She brought the orphans to her neighbor, whose cat had just had kittens. The three squirrels were added to the litter and were accepted by their new mother. The squirrels were happy too. We’re not so sure about the kittens – but they seem pretty playful, at least for the time being…
Here, Kit-Kat seems to have a heart-to-heart with one of her kittens, which might as well have just mewed, “But Mom, it’s not fair, I was here first!” To which mom appears to be replying: “Listen, dear, they are smaller and hungrier than you right now, so wait your turn.” We’re not sure the little kitten got the message, but the three squirrels sure look happy, all snuggled in at the milk bar. Yum!
4. Boxer and baby deer
Here’s an amazing video of a baby deer nursing Tilly, the two-year-old boxer also pictured at the beginning of the post. Tilly is very calm despite the baby deer being none too gentle while trying to get to some milk; she even licks her adopted offspring. We reckon Tilly understands the situation, while the deer’s definitely excited, judging by the wagging of its tail. We didn’t know deer did that! It’s certainly a connector between dogs and deer. Cuteness overload!
3. Sheep and baby zebra
Sometimes, it’s hard to say who’s nursing whom – in this picture, for example. Though the zebra is bigger than the sheep, in fact the striped one is the baby, and the woolly one the foster mother. Though it might seem unusual to us, ewes make great wet nurses. They are used as surrogate mothers quite often at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre in South Africa, where this photograph was taken, and to help rear young animals of all kinds that have lost their mothers – including elephants and rhinos. Impressive!
2. Yorkshire terrier and kitten
Next, another Yorkshire terrier that’s adopted a kitten. Yorkie Ella already had a litter of six puppies – and a very active ones, too – but happily adopted one more youngster, though not one the canine variety. Photographer Janice of Yorkie Rescue, where the mom, pups and kitten were taken in, explained: “A newborn kitten was found outside and was added to Ella's litter. Ella accepted her, and the kitten is happily nursing with the puppies.” Aww, cho chweet!
1. Lioness and antelope
Last but not least, a lioness that adopted an antelope baby as her own – and in the wild, too! Why would a predator show maternal instincts towards an animal that is naturally her prey? Though unbelievable, it happened. Not without problems, though: the lioness could not hunt for food with the antelope around, while the antelope baby could not approach adult antelope mothers for milk, as the lioness wouldn’t let her.
If you watch the full video (we’d urge you to: it’s long but worth it), you’ll see that this story did not have a happy ending. Notwithstanding, even lion experts can only speculate as to why the lioness exhibited such behavior. It just goes to show that nature never ceases to amaze.