SNOHOMISH – Four kittens tumble and fumble for a place at their mother’s belly.
It’s a common springtime sight – except for one thing.
These kittens are probably the only ones in Snohomish County with an Australian shepherd for a mama.
Colleen and Robert Nesseth’s dog, Lakota, took charge of an orphaned litter of kittens two weeks ago.
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A car hit and killed the mother cat in early May. When the family found her kittens in their barn and brought them inside, mewing in a box, something unexpected happened.
Lakota trotted over and began grooming the kittens, two white and two black. Soon, she had taken over full mothering duties for the litter. The kittens even suckle.
“She corrals them and tells them if they shouldn’t be doing something,” Robert Nesseth said. “She just loves each of them.”
The kittens clearly adore their new mama too.
On a recent morning, the kittens, still little more than puffs with tails and eyes, let Lakota roll them on their backs so she could groom their bellies with a rough, pink tongue. She nudged them with her long nose when they got out of line.
She wrapped her body protectively around the kittens when they lined up at her belly, mouths busy sucking, tails like bristled pipe cleaners poked in the air.
Lakota has always been a warm and protective family dog, the Nesseths said. They’ve been watching her for their daughter, who moved recently to South Dakota.
Lakota had her own litter of pups about four years ago. She’s also mothered another kitten.
“It just shows you don’t have to give birth to be a mother,” Colleen Nesseth said.
“She’s definitely proven that,” her husband added.
Animals do sometimes take over the care of orphans, even different types of animals, said Kevin Wilson, a veterinarian with Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital in Snohomish.
It is common, for instance, for ranchers to place an orphan sheep with another mother.
He’s never come across a dog mothering kittens in his practice.
“She’s probably got some ingrained knowledge to be that caretaker,” he said.
It would be far more unusual if Lakota is producing milk for the kittens. The Nesseths aren’t sure if Lakota is actually providing milk to the kittens or just comfort. Just in case, the couple supplement the kittens’ diet by bottle feeding.
Still, Wilson said Lakota is providing a number of other important functions, including keeping the kittens clean and out of trouble.
“We can assume she sees them as puppies,” he said. “She thinks she’s fostering her own litter.”
It will be interesting to see if Lakota retains the connection when they’re no longer under her care or if she’ll treat them like any other cat, he said.
“The fact that she saw a litter and instantly was able to notice these were young orphans and accept them is pretty amazing,” he said.