Weird things happen in Africa. I mean, we have watched enough African movies to be convinced impossible things can become possible, right?
In our livestock herds, farmers sometimes witness cases in which a cow gives birth to bones (foetal maceration condition) or to a “bulldog calf”. These are abnormal occurrences that are scientifically explicable, because something must have gone wrong during pregnancy and not because the animal’s owner must have been bewitched or is a witch.
Nonetheless, the recent sensational media report about a dog that had given birth to kittens in the Okahandja Park Resettlement area in Windhoek takes the cake. Most of the local community is convinced the story is true. But as much as I’m African, I’m a scientist too. So, let’s explore the story scientifically.
In Biology, we learn about animal species, how they mate, get pregnant, give birth to their offspring and take care of them, right? This is, at least, possible for animals that belong to the same family and species.
Horses mate with each other to reproduce foals. But should a horse and a donkey mate, they would reproduce a mule; a sterile animal. The same goes for donkeys, horses and zebras. As much as they are of the same family (equines), they belong to different species. But goats (caprine family) and sheep (ovine family); have you ever seen them mate? They cannot mate to naturally reproduce a viable offspring.
Cats and dogs might be our favourite pets but they also belong to completely different families. Cats are felines just like wild cats - cheetahs, tigers and lions. The dog family is of the canine comprising wolves and jackals. Thus, there is no natural way a dog and a cat could mate to reproduce an offspring.
The most important reason for this is the genetic variations in the number of chromosome pairs (cats 38 and dogs 39) - among these are two different species, which dictate that their sex cells are incapable of successful fertilisation. Other minor reasons are mating behaviour and different anatomies of sex organs, which make it difficult to be reproductively compatible.
However, when any mammal (animals that give live birth and nurse their young ones) gives birth, its maternal instincts kick in, because of the changing hormones in its body. It becomes motherly, takes care of the baby/babies and ensures they are warm and fed.
Sometimes it happens that a nearby baby of another animal family is also taken in and taken care of by the new mother. This happens quite often when kittens are orphaned - a dog instinctively takes over the mothering responsibility until they’re old enough to be weaned. This is especially common when a pregnant dog loses its puppies and in turn, nursing the kittens becomes lifesaving for the grieving dog. This is the time when the famous saying “fighting like cats and dogs” is thrown out of the window.
Now, to get back to the story of the dog in the Okahandja Park that was seen nursing kittens, let’s just say even though the dog was not the biological mother, it is not unusual to nurse the kittens, especially since the dog was also nursing its puppies. Maybe the two kittens had been abandoned by or had lost their mother and the dog took over motherhood. Mind you, this happened in an informal settlement with inadequate fencing where stray cats rove the streets.
Another worry from the community members was whether or not the dog’s breast milk is good enough to raise the kittens. Actually, a lactating dog can provide milk similar [enough] in nutritional value to the milk that the kittens would have got from their mother. Of course it is not the same milk because kittens need more crude protein and less crude fat than puppies. But the dog’s milk, although not recommended, would not harm the kittens and they often get used to it soon enough. They might diarrhoea within the first two days or so but will be fine in no time.
To protect the owner of the dog against public prejudice, it is necessary to take the dogs with their acquired kittens to a safe place. The surest way to confirm the motherhood of the kittens, however, is undertaking a DNA test. But, the community has nothing to worry about, for the dog definitely did not give birth to the kittens.
Thus, as much as dogs are incompatible to cats, there is no African “muti” involved when a dog adopts kittens; it is just motherly instincts at play.