Female lions, lionesses, are able to give birth to cubs all year round, usually from the age of about three or four years old. Pregnancy lasts for around 110 to 120 days. Eventually, when it is time to give birth, lionesses leave their family pride to find a private den in the shelter of bushes, or even a cave. This is where the cubs will be born and stay until they are old enough to join the pride.
When they are first born, cubs are very small. They have their eyes closed and don’t open them until they are two to three weeks old. Even then, they can’t see properly for another week or so, so need lots of care and attention from Mum. As they are unable to defend themselves, cubs are vulnerable to attack from large birds and snakes and even male lions. Lionesses usually have around three cubs, but can have as many as six, so they are kept very busy making sure they are all safe.
A lioness will keep her cubs hidden from other lions for around six weeks, until they are old enough to follow the pride. Any younger and they wouldn’t be able to keep up and could get lost. If there are older cubs already in the pride, the mother must wait until her young are around three months old before introducing them. Older cubs often bully the smaller cubs and steal their milk, so they need to be big enough to stand up for themselves.
Lionesses in a pride often have cubs around the same time as each other. They look after them in a group, known as a ‘crèche’. This helps to keep them safe from predators - meat-eating animals, such as other lions and tigers - and also large animals such as elephant and buffalo. Lionesses can also control when they have cubs. If there is not enough food around to feed a hungry mouth, a lioness will wait until there is before giving birth.
Young cubs drink milk from their mother’s teats. It is good for them and helps them to grow quickly. At around two to three months, they begin to eat meat as well with their small milk teeth. These are their 'baby teeth'. Like humans, lions are born without teeth. They grow small ones when still very young, which are then replaced with adult teeth as they get older. At six to seven months old, cubs stop drinking milk altogether. By the time they have reached two years of age, they don’t need their mothers to look after them anymore.
Cubs are full of life. It is important that they play with other youngsters and adults members of the pride, as this helps them to bond. When playing, a cub can often be seen leaping on another’s back and biting their neck. Although this looks rough, to them it is just fun. Although they don’t realise though, this is all important practice for when they grow up and begin to hunt large animals, like buffalo or zebra.
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