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A runt is an unusually small animal, and the term is often used specifically in reference to the smallest animal in a litter. Many animals typically bear a runt with each litter, perhaps most famously in the case of pigs, and the survival of these infants has been a topic of scientific interest and study historically. The term is also sometimes used as a slang insult for especially small children, carrying connotations of weakness and a lack of consequence.
The origins of this word are rather interesting. Its first appearance in English was in 1501, in reference to an old or decaying tree stump, but no one is sure where the word came from in the first place. By 1549, people were using the term to talk about unusually small animals, and in 1841, its use in the sense of the smallest in a litter entered common usage.
The runt of a litter is often very noticeable, as he or she will be much smaller than the others in the litter. Many demonstrate a failure to thrive, as they are unable to compete with their siblings for food and warmth. If they survive, these animals may grow up to be smaller than others of the same species, and they sometimes develop unique personality traits as a result of their stunted childhoods. When this animal is taken away from the litter and given supplemental food and attention, however, it may develop normally.
For puppies and kittens, size really does matter!
Shelters say smaller animals get adopted faster, and animal experts say the runt of a litter tends to be better protected by the mother. Prospective pet owners, attracted to big heads on little bodies, heap attention on them.
“Humans are drawn to animals or beings of any kind whose proportion of eyes to head is large,” says Dr. Julie Meadows, a faculty veterinarian at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis. “It’s why we all coo” when we see babies, whether they’re human or animal.
For runts destined to become family pets, size is their greatest risk before birth but their greatest appeal after birth. It’s the underdog, under cat thing, say experts. In fact, smaller rescue dogs are adopted five times faster than the larger ones. That could be a result of the growing popularity of so-called pocket puppies–teacup dogs bred to be small and stay small. Pet owners seem to be looking for that really cute runt equivalent, almost like we are selecting for runted creatures because we like those little things that can ride around in our purses and strollers.
A litter has only one true runt, but not every litter will have one. Litter-bearing mothers have Y-shaped uteruses. Those at the center of the Y get the least amount of nourishment, while those closest to the mother’s blood supply get the most and have the highest birth weights.
When runts are born, they have to fight harder because they are small, weak, and others often pick on them or push them away from their food source. All of these things tend to press on the mother in many of us to protect them. If the runt of a litter makes it to six to eight weeks, it will probably survive and likely grow close to full size, experts says.
The runted kitten of an abandoned litter that was fostered by a local group, now weighs more than 7 pounds. When he was found in June 2011 with his 8-week-old littermates, he weighed less than 8 ounces–one-fourth to one-third of normal.
“I stayed up for three straight days with him, giving him fluids and antibiotics, warming him with IV bags heated in the microwave, using a humidifier and watching him round-the-clock. I didn’t think he would make it,” said the owner but he did. Hallelujah!
Runts aren’t welcomed everywhere, though. Wilbur, the runted pig in the classic children’s book Charlotte’s Web, was saved from slaughter with the help of a spider, but producers in real life aren’t as forgiving. A pig farmer will probably cull runts from his pens because they will never reach the body size needed for meat production.
It is also important to note that in the wild, only the strong survive. And runts likely won’t win sporting awards, since they won’t have the muscles or build needed for agility or show ring competition. Yet still we love them!