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What is a Runt?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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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.

Some people theorize that the runt is designed to be a potentially sacrificial member of the litter. Under this theory, if it survives, so much the better, but if resources are scarce, the animal will not be missed. In some cases, the smallest offspring may even be eaten by the parent animal or by its siblings as a response to limited resources or stress; this is a particularly infamous problem with pigs.

Many people have romantic associations with the runt of the litter, thinking of it as small, helpless, and weak. Some people may choose to adopt one to give it a better start in life as a result, and the heroes of many children's books are runts, illustrating an ability to overcome adversity. One of the most famous examples is Wilbur of Charlotte's Web.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By cloudel — On Jan 23, 2013

A hound mother and three of her pups had been abandoned in the middle of my road. The mother and the two larger pups made it to my friend's house, but the runt just laid down in the road, too weak to make it up the hill.

I just happened to drive by and see him. I thought he had been hit and was dead, but he slowly raised up his little head to look at me.

I turned around and went back, expecting him to be hurt. I was surprised when he pulled himself up and walked to me.

I could see his ribs, cheekbones, and hipbones. His toes were limp because they had no muscle.

His brother and sister were also starved, but they were stronger than the runt. I took him in, got him some calcium supplements and plenty of food and water, and he grew nicely, but he will never be as big as the others.

By DylanB — On Jan 22, 2013

Sometimes a puppy that starts out as a runt can wind up being the largest of the litter. That's what happened with my Sampson.

He was so skinny and small as a pup, and all the others outgrew him. However, we found out that he had worms and the others didn't.

Once we dewormed him, he started growing by leaps and bounds. He now weighs 90 pounds, and he isn't even fat! He is lean with lots of muscle.

By feasting — On Jan 22, 2013

@BigBloom – I've noticed this with people, as well. Short people with small frames are often more boisterous and mean, probably because they have to defend themselves, and they think that a big personality will scare away bullies.

By Oceana — On Jan 21, 2013
@TrogJoe19 – Also, Gideon was the runt whom God chose to save Israel from the Midianites. God called him a “mighty man of valor,” and Gideon responded by saying that his clan was the weakest, and he was the weakest in the clan. This is the reason God chose him, though.

God always chose weak things to confound the wise. We are all weak, but sometimes, only the runts realize this, and God really shows his power by choosing small and weak vessels to accomplish his purposes.

By bagley79 — On Aug 26, 2012

I think runts that are born in the wild probably have a much smaller chance of success than a runt born to a domestic cat or dog.

Even though it is hard to think about, there is a good possibility the runt will be killed either by their mother or siblings. When our dog had puppies, we really tried to make sure the runt had a place to nurse as often as possible.

The runt ended up getting more attention that the other puppies, and in the end, this is the one we choose to keep because we all spent so much time with her.

By sunshined — On Aug 25, 2012

I love the story of Charlotte's Web and had forgotten that Wilbur was the runt. This is an endearing story that shows how the right kind of care and love can make a big difference.

I am the type of person who always cheers for the underdog, and this is how I see the runt. With a little tender loving care, they are able to overcome their rough start to life and end up being healthy and happy.

By Mykol — On Aug 25, 2012

I grew up on a farm where we had all kinds of different animals giving birth. It was not uncommon to see runts in almost every litter.

Many of the runts just never made it. Even though you pretty much expected it, I always found this hard to deal with. I wanted to hand feed all of them and give them a better start to life, but this wasn't as easy as it sounds.

By honeybees — On Aug 24, 2012

The cat I have now was the runt of the litter. She was noticeably smaller than the rest of her litter mates, and I felt a connection to her right away when I picked her up and held her.

Even though she was the smallest kitten it didn't mean she was unhealthy. She has been one of the best cats I have ever had. I have never had any kind of health issues with her and she is a very sweet, well adjusted cat.

Today she is 14 years old and still looks like a very young cat. People can't believe how old she is because she is so small. Many cats get overweight as they get older, but she has stayed the same weight since she was about 2 years old.

I would not hesitate to choose the runt of the litter again if I felt like they were the best choice for me.

By anon242759 — On Jan 24, 2012

A 'Runt' can be a small puppy. For example, a newborn puppy. The puppy is a lot smaller and weaker than the others so it needs more attention from the mother, and no 1: Never give a runt puppy away. It will not feel safe without its mother. I mean, imagine if you were given away and separated from your family and your mother! Isn't it sad? If you want to, go to an adoption center. Or at least don't separate the 'runt' from the mother!

By JavaGhoul — On Jan 15, 2011

A runt pulse is an electrical glitch which may come as a result of a race condition in a system. This pulse is less than normal, and is therefore often ineffective. The normal rate of pulse is usually necessary for a required task, and therefore a runt pulse can be seen as inadequate, or a mere stump of what it should be.

By BigBloom — On Jan 14, 2011

I have seen a sort of "dog inferiority complex" in small animals which need to be vicious in order to survive. They often adopt a small dog- big dog personality in order to ward off potential threats. When someone is considered to be a runt, he or she will feel a burden of proving himself to those around him, and will sometimes excel as a result.

By TrogJoe19 — On Jan 13, 2011

In the birth of Jacob and Esau, Jacob was the runt. Throughout the Old Testament there is a recurring theme of God choosing the runt to lead the pack, in a divine irony. The point of his choice is that he chooses the "weak to lead the strong," and celebrates humility and submission in his people, electing as his favorites those who listen and obey his law.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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