By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 6 November 2014)
Although many newspaper ads offer much younger kittens for sale, most veterinarians and reputable breeders say that kittens should never leave their mothers before 8 weeks of age, and should preferably stay with their mothers for at least 12 weeks. When kittens are separated from their mothers and siblings too early, they can suffer extreme anxiety, and in some cases medical problems so severe that they actually die from them. The following problems commonly afflict kittens that are adopted before 12 weeks of age.
A kitten’s immune system develops between 8 and 12 weeks, and a kitten less than 12 weeks old has not received its full set of required vaccinations. A mother cat’s milk provides antibodies that protect the health of her kittens. If they are prevented from nursing before their own immune systems have become strong, kittens are more likely to succumb to a wide variety of illnesses, particularly respiratory conditions.
Kittens shouldn’t be weaned suddenly. Rather, weaning should be a gradual process in which they alternate between nursing and eating cat food, slowly increasing the amount of cat food consumed and decreasing nursing time until nursing ceases altogether. At 6-8 weeks of age, kittens are not ready to stop nursing. Usually, a mother cat will begin denying opportunities to nurse between 8 and 12 weeks of age, and thus the kittens learn to deal with frustration in a natural way. Kittens that are taken from their mothers too soon miss out on this natural process, and are more inclined to develop behavioural problems as a result of low frustration tolerance later on.
Kittens taken before 8 weeks of age may suffer from diarrhea as a result of sudden weaning and a too-rapid shift to solid food. This condition can be life threatening, as kittens will quickly become dehydrated and lose weight rapidly. Even if they don’t develop severe diarrhea, kittens taken from their mothers too early often become malnourished and fail to put on weight.
Litter Box Problems
Litter box training usually occurs between 6 and 12 weeks, and this is also a gradual process. A kitten taken too early will either not be fully litter trained. This, combined with the stress of losing its family too early, can cause a kitten to develop bad habits, such as avoiding the litter box completely or using it inconsistently.
While many people seek younger kittens because they mistakenly believe that an older kitten won’t bond with them properly, the reality is that older kittens have no problems bonding with new humans. A younger kitten may bond with a person as well, but it is often a neurotic bond in which the kitten is terrified of being left alone and needs to have its surrogate mother in sight at all times. Kittens adopted too young are more likely to suck on fabric, people’s earlobes, or their own fur, and some develop a tendency to run and hide when they see unknown people.
Kittens are socialized between 4 and 14 weeks of age, and it is during this critical period that they learn which behaviours are appropriate. Kittens taken too early are more likely to be hostile and aggressive toward people and other pets. They often get along poorly with other cats because they have never learned to interpret feline body language, having missed out on the longer socialization process that they should have had with their families. Overall, they are more insecure and less tolerant.
Adopting at 12 Weeks Is Ideal
While the ideal adoption age may vary somewhat from breed to breed (and even among individual kittens within a breed or a litter), most kittens do best if allowed to remain with their mothers for 12 weeks, and a kitten should never be separated from its family before it is 8 weeks old. Waiting three months to adopt is worthwhile because it will increase the likelihood of having a happier and healthier cat in the long run.
- French, B.C. (2000). “How Young is Too Young? How Old Should a Kitten Be When It Goes to a New Home?”
- Nash, H., DVM, MS., Veterinary Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith, Inc. (2008). “Choosing Your Kitten: Personality and Health.” PetEducation.com.
- Neville, P., & Bessant, C. (1997). The Perfect Kitten: How to Raise a Problem-Free Cat. Octopus Publishing Group, Ltd.