By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 12 May 2011)
Healthy young kittens are firm and plump, with closed eyes and ears folded down. During the first 14 days, a kitten spends its time sleeping and eating. It can crawl a little using a swimming motion, but cannot stand.
Kittens grow rapidly during this period. They should gain a bit of weight each day and double their birth weight by 7-10 days. Major events in the first 2 weeks include:
- Remains of the umbilical cord fall off – around day 3.
- Eyes open – this process usually begins somewhere between 5-10 days of age and finishes gradually over the course of 2-3 days (if eyes aren’t fully open by 14 days or there are crusts or pus around the eye area, consult a veterinarian – never attempt to force the eyes open). Vision won’t be totally clear until around 4 weeks of age.
- Ears begin to open – 5-10 days (they will not stand up on their own until around 3 weeks).
- First teeth start appearing – just before the 2-week point or early in the 3rd week (this process continues until around the 5th week).
Kitten Eye and Fur Colour
All kittens are born with blue eyes. Eyes change to their permanent colour later on, usually at around 4-5 weeks of age.
Kittens with dark markings on their faces, ears, tails, and paws (Balinese, Birman, Himalayan, Ragdoll, Snowshoe, and Siamese) do not have these points at birth. They are born white or off-white and the points come in gradually over the course of several months. The environmental temperature will determine the darkness of these markings – colder temperatures create darker points, whereas warmer temperatures cause the points to come in lighter. The reason the points appear on the extremities is that these areas are a little cooler than the body’s core temperature.
How to Care for a Mother Cat and Her Newborn Kittens
Kittens are extremely vulnerable in the first 14 days of life. To increase the likelihood that kittens will survive and thrive:
- Provide extra food for the nursing mother as her calorie demands will be high. Kitten food is a good choice because it has more calories and protein per serving.
- Keep the temperature between 85ºF and 90ºF for the 1st week and 80ºF-85ºF during the 2nd. Reduce the temperature gradually.
- Maintain humidity at 55-65% to prevent dehydration.
- Avoid exposing kittens to bright lights and loud noises.
- Wash hands with soap and water before touching kittens or their bedding to avoid introducing harmful bacteria and viruses.
When to Consult a Veterinarian
Consult a veterinarian if kittens have any of the following symptoms:
- Excessive crying
- Failure to nurse
- Weight loss
- Dehydration (check by gently pinching a fold of skin on the back of the neck – if it stays up rather than springing back quickly, the kitten is dehydrated)
If unsure as to whether a symptom warrants veterinary intervention, err on the side of caution and call a veterinarian for advice.
Signs of prematurity in kittens include:
- Low birth weight
- Tiny, thin bodies
- Lack of fur or very fine fur
- Wrinkled skin
- Difficulty moving or holding up their heads
Kittens born more than 2 weeks early are unlikely to survive, whereas premature kittens born within 2 weeks of their due date have a fighting chance with good care (veterinary care and tube feeding may be required). They will likely be slower to gain weight and reach various developmental milestones, though they should catch up eventually.
For tips on safely handling kittens during the first 2 weeks of life, see Will Handling Newborn Kittens Cause Their Mother to Reject Them?
- Animal Services – Virtual Shelter. (n.d.). Cat and Kitten Supplement. JointAnimalServices.org.
- Burns, T., LVT. (n.d.). Hand-Raising Orphaned Kittens. TheCatPracticepc.com.
- Davis, K.L. (2007). The Everything Cat Book. Avon, MA: F+W Publications, Inc.
- Cheng, A.M., DVM, CVA. (19 April 2009). “Animal Health – General (Expert Forum): Eye Color Change.” MedHelp.org.
- Hartwell, S. (2002). “Hand Rearing Kittens.” MessyBeast.com.
- IBOK Rescue. (n.d.). “Stages of Kitten Development.” IBOKRescue.RescueGroups.org.
- Kitten Rescue. (2004). “Premature Kittens.” Kitten-Rescue.com.
- Neville, P., & Bessant, C. (1997). The Perfect Kitten: How to Raise a Problem-Free Cat. London, UK: Octopus Publishing Group, Ltd.
- Turner, D., C., & Bateson, P.P.G. (Eds.). (2000). The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.