By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 12 May 2011)
By day 15, kittens’ eyes should be fully open. Over the next couple of weeks:
- Teeth will emerge.
- Kittens will start to walk short distances (gait tends to be wobbly until the 4th week).
- Ears become erect, usually by the 3rd week.
- Kittens will usually develop the ability to eliminate on their own, though this can take up to 5 weeks in some kittens (prior to this, mother cats stimulate elimination by licking the kittens’ genitals).
- Eyes may begin changing to their permanent colour in the 4th week, though this usually begins around the 6th week and continues on until about the 12th week.
- Kittens start to engage in social play with their siblings (primarily stalking and tackling).
Kittens that were born prematurely will take longer to reach many of the normal developmental milestones, but should catch up eventually.
Health, Safety, and Day-to-Day Care of Nursing Mother Cats and Kittens
To care for a mother cat and her and kittens at this stage of development:
- Continue providing the nursing mother with extra food, preferably a premium kitten food (kitten food has more calories and protein, so it meets the needs of a nursing mom).
- Make sure that the kittens can’t easily fall out of their nesting box when they begin their explorations.
- Remove any hazards such as sharp objects from the area around the nesting box if kittens can get out of it.
- Gradually reduce the temperature in the nest area from 80-85ºF (2nd week) to 75ºF by the end of week 4. Maintain humidity at 55-65% to reduce the likelihood of dehydration.
Consult a veterinarian if kittens show symptoms of illness such a diarrhea, excessive crying, failure to suckle, vomiting, weight loss, or diarrhea. Diarrhea can become life-threatening very quickly in small kittens because it causes dehydration. To check for dehydration, gently pinch a fold of skin on the back of the kitten’s neck – if it doesn’t spring back quickly, the kitten is dehydrated. Overheating can also dehydrate kittens, so keep a thermometer in the vicinity of the nesting area to monitor the temperature.
Socialization of Young Kittens
At 3-4 weeks of age, kittens form lifelong impressions of people and animals. Take advantage of this sensitive period by facilitating positive experiences with as many different types of people and friendly, healthy pets as possible (men, women, children, people wearing hats or glasses, people with beards, other cats, dogs, rabbits, etc.). Providing other pets with treats in the presence of the kittens can help to create a positive association.
Supervise all interactions to make sure that people speak softly and handle kittens gently, and that other animals are calm and non-aggressive. Otherwise, socialization attempts may backfire, and the kittens can develop phobias that will be difficult to overcome later on.
Keep interactions to 5 minutes or less at this stage, and keep kittens close to the nest while interacting with them. Make sure that any animals introduced to the kittens are gentle and have a clean bill of health, and have people wash their hands with soap and water before handling the kittens. Instruct children on the importance of hygiene and careful handling of kittens.
- Animal Services – Virtual Shelter. (n.d.). Cat and Kitten Supplement. JointAnimalServices.org.
- Burns, T., LVT. (n.d.). Hand-Raising Orphaned Kittens. TheCatPracticepc.com.
- Hartwell, S. (2002). “Hand Rearing Kittens.” MessyBeast.com.
- IBOK Rescue. (n.d.). “Stages of Kitten Development.” IBOKRescue.RescueGroups.org.
- 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.