Kitten Development and Care Week by Week

one day old kitten
One-Day-Old Kitten, EMBaero, Wikimedia Commons

Birth to 2 Weeks

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.

two-week-old kitten
Two-Week-Old Kitten (Burmese), Mikael Tigerström, Wikimedia Commons

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.
    • 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:

    • Diarrhea
    • Excessive crying
    • Failure to nurse
    • Fever
    • Vomiting
    • 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.

Premature Kittens

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?

Weeks 3 and 4

Persian Kitten
Persian Kitten, 24 Days Old, Rudolph.A.furtado, Wikimedia Commons

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.
orange tabby kitten one month old
One-Month-Old Kitten, Broc, Wikimedia Commons

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.

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.

Weeks 5 and 6Siamese Kitten 6 Weeks

Kittens should now be walking easily and attempting little bursts of running, as well as engaging in adult cat responses such as arching their backs when they are startled. Coordination continues to improve during this stage, and physical activity increases. In addition, the feline righting reflex develops, giving kittens a better chance of landing on their feet after a fall.

By the end of this period, kittens should have all of their baby teeth (the shift to adult teeth begins around 3½ months of age). Eyes usually begin to change from blue to their permanent colour during this stage or shortly thereafter (though some cats have naturally blue eyes as adults). This process generally completes by the 12th week.

If kittens have not developed the ability to eliminate without their mother’s assistance during the 3-4-week stage, they should achieve it during this stage.

KittenDaily Care

To care for kittens that are 29-42 days old:

    • Continue providing the nursing mom with a high-quality kitten food (the extra calories and protein in kitten food helps replenish her resources).
    • Healthy kittens should be very active at 5-6 weeks. Monitor for signs of illness such as listlessness, lack of appetite, diarrhea, and other problems. Consult a veterinarian if there are any signs of ill health.
    • Accustom kittens to grooming, being placed on their backs, and being inspected (looking in ears, inside mouth, under tail, etc.) so that they will be more comfortable with grooming and veterinary examinations when they’re older.
    • If the kittens suffer from fleas, remove adult fleas and eggs regularly with a flea comb (drop the fleas and eggs in a bucket of hot soapy water to kill them).
    • Continue the socialization process, supervising introductions with a wide variety of people (men, women, and children) and healthy, non-aggressive pets. Positive experiences with various people, animals, and situations during this sensitive socialization period increase the likelihood of raising an easy-going, friendly cat that is free from phobias (negative experiences will, of course, have the opposite effect).
    • Don’t adopt kittens out at this time – they should be with their mothers and littermates for an absolute minimum of 8 weeks, and preferably 12 for proper socialization.

Social Play

Kittens play frequently with their siblings at 5-6 weeks of age, and they may begin to use sneakier strategies, such as hiding before pouncing to ambush a littermate. Social play primarily involves chasing and tackling.

While engaging in social play, kittens will experiment to determine what is socially acceptable. For this reason, caretakers should never allow young kittens to bite them. During the sensitive period for socialization, actions that are cute in kittens can become lifelong behavioural problems, so it’s important to set limits during this developmental stage.

Weaning Kittens

At the beginning of the 5th week, the weaning process can begin. Transitioning kittens to solid food should be a gradual process that takes place over the course of several weeks. Kittens may continue to nurse sporadically for some time even while eating solid food.

To wean kittens, mix up batches of kitten mush in a blender. Kitten mush can be made using:

      • Kitten milk replacer (there are various brands available at pet supply stores)
      • Hot water
      • High-quality kitten food

The mush should be warm when served, but not hot, and should be the consistency of baby food. Gradually increase the amount of solid food in the mush over several weeks until the kittens are eating solid food only.

To begin with, kittens will probably make a real mess of their food, walking all over it and playing in it. Putting food bowls on a large tray can make clean-up easier, as the whole mess can just be rinsed off the tray afterward (putting newspapers down is another alternative).

Kittens should eat a number of small meals each day during the weaning process. By 8 weeks, they should be consuming primarily solid food, though they may still nurse a little.

Choosing healthy foods is extremely important at this stage, as what kittens are fed tends to shape their lifelong food preferences. Provide only high-quality, high-protein food and bowls of fresh water.

Mother cats normally begin bringing prey home to the nest at this stage if they have the opportunity to go out and hunt, and kittens begin to engage in hunting behaviours. Some kittens can kill mice when they are as young as 5 weeks old.

Litter Training

At the beginning of the 5th week, caretakers can begin litter training kittens. Kittens often learn how to use a litter box on their own just by watching their moms, but there are things that you can do to speed the training process and reduce the number of accidents outside the box (see How to Train a Kitten for more information).

Weeks 7 to 12

Eight-Week-Old KittenDuring weeks 7 through 12, a kitten’s visual acuity and physical coordination continue to improve, an adult sleep pattern develops, and the eyes finish changing to their permanent adult colour. When caring for kittens between 7 and 12 weeks of age:

    • Continue the weaning process – kittens should have completed the transition to solid food by around 8 weeks.
    • Take kittens to a veterinarian for their first vaccinations.
    • Be alert to safety issues, particularly objects on furniture or floors where kittens can get at them. Much like human toddlers, kittens are inclined to swallow things they find lying around. Items such as needles with thread attached, highly poisonous plants such as lilies, and spilled medications can be particularly deadly.
    • Remove any fleas with a flea comb (or, if you’re considering using a flea control product, check with a veterinarian beforehand – many products are too harsh for kittens).

Evolving Play

gray and white kittenBy 7 to 8 weeks, kittens run quite well and are very active. At this stage, they use play to practice and refine their hunting skills, particularly stalking. In addition to playing with their littermates, they begin to show an increased interest in inanimate objects.

When kittens start engaging in solo play, providing safe, appropriate toys can help them develop their coordination and dexterity. Toys should be soft, with no hard pieces and no bits that can be chewed off and swallowed. Don’t give kittens balls of yarn or string to play with – it can catch on the barbs of their tongues, forcing them to keep swallowing it.

Continuing Socialization

Although the most intense socialization window occurs between 2 and 8 weeks, the socialization period during which lifelong impressions are formed can last until about 14 weeks of age or even longer.

Continue the socialization process by introducing kittens to friendly, gentle people and pets and grooming them regularly. Exposure to new situations and individuals now will create a more laid back, friendly personality in adulthood.

Meeting lots of people can help prevent future phobias of particular types, such as children or people wearing glasses, and exposure to friendly cats and dogs increases the likelihood that kittens will integrate well within multipet households when they’re older. Supervise interactions (especially those with other animals and children) to make sure that they’re positive experiences.

During this stage, it’s a good idea to take kittens on a few short car rides. Car travel when young increases the likelihood that cats will be calm travelers in adulthood. This is also a good time to leash train kittens, as they’ll be more receptive to it when young.

Continue to accustom kittens to specific types of handling, such as looking in their mouths and ears, holding their feet, and placing them on their backs. This will make them better able to tolerate necessary procedures in adulthood, and less inclined to react negatively to handling in general.

Another important aspect of socialization is setting limits on aggression. To avoid raising a biter, never encourage kittens to bite people’s hands and feet. If a kitten bites, say “no” in a firm voice, keeping the hand or foot still until the kitten lets go to avoid sending any “want to play” signals. As a general rule, avoid physical punishment or yelling, as this tends to increase bad behaviour overall and create a more aggressive or neurotic personality.yawning kittenBathing Kittens

Most cats won’t need baths in adulthood unless they get grubby, suffer a flea infestation, or participate in cat shows, but certain breeds such as the Sphynx require regular baths to remove oil build-up on their skin, so this is a good time to get them accustomed to bathing.

If bathing a kitten, use only kitten-safe shampoos and warm water, rinse very thoroughly, and dry by gently blotting and rubbing with a thick fluffy towel. The room temperature should be quite warm, as kittens are particularly vulnerable to becoming chilled after bathing.

Kitten

Adopting Kittens Out

Although kittens can be adopted out at 8 weeks, it is far better to keep them with their mothers and littermates until 12 weeks of age. This allows them to further their socialization with their family and increases the likelihood that they will be psychologically well-adjusted and better able to integrate into multicat households in adulthood.

Weeks 13 and UpKittens on a Chair

During late kittenhood, weaning is complete, adult teeth come in at around 3½ months, the musculoskeletal system continues to mature, and kittens show increasing interest in solo play with toys. Hunting skills improve, along with the ability to gauge whether it will be easy or difficult to capture a given prey animal.

The points (markings on the face, ears, paws, and tail) on cats such as the Siamese and Himalayan will continue to darken. The environmental temperature will determine how dark these points ultimately get. In warmer climates, pointed cats tend to have lighter markings, whereas in colder climates, the markings become darker.

Socialization and Training of Older Kittens

Although the sensitive period for socialization during which kittens are most susceptible to influence has passed by this stage, some socialization can still take place. Continue exposing the kitten to new experiences (such as car rides) and individuals (people, friendly animals). This is also a good time to leash train kittens if you’re interested in taking them outdoors for safe excursions, or even training them to do simple tricks. They’re more likely to be open to such training if it’s started at a young age (see How to Train a Cat or Kitten for training tips).

Kittens can be quite feisty during this stage, and playfights with siblings and other pets may get out of hand at times. Set limits, let kittens know what sort of behaviours are unacceptable, and enforce rules consistently. For example, if a kitten bites your hand, keep the hand still (waving it around will make the kitten think you’re playing) and say “no” in a firm voice until the kitten lets go. If the kitten is stubborn and won’t release her grip, blowing a puff of air in her face can have the desired effect.

Kittens

Sometimes kittens just want attention, so any attention, even negative, can reinforce bad behaviour. Yelling or punishing should be avoided because aggressive actions make the kitten think that you want to play rough. Either she will be frightened and view you as hostile, or, if she has a bolder personality, she will perceive it as an irresistible challenge and launch even more aggressive attacks in the future.

Never play rough with a kitten, and teach children to handle kittens gently. Otherwise, the kittens will be confused by the mixed messages and may develop behavioural problems.Older Black KittenAge at Which Cats Can Have Kittens

As with humans, physical maturity precedes social maturity. In some cases, kittens as young as 5 months old can become pregnant or sire kittens. Given the enormous number of cats languishing in shelters due to feline overpopulation, older kittens should be spayed or neutered before they are old enough to reproduce.

Many owners have concerns that spaying or neutering will damage a cat’s health or negatively affect his or her temperament. However, contrary to popular belief, spaying and neutering don’t have an adverse impact on personality, and they actually provide a number of health benefits.

In addition to having older kittens spayed or neutered, they should receive their first rabies vaccinations during this stage. This is usually done at around 4 months of age and again at 12 months.

Age at Which Cats Reach Adulthood

Time required to reach maturity varies from breed to breed. For most cat breeds, 13 weeks and up can be thought of as a middle childhood stage, and 6 months onward can be likened to the teen years.

The majority of breeds have reached young adulthood (roughly equivalent to late teens among humans) by the time they’re around 1 year old. However, a few breeds don’t reach full maturity until 3 or 4 years of age.

Playing with cats regularly will help them retain kittenish qualities well into adulthood.

References:

    • 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. (Eds.). (2000). The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
    • Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith. (n.d.). “Care & Feeding of Queens & Kittens.” PetEducation.com.

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