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A Complete Guide to Kitten Development

Updated on January 26, 2011

Before looking at the so-called sensitive period of social development that affects how cats interact with the world of people, other animals, and other cats, it is useful to plot the development of kittens from birth. Realizing how they are learning and dealing with the world around them through use of their rapidly developing, exceptional senses can give us an idea of the huge volume of information, behaviors, and body control that kittens must develop in a very short period of time.

When a kitten is born, it has poorly developed hearing (the ears are covered by folds of skin) and its eyes are closed. It will raise its head in reaction to loud noises, so perhaps its world is quite muffled at this point; with no sight and poor hearing, its senses are focused on sensations of touch and smell. Driven by hunger and a desire to stay warm and to be near its mother, the kitten locates the teat through a combination of warmth, touch, and smell. It is thought that the kitten follows a trail of saliva laid down by the mother after birth that leads to the nipples.

Warmth is very important since the kitten cannot yet regulate its own body temperature and has very little control over its limbs or body movements. It will cry if it becomes separated from its mother and will drag itself back toward the litter with short rowing or paddling movements if it gets pushed away by the other kittens.

Once at the teats the kitten latches on to a nipple using bobbing movements of the head, known as the rooting reflex. We see the same thing in our own babies, and like humans the kitten has a sucking reflex that causes it to turn its head toward any object, such as a finger, that touches the area around its mouth. This will gradually be lost as the kitten gets to know where the teat is and how to latch on successfully. The kitten will also make treading movements around the teats to stimulate the flow of milk - this kneading behavior is often seen in adult cats when they sit on our laps and open and close their paws and claws as if in bliss. This is then combined with the purr - a signal to the mother that all is OK and to the others that food has arrived. The mother will also purr as she enters the nest, perhaps a quiet sign that she is back and all is safe. The sound does not carry far, and it can be made while the kittens are sucking so no attention is drawn to the nest. The kitten may suck for as long as eight hours a day and double its weight from about 3.5 to 7 ounces (100 to 200 g) in the first week.

The mother (sometimes referred to as the "queen") may decide to move her kittens after a few days to a new nest, perhaps because the nest is soiled after the birth (even though she will have cleaned up all the placentas) or just because she feels somewhere else may be safer or better suited to the growth and development of the kittens. She will carry each kitten individually by the scruff of the neck. Being picked up in this way causes the kitten to react automatically in a certain way - its front legs become limp and its back legs and tail curl up and out of the way. Presumably if they simply hung down limply, they might catch on the ground or get stepped on by the queen as she negotiates the removal of the kittens to a new den. The kitten will not struggle or make any noise and almost seems immobilized. This reflex continues into adulthood in many cats and can be useful for restraint in an emergency.

By the end of the first week, the kitten is starting to crawl; by about seventeen days, it will start to stand up, albeit in a rather wobbly fashion. The milk teeth start to come through at around two weeks of age and the eyes open after about ten days, although this can vary from two to around sixteen days. Although the eyes are open, the kitten will not be seeing with razor-sharp vision. During this period the eye and the brain are working together to understand what the kitten is seeing and to make sense of the world around it. By four weeks the kitten is able to assess depth and judge distance accurately and will follow moving objects by sight alone; the development of sight will continue until sixteen weeks. The ears are also functional by about two weeks old and fully developed by four weeks.

In its first three weeks of life the kitten will rely entirely on its mother for nutrition. However, in the third week the kitten may spend a minute or two every day trying out solid food. It will watch its mother and try what she is eating - indeed, this may have a strong influence on what it likes to eat later in life.

Until this point the queen has made sure that all the kittens were offered milk and encouraged to feed. From three weeks she will start to stay away from the litter a little longer, and when she returns she will lie in such a way that her teats are inaccessible. The kittens are growing fast and in the wild would be depleting her reserves considerably as she would not have had the time to hunt and catch enough to feed all of the kittens via her milk. Initially the kittens will try harder to access the milk, but at the same time she will distract them with solid food or prey. This redirection of their attention and energy is a very important part of growing up, as they learn to deal with frustration and the conflict they feel on no longer being allowed free access to milk. It must come as quite a shock to them initially. Coping with frustration through weaning is one of the first of many challenges that a kitten will face in its life. It is not always possible for a living thing to have exactly what it wants whenever it wants it, and learning this early on encourages cats to be adaptable and able to compromise -and, ultimately, to fit into family life more easily.

Interestingly, up to the point of weaning, the kittens have played a great deal with each other - in what is called social play. However, they now switch more to playing with objects, which is perhaps the next step in preparation for hunting skills. While hunting itself seems to be instinctive, how good they are at it requires practice, and a good teacher (the mother) will help too.

Between three and four weeks old the kitten will gain self-control over urination and defecation, which previously only occurred at the initiation of the mother stimulating the area under the tail. When the mother was in control, she ate the waste so that the nest was not soiled. Now the kittens learn to move away from the nest to urinate and defecate and will also start to paw at litter in the litter box - again, watching the mother is a great stimulus for this behavior. Amazingly, the kitten will be moving confidently by four weeks of age and will be running and enjoying the be ginnings of its excellent balance by five weeks. This physical coordination will not be perfected for another five or six weeks but is already quite impressive.

Another very important feline behavior starts at around five weeks - the kitten will groom itself and its littermates. Grooming will keep the coat healthy and clean but seems to have several other functions. First of all, it is part of the kitten's social contact with its mother and its littermates. Grooming also seems to have a calming and comforting influence and gives pleasure - which is perhaps why most cats enjoy being stroked.

The time from about two to seven or eight weeks of age is known as the sensitive period for socialization in humans and other animals. During this period, a young kitten forms relationships with members of its own species and learns how to deal with other species.

During this socialization period, the kitten learns how to respond to other kittens and, like any growing child, will spend more time with them and less with its mother. Kitten play can be very wild and exuberant and sometimes rather rough. The kittens learn to inhibit themselves and keep their claws sheathed, practicing avoidance rather than simply going for out-and-out war!

The socialization phase lasts up to about fourteen weeks of age (although the sensitive period for learning about people and other species only lasts until about eight weeks old). By this time most kittens have already gone to their new homes. If they are pedigree cats, they will just be moving to their new owners.


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