The first 12 weeks of a kitten’s life are some of the most important, with the interactions they have defining much of the rest of their lives. During these 12 weeks, it’s best for them to stay with their mother and siblings, as well as people, so they can learn from observing, interacting, and ideally, being around humans.
This process is known as socialization. Removing a cat too early from their litter can have seriously adverse effects on their development – yielding aggressive behaviour and poor hygiene habits (among others).
So how do kittens learn to interact with their world? They do it much like we do but on a smaller scale. Let’s have a look.
Kittens learn a lot from playing with their siblings. Wrestling, stalking, pouncing, and all the other behaviours we know cats for often develop around this time. By playing with their brothers and sisters, listening to them and observing their reactions, they can calibrate their own actions. For example, a kitten might bite their sibling and in response, they will hear a squeal. The one who was bitten might not want to play for a while teaching the other to be gentler.
Playing with littermates also helps kittens build muscle strength, improve their dexterity, and sharpen their senses. Kittens need to be around each other during this incredibly important and vulnerable period of their lives.
In the feline world, mothers get all the credit for developing their young. By simply observing their moms, kittens can figure out how their world works. At around four weeks of age, they learn from their mothers how to use the bathroom, and a week later, how to hunt or find food (depending on their situation). These and the other lessons are so incredibly valuable to the development of a kitten.
Feline moms also do a great job of running interference on their roughhousing kittens. If one is playing too rough, she might put them back in line with a hiss, touch, or pull them out of the situation entirely. This teaches kittens boundaries and that there are sometimes consequences for your actions.
One of the most important parts of socializing a kitten is interacting with people. Tragically, some cat families spend their early days in cages and those kittens often don’t get much of a chance to learn about people.
Interacting with humans allows kittens to grow familiar with human scents, removes the fear of being around what they perceive as giant threats, and helps them trust people in the future. Provided you don’t force interactions with the mother and kittens, and you take cues from them, you can interact safely without upsetting them.
One great place to start is at roughly three or four weeks. Approach them slowly and let them come to you. Put your hand out on the floor, or extend a pointer finger, and let the kittens come explore. Any sudden movements might scare them so take things slow and be careful! Remember: you are much taller than they are!
12 Weeks is the Magic Number for Kittens
Kittens need to be with their mothers for at least 12 weeks. Removing them too early can potentially set them up for a life driven by fear, and in some cases, that might cause the end of it. Unfortunately, we live in a world where not every cat shelter can afford to take care of the cats in their care, and those that are unadoptable are often put down (at Herveycats, we are a no-kill shelter – our cats are not at risk of being put down).
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need to put down any cats, but until then we can do our best to provide loving homes for the ones we have, and when they do have a litter of kittens, we can do our best to set them up for success.