Kittens develop very quickly and are grown-up cats before you know it. The maturation that occurs during a kitten’s first six months of life correlates to the first 15 years of a human’s life.From birth to six months,a kitten changes from a newborn to a sexually mature animal.In the past, when I got a new kitten,all I wanted to do was stay home with him all the time. My husband thought I was crazy, but I told him the kitten would be all grown up within a few months and I didn’t want to miss his kittenhood.I guess that’s what people say about their own children growing up,so it is a natural feeling for all kinds of parents! Kittens seem to work at two speeds: full power and full stop.They seem to have unending energy, and then they crash and sleep very soundly. Starting off with a new kitten is a lot of fun, but if you are a first-time cat owner, you may have questions about what normal behavior is.Knowing what to expect with regard to kitten development is helpful so you can work on training your kitten properly and be able to intervene if behaviors get out of hand.You have the best chance of molding your kitten into the perfect pet when he is young.
BIRTH TO 1 MONTH
During this period a kitten develops from being totally dependent on his mother for food, warmth and elimination, to being able to handle these things on his own.Newborn kittens can neither see nor hear,but they can smell,and they have touch receptors on their faces that enable them to home in on their mother’s body heat. If you find a newborn orphaned kitten, you will have to perform the duties that the mother cat would have performed. These duties include keeping him warm and safe,feeding him with proper cat milk replacer through a bottle and “pottying” the kitten. Kittens are unable to eliminate on their own until they are about four weeks old,and their mothers stimulate them to eliminate by licking their genitalia.You can replicate this action using a cotton ball or tissue soaked in warm water and gently wiping the kitten’s genitalia. Make sure you use a feline milk replacer, and not any other kind of milk.Although they love the taste of cow’s milk,cats are fairly lactose intolerant.They lack the enzyme needed to properly digest the sugar found in cow’s milk,so more than a taste or two will usually cause diarrhea. The mouth is a very important organ for a kitten.A newborn kitten will start using his mouth within an hour of birth, when he starts nursing. Kittens nurse every few hours around the clock for the first couple of weeks of life. Kittens’ears open around five days of age.They can orient to sounds at about 10 days, but they don’t recognize sounds until they are three weeks old.Eyes open between 5 and 14 days after birth,but kittens cannot visually orient until their eyes have been open a few days. Newborn kittens can feel with both their front and rear limbs.They can walk with uncoordinated motions at two weeks and can visually place their front legs and climb by three weeks. Immunity is passed to newborns when they receive colostrum,their mother’s first milk,during their first 24 hours of life.They are protected from most diseases during their first month if they ingest colostrum, continue to nurse normally and are kept warm and clean by their mothers.
4 TO 6 WEEKS
Most kittens begin to eat some solid food at four weeks of age and can be fully weaned by six weeks.It is normal for kittens to eat dirt or kitty litter during the weaning process,but they learn quickly that these substances don’t taste very good.Kittens have all of their baby teeth by six weeks of age.Kittens who go outdoors and are trained by their mothers can learn some rudimentary hunting behavior during this time. This is a very important period in the socialization process.Kittens who are not exposed to humans and other animals (including other cats) at this stage can have a harder time adjusting to them later on in life.Coordinated social play behavior develops during this time. The kittens’ eyes change from blue to their permanent color, they regulate their own body temperature and start to control their urination and defecation during this time. Protection against disease is still mainly conferred through maternal immunity—the antibodies derived from their mothers.
6 TO 8 WEEKS
This is the earliest time for a kitten to be taken from his mother and littermates and introduced into a new home—although it’s best wait until they are at least eight weeks old.A kitten of this age should be able to care for his own basic needs.In a new home,a kitten may be scared and lonely at first,but he should be able to adapt. Maternal immunity wanes,and kittens need to begin their vaccination series to stimulate further protection against certain diseases. Natural exposure to viruses and bacteria causes disease,but it also stimulates antibody production and increases future immunity. Kittens need the increased protein,vitamin and mineral content of specially formulated kitten foods to support their growth and development.They are able to consume both dry and canned kitten foods.
8 TO 16 WEEKS
During this period kittens adjust to their independence and become stronger and more curious.They grow rapidly and usually gain about one pound per month.They begin to jump,climb and scratch.Owners
can make a big impact on their kitten’s behavior by training him during this time. Vaccinations and natural exposure continue to contribute to the kitten’s immune system.If not vaccinated,kittens are very susceptible to viruses such as panleukopenia and feline leukemia if they are exposed to other cats who have these diseases.The need for a special kitten diet also continues,and the kitten will be eating more and more.
16 TO 28 WEEKS
From four to seven months of age a kitten loses his baby teeth and gets his permanent adult teeth. Biting and chewing behaviors increase. During this period it is common for kittens to chew on everything in sight, including your hands and feet.They are able to continue eating both dry and canned kitten foods. The animal’s coat fills out and there is more interest in grooming and scratching behaviors. Most kittens do not reach behavioral sexual maturity until after six months of age,but they can be physically mature before then. Kittens allowed outside at this age will roam farther and for longer periods of time.
Cats go through physical maturation before they are behaviorally ready to reproduce.The time of year has an effect on reproduction, as cats are seasonally polyestrus (during certain seasons of the year, cats can go through their heat cycles multiple times).Veterinarians recommend that cats be spayed or neutered before they begin to exhibit sexual behaviors for many reasons. Some of the important reasons are:
• Neutered cats tend to be calmer and more easygoing.
• Neutered cats stay closer to home (and are more comfortable being indoor-only cats).
• Neutered cats fight less and are less protective of their territory.
• The cycling of sex hormones can trigger some health problems in cats.
• The odor of sexually mature male cats is unbearable.
Male “Coming of Age”
Male kittens start producing low levels of testosterone at about three and a half months of age.They can produce sperm by five months of age, but they are not usually able to copulate before they are 9 to 12 months old.Some behaviors you may see as a kitten begins sexual maturation are gripping the neck of another cat from behind,pelvic thrusting and mounting. Most male cats have two testicles descended into their scrotums at birth.If the testicles have not reached the scrotum by eight months of age,it is unlikely they ever will.If a testicle is retained (called monorchid if one testicle is retained and cryptorchid if both are), it should be removed when the animal is neutered to prevent the possible development of tumors.The surgical procedure used with a cryptorchid cat,if the testicle is in the abdominal cavity,is similar to that used when spaying a female cat.
Female “Coming of Age”
Once a female cat begins to have her estrus cycle, she is able to conceive. The estrous cycle is the hormonal cycle that defines female “heat.” Cats do not bleed when they are in heat, and the signs of heat in a female cat are all behavioral (see the list below). Most indoor cats will begin to cycle at five to nine months of age. The kitten’s environment plays a role in what age puberty begins, and factors such as exposure to tomcats, cycling females or increasing amounts of light will trigger earlier estrus.Although some cats cycle all year round,most cats in North America cycle between mid-January and late September. The estrous cycle in a female cat is comprised of four stages: anestrus, proestrus, estrus and metestrus. Estrus is the only time in which a female will allow copulation and can conceive. Proestrus is the short period one to three days before estrus. A female cat in proestrus may:
• Show a general increase in her activity.
• Roll and rub on objects and people.
• Spray urine.
• Lie low to the ground with her tail to one side and knead with her paws.
• Howl or otherwise vocalize.
• Not yet allow a male to mount her.
The proestrus period enables a female cat to let males know she is available! More information about the other stages of the feline estrous cycle is included in Chapter 11.
6 MONTHS TO 1 YEAR
A cat becomes an adult during this period.Social play decreases and the metabolic rate slows in spayed and neutered animals.The cat must take in fewer calories to avoid obesity,and this is achieved through a switch to adult maintenance diets.These diets have fewer calories and more fiber than diets for younger cats. The immune system matures and cats have more natural ability to fight infection.This process continues throughout adult life,but wanes during the senior years. A cat’s personality more fully develops and is based on genetics and earlier life experiences.Behaviors become more routine.Cats in multicat households assume a position in the social hierarchy of the home.