When kittens are born, they are 4-ounces of wet, wiggling fur balls that you would be hard put to identify as part of the feline species.
A female cat usually delivers four or five kittens at a time, sometimes as long as a half hour apart. They may have little resemblance to one another because a female cat can mate with more than one male during heat. Whatever their appearance, mom cat will wash them immediately to remove all vestiges of the birthing process and to induce breathing.
A newborn kitten is unable to hear, see or walk. His eyes are shut, and his ears are folded over his head. His tiny claws will not retract, and he lacks coordination and strength. His mother pushes him toward her belly to begin nursing. Her milk supplies needed antibodies, which help protect him from disease. He depends on his mother for food, warmth, washing, waste elimination, his safety and well-being.
A Week in the Life
During the first 6 or 7 days, the kittens huddle in a mass close to mom to stay warm, taking time out from their busy napping schedule only to nurse. Kittens nurse about every 3 to 4 hours, kneading their paws to stimulate milk flow. As adults, cats substitute their favorite humans or favorite blanket in the kneading process to remind them of one of their favorite kitten pastimes. After dinner, the mom cat licks the kitten’s anal area to stimulate waste elimination.
Week Two and Counting
During the next 7 days, a kitten will become stronger and more coordinated, although the grace and elegance for which cats are known will still elude him. He pads around the birthing area, exploring his tiny world in wonder and amazement.
At 8 to 10 days, a kitten’s eyes open, but his ability to see and focus is still poor. All kittens’ eyes are a deep blue color. As the kitten develops, his blue eyes will change to a lifelong color – any of the shades of copper, amber, hazel, green or azure – that depends on breed and genetic history.
He begins teething with a tiny first set of teeth that break through his gums. For the first week, it’s best to let the mom cat do the bulk of the work for the kitten, but feel free to talk to her and the kittens. During the second week, you can handle the kittens gently and gingerly for a few minutes at a time.
At about 2 weeks, a kitten begins fearlessly exploring, giving rise to the feline equivalent of the “terrible two’s.” You may observe the mom cat pulling back her kittens if she sees them straying too far or potentially getting into trouble.
At 5 or 6 weeks, kittens will begin wanting what mom is eating. Naturally curious, even at this young age, a kitten will check out mom’s food dish or one filled with room-temperature kitten food that you provide. Weaning should occur without much difficulty, as the mom cat, having grown tired of a multitude of kittens suckling from her, will help the process along by pushing kittens away when they try to nurse.
The kittens will begin to imitate their mother by using the litter box. At this tender age, clay litter is preferable to clumping. Because young kittens are often messy and wet, clumping litter granules stick to them and can get lodged in their digestive tracks when they wash.
The Age of Reason
Kittens should be at least 10 weeks old before going to a new home. “This critical time allows a mother cat to finish the job of raising her kittens,” says Susan Easterly, author of “The Guide to Handraising Kittens,” (TFH, 2000). “It allows kittens to gain confidence and learn key social skills from siblings, such as how to control their claws and jaws.”
Often, breeders require that kittens be 14 to 16 weeks old before placing them. At the more advanced age, it’s easier for breeders to determine which kittens conform more closely to breed standards and will head for the show ring.
Kittens may develop health and behavior problems if adopted at a very young age. “They may not get the interaction, exercise or socialization they need for healthy feline development,” says Easterly, “and they may have trouble bonding with other animals and people, or become fearful or unfriendly.”