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August 5, 2013 at 8:00 AMComments: 5 Faves: 1

From Birth to Adoption-Ready: A Week-By-Week Guide to Early Kittenhood Milestones

By Erin Froehlich More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Feline 101 Blog Series

Unless you’ve had a cat give birth to a litter of kittens (or you’ve known and visited someone else that did), there’s a good chance you’ve never experienced a kitten that was anything less than bundle of playful energy.  Most people are unaware of the awkward developing stages of kittenhood - that there is a time in every cat’s life where they are completely helpless, not much bigger than a roll of quarters, blind, deaf and unable to do much more than nurse. Just as with our own young, kittens begin growing at an incredible rate after birth, racing to develop the skills needed for their independence. And just as with our own children, the amount of early involvement we have with them has a direct impact on their future.

Here is a basic guide to those first eight weeks of life!*

*NOTE: that there is some variation depending on breed. Note also, that I am not endorsing kitten milling or irresponsible feline ownership. Sometimes people end up taking in a cat that is already pregnant or one that has kittens, and sometimes people wait longer than they should to get their cats fixed. If this happens it is important to educate yourself on a kitten's needs and development. However, I encourage you all to spay and neuter your cats. This not only prevents contribution to the overpopulation of cats, but it helps prevent behavioral issues down the line! For information on clinics near you, visit LocalSpaying.com .

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One Day Old

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one day old kittens

At this stage, unless the kittens were orphaned, or their nest is dirty or in an unsafe location, it’s best to leave them alone and just let mama do her thing. Surprisingly, even young, first-time mothers will instinctively know just what to do!

  • Sight: Newborn kittens are born with their eyelids sealed shut and are completely blind.
  • Hearing: Newborn kittens are also deaf. Loud sounds might startle their mama, but they won’t faze them!
  • Feeding: Surprisingly, though they are both blind and deaf, there’s no need to guide kittens to their mother. Kittens will instinctively find their way to nurse. That’s important because for their first three days, they’ll receive antibodies along with nutrition in their mother’s highly caloric colostrum. About the waste? It’s a little disturbing, but mama actually takes care of that. In the wild, having lots of kitten pee and poo around would not only dirty the nest space in a hurry, it could attract predators. For this reason, kittens are actually unable to eliminate without stimulation (in the form of licking) from their mother who will consume any waste as it occurs.
  • Movement: Newborn kittens are capable of scooting toward their mother and “kneading” to encourage milk flow from the very beginning. They will naturally tend to move in a circular motion (an evolved mechanism that prevents them from getting too far away), but if they do get lost, their mother will hear their cries and help guide them back.
  • Socialization: Mother cats purr almost constantly when they are with their kittens at this point. Though they cannot hear it, kittens can feel the vibration and will begin to associate purring and kneading with positive feelings. When mom isn’t there, kittens will huddle together for warmth.

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Five Days Old

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By just five days old, kittens should have already grown much larger than they were at birth. In fact, they should have doubled their birth weight! Their ears are no longer tucked quite so tightly to their head and their eyes may be beginning to open. At this point, it’s a good idea to begin handling kittens for short periods of time.  

  • Sight: Despite their eyesight being pretty poor at this point, you’ll probably begin to notice the kittens eyes are starting to open. They’ll start opening from the inner corners and work their way outward.  You’ll probably even see kittens with only one eye open for awhile. While it may be tempting to help the lagging eyelids along, doing so could cause damage, so let them open at their own pace.
  • Hearing: Kittens will still be deaf at this point.
  • Feeding:  Kittens are still feeding exclusively from their mother.
  • Movement: Kittens are still mostly restricted to rooting behavior, kneading behavior, and scooting around in circles.
  • Socialization: Time with mama and littermates continues to nurture healthy, happy cats, but now kittens are ready to be handled for short periods as well. Hold and pet them for minute or so time spans when they aren’t nursing if mama doesn’t seem too upset by it. The more contact they have with people, the more friendly the kittens will be with people as they grow!

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Ten Days Old

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The kittens are continuing to grow at an astonishing rate, but they still aren’t doing too much more than they were doing five days ago. The biggest change – their little ears are finally beginning to do something (besides be adorable).

  • Sight: On average, all kitten’s eyes should be completely open in between 9 and 14 days from birth, but because their pupils cannot dilate yet, it’s important they be protected from very bright lights.
  • Hearing: Those tiny little ears are finally beginning to pick up sounds, but the kittens don’t recognize what they are yet.
  • Feeding: Kittens are still feeding exclusively from their mother. Some may be better feeders than others, but keep a look out for kittens that are significantly smaller than the rest of the litter. They may require veterinary intervention.
  • Movement: Though their eyes are now opened or opening and their ears are beginning to pick up sound, it doesn’t seem to help them much at this point. They still pretty much exclusively move out of instinct.
  • Socialization:  Socialization with their mother, litter mates, and you continue to be vital. So long as you’re not disrupting nursing or upsetting their mother too much, continue to hold and pet the kittens as often as you can.

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Two Weeks Old

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two week old kitten

The kittens aren’t quite bounding bundles of energy yet, but they are finally starting to use their new found senses and stretch their legs!

  • Sight: The kitten’s eyesight is starting to improve. Their eyes, like all kittens, will be blue at this point, though they will not typically stay this shade.
  • Hearing: Ears are still hearing sounds, but until their ear canals open in about a week, they won’t be able to recognize them.
  • Feeding: Kittens are still getting all their nutrition from their mother’s milk. Make sure mom maintains a healthy weight by providing her with high caloric foods. Kitten food is a actually a good choice for lactating mothers.
  • Movement:  Kittens are finally starting to move from a scooting crawl to a clumsy walk. They are building up those leg muscles!
  • Socialization: Social competition that started from birth as the kittens fought for nursing position, continues on and is important part of their introduction to the feline hierarchy system. Stronger legs provide them with a new tool to gain an edge on their littermates. Time spent with mom, littermates, and you continue to be vital. The more, the better!

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Three Weeks Old

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3 week old kitten

As kittens build their leg muscles and begin venturing out more, their unique personalities begin to emerge. Some will be more dominant kittens, larger and better skilled, while others will be more affectionate and enjoy being handled more than the others. It’s an exciting time!

  • Sight: The kitten’s eye sight continues to improve, but they won’t have depth perception for another week. (Read: They can’t perceive drop offs in height. Keep an eye on them around stairs or ledges!)
  • Hearing: With ear canals now fully open, kittens are finally able to recognize sounds! You’ll now start to notice the beginning of vocal communication – those tiny clicking noises you hear are the contented purrs of tiny kittens and if you startle one, they’ll do their best to look intimidating with a quiet, breathy little hiss.
  • Feeding: Kittens which have relied on their mother’s stimulation in order to eliminate waste are now able to control elimination on their own. Soon they’ll not only be ready to try a little solid food, they’ll be ready to start litter box training. For now though, it’s a strict mother’s milk diet and their mother’s job to clean up resulting messes.
  • Movement:  The kitten’s legs are becoming much stronger! They’re still pretty clumsy, but they’ll begin using their new found mobility to venture out of the nest and to play with their siblings.
  • Socialization: Now, in addition to the social skills you teach handling and petting the kittens, you can begin introducing them to common household sounds (though avoid especially loud frightening sounds like vacuum cleaners or blenders), and engaging their minds in play. Help them “get” your fingers and small toys. Show them a laser pointer. They’re not quick enough to chase after or catch it yet, but simply following it visually will help develop their mental abilities.

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Four to Five Weeks Old

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Play time! At four weeks, kittens may not be especially skilled, but they are able to do most things adult cats can do. Their sense of smell is fully functional, their sight is nearly there, and they are really beginning to play. By five weeks, their sight will be fully developed and they’ll be able to run, climb, jump, chase and avoid.

  • Sight: Depth perception is now developing meaning kittens are now capable of climbing and jumping! Watch them around the stairs though; they’re still a little clumsy.
  • Hearing: Since their ear canals opened last week, the kittens have been learning all about the sounds around them. As a result, you may notice they are beginning to be a little more vocal.
  • Feeding: Though they are still feeding regularly with mom, kittens have now begun to grow baby teeth and are capable of eating solid foods and drinking water from a bowl. Begin by offering wet kitten food or dry kitten food that has been moistened with a little water. It is likely some of your kittens will take an interest before the others. That’s perfectly normal!  Don’t worry if they aren’t eating right away. When they’re ready, they’ll try it. Of course, when they do start solid foods, they’ll also start needing a litter box. Luckily, kittens have an instinctual desire to bury their waste (so they won’t lure predators) so liter training is pretty easy. Keep a box where they can easily get to it, set them inside, take their paws, and show them they can dig. Be aware, the kittens may try tasting the litter. Non-clumping, non-toxic litter is recommended until they figure out that litter’s not food. If you notice they prefer going elsewhere to pee or poo, be sure to clean messes well, and try setting the litter box in that location instead. They’ll get the idea.
  • Movement: By week 4, kittens are beginning to walk with less stumbling. Within the 4th week, they’ll be running, jumping, and climbing up you and your furniture. By the end of the 5th, the Humane Society says they should be able to “right themselves, run, place their feet precisely, avoid obstacles, stalk and pounce, and catch ‘prey’ with their eyes.” In addition to the holding and petting they’ve been getting from you, encourage them to use these skills. Play peek-a-boo with a small toy. Get out a laser pointer. Have them chase a string. Offer small balls and other toys for them to play with as they will. This is a critical period of developmental growth - the more they play with you and receive your attention, the smarter and more affectionate they will be as adults.
  • Socialization: The kittens are becoming quite independent, but this is a more critical time than ever for their socialization. The ability to play with their littermates sends them leaps forward in understanding the feline hierarchy system. Some will be more dominant, others, more laid back. You’ll probably notice the kittens have a favorite brother or sister in their litter. They’ll start grooming each other (and you!) at this point. Attention from you, their mother, and their littermates continue to be very important.

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Six to Seven Weeks Old

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The skills kittens developed in the 4th and 5th weeks of their life will continue being honed in the 6th and 7th. Their balance is getting better, their baby teeth are fully grown, their eyes are changing from blue into their adult color, and they no longer need to huddle for warmth – they can now regulate their own body temperature. They are now primarily eating kitten food and should be using the litter box well. The main thing now is to catch early bad habits before they turn into lifelong issues. The first of three rounds of vaccines are typically recommended at week 7. 

  • Sight: The kitten’s eyesight is now fully developed! Exercise their eyes by having them track a laser pointer or string.
  • Hearing: Their hearing is great! Help your kittens by introducing them to normal household sounds, and use squeaky toys at play.
  • Feeding: Kittens are feeding less and less from mom. They still enjoy the comfort of nursing, but she knows what’s best. Soon she’ll stop allowing them and they’ll be on a completely solid diet.
  • Movement: By week 7, the kittens will have entered their “most active play period,” a stage that will last through week 14 (month 3) of their development. They are still a bit accident prone, but they aren’t letting that stop them. Skills they will begin using include ambushing, scooping, tossing, pawing, mouthing, holding, tail chasing, pouncing, and leaping.
  • Socialization: Though they will soon be weaned from their mother, the kittens are still taking a lot away from her. You’ll notice them watching her intently, both the way she moves and accomplishes things and the way she responds to objects to creatures in her environment. They are learning new skills as well as what to seek, what to avoid, and generally, how to be a cat. Continue to set a positive example of human companionship giving plenty of attention to both mama and kittens.

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Eight Weeks Old

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They’ve gotten so big! By week 8, the kittens can safely be fixed, and should be fully weaned (though they may occasionally sneak a snack from mom, for comfort’s sake, if she permits it). By week 12, they will be fully socialized and getting their last round of the typical three rounds of vaccinations. The kittens are finally ready to leave mom for their forever home!

SOURCES

Raising Happy Kittens.com

PAWS.org

PHOTOS

Pacificat Ragdolls@flickr

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5 Comments

  • Soooo adorable - you know the old saying "they grow up so fast"! You sure did prove that Erin.

  • Even having had a litter of kittens,growth happens so gradually, it's easy to forget how small they used to be and how much they've grown and developed! The gorgeous photos from Pacificat Ragdoll's flickr photostream really do illuminate that. :)

  • Such an informative article! Gave me all of the information that I needed, thanks!

  • I loved reading this. I have three cats of my own but have been fostering a mother cat for about 8 weeks. She had her four babies after being here for three weeks. It has been a learning experience for me. The kitties are just adorable and I would love to keep the whole family but then that would be 8 cats for us! Is that too many? My hubby thinks so.

  • Thanks, Marissa and Vendetta!

    Vendetta - Aww... so jealous! Would love to see some little kittens right now!

    Are 8 cats too many? Opinions will vary from person to person, and most people will probably say, "yeah, 8's too many", but I do know a fair amount of people with a pride that manage just fine. For me "too many" really depends on the unique situation. How big is the home? How motivated and capable are the owners? What are the individual cats like?

    Each cat adds extra expense and extra work - more food, more veterinary costs, more litter, and more time caring for them and cleaning up after them. There's also greater risk for behavioral issues - you'll need to consider feline hierarchical systems as power struggles can develop. ( Check out my article on multi-cat homes here: https://www.smartlivingnetwork.com/cat-breeds/b/feline-101-the-feline-hierarchy/ )

    I personally have 5 cats - all acquired free as rescues needing homes. Though I love that there's always a cat around, it is a fair amount of work. My feeling is that for most people, 8 is too many. If you can find friends that want kittens, that's great because you'll still be able to keep tabs on them.

    Enjoy them as much as you can while they're there with you. They grow up quick!

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