Tracking Kittens’ Development
Part 1: The Newborn Kittens First Week
To most of us, kittens are magical, lovable creatures with the power to entrance that one would not expect from their tiny, helpless forms. Yet, entrance us they do, to the extent that we are captive audiences whenever a kitten is available to gaze upon. How do these utterly dependent little fledglings grow into the regal, svelte, intelligent cats who gaze back at us with love, tolerance, or thinly concealed scorn, depending on their moods? These short lessons will help us in understanding the physical and social development of a kitten from birth to one year, and will be an ongoing project.
Blind, Deaf, and Dependent
The newborn kitten weighs just ounces, and easily fits into the palm of your hand. Her umbilical cord will fall off within two or three days, but her eyes and ear canals will not be open yet.
Kittens are very helpless at this age, but the mother cat instinctively knows their needs. She feeds them, keeps them close by for warmth, bathes them with her rough tongue, which also stimulates their digestion and helps them urinate and defecate. Mother cats are very protective of their little ones, and will move them to another location if humans intrude too much into the nest.
Provided the mother has been vaccinated, or has natural immunity, the kittens will receive this same immunity for the first 24-48 hours through her colostrum, and it will last until they are old enough to get their “kitten shots.”
Tiny Food Processing Factories
Newborn kittens will weigh an average of 3.5 ounces at birth and may double their weight by the end of the first week. They are simply little food processing factories at this point, and their only activities are nursing, sleeping, and passing waste. There is very little social interaction at this age, other than competing for their favorite nipple, where they will suckle while kneading with their tiny paws. Although their ear canals are not completely open the first week, kittens may have a reflex action to sudden noise. The body temperature of a newborn is only 95° Fahrenheit, and their shivering reflex is not yet developed, so it is extremely important to keep them warm during this time, especially if they are orphans or rescues without a mother cat.
Although kittens can lift their heads at birth, they haven’t yet developed full limb support, so they will do a lot of “flopping” as the photo of the baby at the top of the page shows. Don’t worry though – they’ll soon be off and running, as we’ll find in the next few pieces in this series.
The all-important first six weeks in a cat’s life will do much in determining his personality and character for the rest of his life. (Yes, cats have character. Ask anyone who is owned by one.) Healthwise, this period is also extremely important to the developing kitten, as very young kittens are susceptible to a number of threats, such as fleas and URIs, which combined with other problems can lead to Fading Kitten Syndrom, a serious and often fatal condition. FKS, as it is often caused, is more often found with litters of stray and feral cats, so if you are in a kitten foster situation, those kittens should be kept away from other cats in the home until they have all been checked clear of communicable disease.
Kittens will probably never grow again at the remarkable rate they accomplish during this period, and seeing the changes in their development from week to week is an incredible experience. We’ll start off by recapping the first week, and move on from there.
Week 1: Tiny Food Processing Factories
Although during the first week of a kitten’s life he will be concentrating on feeding and growth, (he will double his birth weight this week) other physical changes are taking place which will become more apparent soon, so hold onto your hat!
- Your kitten is continuing his growth at an astonishing rate, by at least 10 grams per day.
- His eyes will start to open and will be completely open at 9 to 14 days old. All kittens’ eyes are blue, and will remain so for several weeks. Their vision will be blurred at first, and their pupils don’t dilate and contract readily, so they should be protected from bright lights.
- The kitten’s sense of smell is developing, and he will even hiss at unfamiliar odors, as the photo depicts. (Big ferocious kitten!)
- You may be able to determine the sex of the kittens by this time. Don’t be too sure though; even veterinarians sometimes make mistakes this early.
- Ear canals will be completely open.
- Kittens can voluntarily eliminate now, as their digestive system is developing.
- They will start to socialize now, with each other, and with people, and will want to explore their surroundings a bit.
- Depth perception has developed.
- Sense of smell is fully developed.
- Baby teeth will start to show.
- Kittens are learning to walk without stumbling.
- They will interact more with their littermates, even to the point of forming “alliances” which may or may not be gender-based.
- Kittens may be introduced to canned kitten food at this time. Select a quality brand of canned kitten food with a named meat source as the first ingredient (chicken is good). Many breeders and rescuers will have been feeding this food to the mother cat, and the kittens will quickly accommodate to eating mom’s food.
- Kittens can also be trained to the litter box now. They need a smaller, separate box, one that will be easy to access and exit, with only an inch or two of litter.
As human babies experiment by tasting everything, so will kittens. Avoid their ingestion of harmful substances by using a natural litter such as one made from corn cobs, paper, or wood chips – NEVER clumping clay litter.
Week 6: Socializing Kittens
Socialization skills continue, and there is no doubt that these are lively, active, KITTENS who will grow up all too soon to be adult cats. They can run, pounce, and leap, and can entertain themselves and their human observers endlessly. Just as quickly they can fall asleep at the drop of a hat, (growing up is hard work), so take care not to let them tire.
Kittens will follow their mother cat’s lead in socializing with humans. If she has a comfortable relationship with the humans in her life, so will her kittens. However, if kittens are not accustomed to human handling by six weeks, it will be a long, slow, process to train them later, and such a cat may never be a “lap cat.”
For this reason, feral cat rescuers, if faced with a pregnant feral or a very young litter, will separate the litter from the mother (after spaying her) before six weeks for optimal results in socializing the kittens for new homes.
For our purposes, however, the litter of kittens we are tracking live with the mother cat in a family setting. Socializing a kitten at this age will make all the difference in the world to his personality and interaction with humans as adult cats. Socializing Tip:
Kittens should learn at this age that hands are not for playing – hands are for holding, petting, and feeding. One of the best “toys” for teaching this lesson is a plastic drinking straw. You can drag it across the floor and watch the kitten chase it, then wiggle it a bit and allow him to pounce on it and “capture” it. The baby may proudly strut with his prize before settling down to bite on it. The plastic is nice and crunchy, and makes a good aid for teething, as well.
Well-socialized and completely weaned kittens may be ready for their new forever homes in just a couple of weeks. If you’ve been waiting for your kittens to be old enough to adopt, you’ll probably be pretty excited by now.
Patience, though. Remember, “All good things come to those who wait.”