Sweet, innocent, cherubic, delightful — nothing quite compares to the personality and charm of a young kitten. Who wouldn’t want to surround themselves with these adorable feline babies?
As much as I have wanted to bring a tiny baby kitten home with me (on more than one occasion), I remind myself that if given the option, I should let a kitten stay with her mother until she is truly ready to start a new life in a new home. But just which age is ideal for a kitten to leave her mother and her littermates? I asked some experienced animal professionals for their advice.
Stages Of Kittenhood
A kitten goes through three stages of development from birth to 16 weeks of age, says Jane Brunt, DVM, of the Cat Hospital at Towson in Baltimore, Md., and executive director of the CATalyst Council. These stages are:
1. Neonatal (birth to 2 weeks). During this stage, the kitten drinks milk exclusively and is stimulated by her mother. By 14 days, her eyes are open and she’s walking, but she can’t groom herself. A human caregiver should provide a warm, safe environment for the mother and litter, and handle such a young kitten minimally.
2. Early Socialization (3 to 8 weeks). The kitten begins to eat solid food and learns social play and other social skills. She can control her bodily functions and starts to use the litter box. She begins climbing and running, and is capable of complex learning. During this stage, a human caregiver should handle the kitten frequently yet gently, and reward the kitten’s appropriate friendly behavior to humans and other animals. When possible, the caregiver should expose the kitten to new (safe) experiences.
3. Late Socialization (9 to 16 weeks). Now the kitten eats solid food. She continues to learn social skills and social play. She’s also curious, and engages in “vigorous” exploration of her environment. A human caregiver should continue to enrich the kitten’s environment, and should have the kitten spayed or neutered.
Brunt recommends that a kitten stay with her mother until at least 8 weeks of age.
“Since the sensitive period for social learning is 3 to 8 weeks of age, if possible it’s best to keep the litter together, along with appropriate human interaction,” Brunt says. “If cats are excluded from interactions with and handling by humans from 2 to 9 weeks of age, their risk of interacting poorly with humans in later life is increased.”
Does Breed Affect The Age Cats Can Be Adopted?
Because a kitten continues to learn social skills in the late socialization stage, some breeders recommend that a kitten stay with her littermates and her mother beyond 8 weeks old.
“We do not send our babies home until at least 12 weeks of age,” says Trish Perkins, a Savannah cat breeder from Las Vegas. “The babies have already developed their social skills and are confident and outgoing by 12 weeks of age. At 8 to 10 weeks, a kitten is still used to having Momma cat at her side and siblings to run around with.”
I wondered if the breed of the cat may influence the ideal age for a kitten to leave her mother, and Brunt explained that usually this depends on the preference of the breeder. Still, Brunt recommends that people hoping to add a pedigreed cat to their homes consider the features of the breeds available.
“Make sure its activity level and body composition are a match for your lifestyle,” she says. “For example, long-haired cats typically need more frequent grooming than short-haired cats, and some exotic breeds are ‘high energy.’”
If you’re wondering if a kitten’s gender makes a difference in when she (or he!) can leave her mother, you can rest easy. A boy kitten or a girl kitten can leave the mother cat if he or she is at least 8 weeks old.
Kittens And Kids
When I first adopted my short-haired red tabby, Jack, he was 12 weeks old — and I had two kids at home, ages 13 and 9. My children were old enough to know how to be gentle and kind to a kitten, but what if a child is much younger? Should a parent wait until the kitten is 12 weeks old, or does the age of the kitten matter?
“The most important factors are temperament assessment of the kitten and proper education of the child,” says Brunt, noting that many animal shelter employees and volunteers know the personalities of the cats and kittens in their facilities. This helps them place the kittens and cats in homes where both the animal and the family will enjoy each other’s company.
Once you’ve added a new kitten to your home, Brunt recommends visiting a veterinarian as soon as possible. Not only does this ensure your kitten is healthy, but it also helps emphasize a child’s role in providing care for the young kitten.
“It’s helpful for the family to visit the veterinarian with the new kitten to reinforce handling and care in the home,” she says, “and to listen to their new kitty’s heartbeat!”