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Tips for a 'purrfect' upbringing

Kittens need time with mother and socialization with humans

Posted: Sunday, April 10, 2005

 

  Socializing kittens is an important part of raising a cat that will be a happy, healthy, and mentally well-adjusted member of the family. This kitten, available for adoption at the Kenai Animal Control Shelter, is already well socialized. Photo by Joseph Robertia

Socializing kittens is an important part of raising a cat that will be a happy, healthy, and mentally well-adjusted member of the family. This kitten, available for adoption at the Kenai Animal Control Shelter, is already well socialized.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Kittens are well adapted to learning from their mother and show a strong interest in, and ability to learn from, the behavior of other cats.

This is a normal part of their socialization. Kittens will often mirror their mother's attitude toward people, and calm, trusting, well-socialized cats are more likely to have kittens that turn out the same way.

That doesn't mean cat owners should sit back and let mama cat do all the work if they're interested in having a litter of kittens grow up to be social butterflies. Cat owners play a vital role, too.

To ensure that the proper steps are taken at the correct time means understanding the stages of kitten development.

At birth, kittens are blind, deaf and very weak, typically not able to do more than crawl a few inches at a time. Their only desire in life is to stay warm and well fed on their mother's milk. If mama leaves, the crying begins.

By the end of the first week, short-haired kittens will begin to open their eyes. For long-haired kittens it may take a little longer, sometimes up to 10-14 days. Even though their eyes are open at this age, the eye itself is still developing and kittens typically will not be able to see for a couple more weeks.

Separation from their mother and litter mates at this point can lead to poor learning skills and aggression toward people and other pets. Be patient. It won't be long until the cat owners' work with the kittens begins.

By about three weeks old, kittens' ears have started to stand erect, rather than being flattened to the head like they were at birth. They are beginning to hear but still may not be able to orientate to sound.

Their sense of smell is developing and kittens can see well enough to find their mother. They may try to walk on their short, shaky little legs, but they are often clumsy and don't get far.

In addition to crying, cats begin to make a second noise at around this age — they begin to purr, a vocalization they can perform throughout their lives.

This is when cat owners can begin petting and talking with the kittens to help them begin to develop good "people skills." Kittens who are gently handled by people 15 to 40 minutes a day during their first few weeks also are more likely to develop larger brains, which will subsequently lead to them being more exploratory and playful and being better learners as they get older.

By the fourth week, kittens' sense of smell is fully mature and their sense of hearing is developed. Kittens start to interact with litter mates and can walk fairly well.

The kittens' baby teeth are starting to come in at this age, making their mother more reluctant to feed her young. This is when she will typically begin to wean the kittens.

This is a good time to introduce solid food. Moist foods are usually easier for kittens to consume at first. Don't be surprised by the mess, as they will stand in their food, walk through it and track it with them everywhere they go. Kittens still will nurse for several more weeks.

Around the fourth week is a good time to introduce kittens to a life-long partner — the litter box. As with the food, they may not get it at first. They will play in the litter and do virtually everything except go to the bathroom, but eventually they will come around.

By the fifth week, eyesight is fully mature and kittens can right themselves, run, place their feet precisely, avoid obstacles, stalk and pounce. Kitten starts to groom themselves and others.

By the sixth and seventh weeks, kitten begins to develop adult sleeping patterns, motor skills and social interaction abilities. Kittens are usually weaned at six to seven weeks but may continue to suckle for comfort as their mother gradually leaves them for longer periods of time.

Orphaned kittens, or those weaned too soon, are more likely to exhibit inappropriate suckling behaviors later in life, such as sucking on blankets, pillows or human body parts. Ideally, kittens should stay with their litter mates for at least 12 weeks.

Kittens orphaned or separated from their mother and-or litter mates too early often fail to develop appropriate social skills, such as how far to go in play-wrestling. Play is important for kittens because it increases their physical coordination, social skills and learning limits.

From seven to 14 weeks is some of the most active periods of play in a kitten's life. It seems all they do during this time is play. All this activity increases a kitten's physical coordination and they learn the social skills they will carry through life. Kittens should stay with their mother, but it is at this time that the level of human contact should be stepped up a great deal.

Many owners adopt kittens too early (between the eighth and 10th weeks) and many of these owners find that their new pet isn't as well socialized or behaved as they would like. If they want a well socialized animal, they now have the responsibility of teaching the kitten what the mother didn't get a chance to finish.

Be wary of pet stores or breeders willing to sell kittens before the 12th week. Many kittens at shelters are strays that are found abandoned by the mother or owner and may be under 12 weeks. Remember, these kittens are adoptable and are in great need of your help, but be aware that you may need to do a little extra work with them by being a surrogate mom for a little while.

Socialize a kitten by playing with it for at least two hours a day and by providing the kitten with enough toys and fun items so that it can play alone, as well.

Also, spend a lot of time petting, touching and holding the kitten. Remember to always take it slow, though, and only go so far as the kitten is comfortable. Never push the kitten to do more than it will allow.

If the kitten doesn't want contact, a cat owner still can sit in the same room and just talk to the kitten. They may not understand the words but will quickly learn to identify the sounds and tones of their owner's voice. This also helps the kitten get used to their owner's presence and learn to trust them.

While these stages are important and fairly consistent, and although skills not acquired during the first eight weeks may be lost forever, a cat's mind remains receptive to new experiences and lessons well beyond kittenhood.

Many cat owners would agree that their cats are still kittens, in both mind and body, through the first two years of life.



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