by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Kittens are quite amazing – born blind and deaf, twelve weeks later they are capable of looking after themselves. While every kitten is individual there are some general guidelines on how they develop.
The first 6 to 8 weeks are the most. While some personality traits are inherited it is during this period that the kittens’ personality and character are defined, mainly from MomCat but also from the people who look after them. Kittens learn about being a cat from MomCat and their siblings. Kittens that are separated from others too early miss vital lessons on communication and social skills.
Kittens are born blind and deaf and are unable to regulate their body temperature; they rely on their mother and siblings to keep them warm and safe. They rely on smell to navigate towards MomCat. During the first week they start to vocalise. The second week sees them starting to stand; by this stage hearing has developed fully and eyes are beginning to open.
Teeth start to appear in the third week, walking is better and it’s time to begin exploring. Vision improves in the fourth week as the kittens start playing and extending their exploring. They also begin grooming. Playing, exploring, scratching and take up the next three weeks; vision is improving and they start eating solid food.
At 8 weeks kittens have a full set of baby teeth, have learnt confidence, communication, social skills and bite-inhibition. Weeks 9 to 12 see a rapid growth in their bodies, eyesight is fully developed, and they are highly active, playful and inquisitive. They are now ready to go to a new home and should already have been sterilised.
The period of 3 to 6 months sees kittens establishing themselves in their environment and integrating with other animals. Adult teeth develop and ownership of territory starts to play a role. From 6 to 18 months completes the development stage in most kittens although large breed kittens may only be fully mature between 3 and 4 years. At 12 months of age a kitten would be the equivalent of a 15-year-old teenager and will be exploring and testing boundaries in the family.
As kittenhood rushes past and many special moments are forgotten it is a great idea to photograph your kitten at various stages and to keep track of milestones. Vet checkups, vaccinations, de-fleaing and de-worming are important to ensure health not only during kittenhoon but throughout the life of your cat.
Kitten socialisation is the process of teaching kittens how to cope with the challenges they will encounter in life. Socialisation is an important part of their development. While genetics and upbringing by MomCat have an influence, the more experiences kittens have between two and seven weeks of age the more likely they are to be confident and outgoing cats able to deal with change.
Cats are known for their independence. In order to become accustomed to our way of life they need to be exposed to as many different situation, people and experiences as possible. At around six weeks of age the fear response is triggered, after this time it becomes more difficult to socialise kittens.
While early handling of kittens is necessary it must be done with the full co-operation of MomCat and definitely not before two weeks of age. If MomCat becomes stressed this will be transmitted to her kittens and the effect of the lessons will be negative, the opposite of what we expect. In the same way, every experience must be positive for each kitten, and that may differ between kittens in the same litter.
As well as learning about people, kittens need to learn about objects, noises and other animals. This includes texture, smell, size, shape, temperature, and taste. Kittens with dense or long coats and breed cat that will be exhibited at shows can experience baths too. The more positive experiences a kitten has during the socialisation phase the more he will learn about our world and be more open and accepting of change.
A socialised kitten acquires a knowledge base against which to reference each experience it may encounter later in life. This generally makes a cat more confident and relaxed. A confident cat has a better relationship with people and is perceived to be a happier cat. It is also easier for your vet to examine a cat that is used to being held and touched all over his body.
As kittens grow into cats they will experience more and after a while some of the early lessons can be changed or forgotten if they are not actively in use. So, a kitten that was outgoing and friendly can become timid if he has a number of negative experiences or does not continue to interact with people.
While socialisation is important during kitten development the lessons should be safely and positively re-enforced throughout their lives.