The first twelve weeks of a kitten’s life are very important developmentally speaking. During this time period the entire litter should stay together with mom so they can learn the rules of being a cat! This section will take you through what the stages are that the kittens go through and what they will learn during each one.
Right after Birth and The First Week
Kittens are born blind and deaf and thus will rely on their sense of smell to find mom and nurse. For the first few days after being born a kittens main role will be to eat, sleep and be groomed by mom. At this time you should pretty much leave the kittens to mom, there should be no need to handle them and you should actually try not to handle them unless absolutely necessary. Between the fifth and tenth day of life the kittens’ eyes will begin to open and the kittens will begin to see their new world. They may try to walk once they can start to see but they will be very, very clumsy; this is normal. Don’t worry about cleaning the maternity box or cleaning the kittens, mom will do all of that. Kittens should weigh about 3-4 oz at birth and kittens should gain about 3 to 5 oz. a week (you may want to keep a diary of each kitten’s weight to make sure he/she is gaining weight properly). Mom might start to move her kittens around the house if she is not happy with the placement of her maternity box. This is an instinctual response in the mother cat to try to keep her kittens safe. If she does this do NOT move the kittens back to the box. This will only upset and alarm mom as she will think her kittens are missing! For now abide by mom’s wishes.
The Second and Third Week
At this point the kittens should be able to see and will start to be able to hear. They will start to wander and walk around but will be very off-balance. Don’t worry though, they will get better very quickly. Follow the mother’s wishes, but you will probably be able to start handling the kittens. Don’t try to overhandle them and if the mother ever gets angry with you for handling her babies too much stop immediately. The kittens should still be nursing from mom and pretty much getting everything they need from her.
Medically you should talk to your vet about deworming and vaccinations. Many kittens are born with worms and need to be dewormed or else they will become very sick and can die. Many kittens need several dewormings subsequent to this one so make sure you discuss deworming and a deworming schedule with your vet. The kittens will also need the FVRCP and rabies vaccinations so also be sure to ask your vet for a vaccination schedule as well.
The Fourth and Fifth Week
Your kittens will be learning to walk fairly well during this time period and can probably start to use a litterbox. Make sure that you have a special and distinct box for the kittens (smaller and shorter than the mother’s); you can keep this box somewhere close to the maternity box. The mother should teach the kittens how to use the box. Let her do the teaching and just make sure to keep the box very clean.
Let the teething begin! Kittens will start to get their teeth around this time period as well. The mother will not like this new growth while she is nursing and will thus start to reduce the kittens nursing time. Put some food and water bowls near the maternity box for the kittens. Just make sure that they aren’t directly near the litterbox. You will want to feed the kittens a high quality kitten food (you can feed a combination of wet and dry at this point). If unsure of exactly what to feed ask your vet what food he recommends for the kittens.
The Sixth and Seventh Week
By the end of this time period all kittens should be completely weaned and eating food from their bowls. Each kitten should be about a pound in weight now. Over the course of the next 5 weeks or so you can start adding in less and less moist food to the kittens’ food. By the 12th week they should be eating all dry kitten food. For more information on weaning please read the article on Foster Care for Kittens.
Kittens and mother will also begin the all important act of playing. Play is very important for proper socialization of the kittens so let them play and explore! Just like a child the more the kittens play and explore the more they will grow mentally and intellectually! Also keep handling the kittens as much as the mother allows. This will help them get used to their human counterpart and become better pets.
The Eight and Ninth Week
The kittens will continue learning and exploring at this point and will be typical ‘kittens’ – curious about everything and getting into everything. Allow them to explore, play and make sure to keep handling them as much as the mother allows. You will start to see what the kittens are going to look like a little better. Their eye color and coats will become very evident at this point, and this will probably be their final eye color and coat color!
The kittens are still learning a lot from their mother and should not be sold or separated from the mother or litter quite yet. Many breeders and pet stores will separate litters early and try to sell the kittens before they are 12 weeks old. Do not buy a kitten at this age. It is not good for the kitten, and as the kitten has not been completely socialized yet you may encounter more behavioral problems with that kitten than if you buy at kitten at 11 or 12 weeks of age. However, if you adopt your kitten from a shelter you may find many kittens under 12 weeks who have already been abandoned or separated from mom for one reason or another. In this case don’t hesitate to adopt such an animal. These kittens are in desperate need of a ‘foster mom’ and will welcome you into that role.
The Tenth to Twelfth Week
The kittens will now start becoming a little more independent from each other and from mom. They may still need some final vaccinations but once that is taken care of they should be fully vaccinated, healthy and completely socialized. It is at the end of this time period, and only at the end of this time period, that you can consider having the kittens adopted into new homes.