One of my kitties (Manna) became part of my family at only 3.5 weeks old after being orphaned. It is amazing to watch kitten development! Kittens are born after a whirlwind 63 to 65-day gestation period (source). What happens in utero is remarkably similar to human development in utero. The next few weeks bring a stunning and beautiful transformation.
Kitten Development: Birth to 2 Weeks
At birth kittens are virtually helpless. They are 1.8 – 5.3 ounces (50 – 150 grams) on average (source). Their eyes are shut, their ear canals are closed (ears folded over), and their motor skills are very limited. Two very important bodily functions are not yet under the kitten’s control:
- Body Temperature Regulation
Only able to produce a body temperature of 95ºF to 97ºF (35ºC to 36.1ºC) and without the shivering reflex, the newborn kittens must cuddle closely with one another and their mother to stay warm.
- Eliminating Urine and Feces
The mother cat will use her tongue to stimulate the kitten’s bodies to eliminate.
Kitten development progresses quickly. After week 1, the kitten has doubled in weight. By week 2 the kittens’ senses, motor skills, and social abilities are already making gains. The kittens will open their big (most likely blue) eyes and see with blurry vision. The ears will begin to unfold and reactions to their mother and other noises can be observed. It may be possible to determine the sex of the kitten at this time (source).
Week 2 marks the beginning of a very critical stage in kitten development (source). Between weeks 2 and 7 a cat will learn all it will ever know about socializing. It is crucial that cats are well socialized during this time so that they will be comfortable living with humans, other cats, and animals of other species.
Much of the helplessness seen in the first 2 weeks of kitten development begins to disappear in weeks 3 and 4. The kittens can now regulate their own body temperature, eliminate waste on their own, are getting their baby teeth in, and are beginning to walk on their own. This is a great period of time to begin to introduce a small litter box to the kittens.
The big blue eyes are beginning to change to their permanent color. The kittens’ sight and hearing are almost as good as they will be when the kittens are adults. Depth perception is even beginning to develop.
Now that the kittens have use of their senses, socializing become more prominent. The kittens will begin to dabble in social play with one another and humans. This is where a kitten learns social rules and boundaries. For example, if little Dexter bites little Manna too hard, little Manna will likely let out a little yelp and stop playing with little Dexter. From this little Dexter learns that he can’t bite others that hard if he wants positive attention from them.
Weeks 5 and 6 are the true beginnings of kitten mischief. During these weeks of kitten development, the cats are fine tuning their motor skills and engaging in more complicated social interactions. At this point kittens have learned to run! They are capable of all of the same gaits that adults are capable of using. When playing with others, they begin displaying behaviors such as pouncing, rolling over and exposing their bellies, and side stepping. They will get into everything and anything.
This is the stage of kitten development where kitten food should be introduced. The kittens may not be completely weaned from their mother’s milk until week 9, but they will be open to trying the new food. Baby teeth may still be coming in, so softer foods may be preferable.
Another great introduction at this stage would be a scratching post. Those little claws are finally long enough that the kitten will begin stretching and sharpening them. It might not be possible to trim the kittens’ nails quite yet (that usually happens around week 10). Training a kitten to use a scratching post will be much easier at this stage than it will once the cat is an adult. It’s a good idea to begin teaching the kitten not to use their claws on humans (even in play) at this point too.
Other Important Notes On Kitten Development
- Kittens watch Mommy very closely.
One of the ways kittens learn about humans is by the way their mother interacts with humans. If the mother is afraid or anxious around humans, the kittens will likely feel the same way. Try to always have pleasant interactions with the mother cat.
- Human touch is good for kittens.
Kittens that are regularly handled between kitten development weeks 2 and 7 developed more quickly and are more friendly to humans.
- Orphaned kittens are at a huge disadvantage.
Orphaned cats often lack social skills, parenting skills, and are poor learners. If you have an orphaned kitty, the best thing you can do is try to get another cat mom to foster the kitten. However, this can be a difficult, if not impossible, task. As a human, you can raise a kitten, but be careful to foster independence rather than reliance on you. Having another cat in the home can be very helpful too.
- Socialization should include everyone.
It is helpful to introduce kittens that are in kitten development weeks 2-7 to as many different people and animals as possible; adults, children, men with beards, people in hats, tall people, short people, dogs, other cats, etc. The kitten will be uncomfortable at first but will learn to enjoy the interaction. As a result, the kitten will grow to be more comfortable around different types of people and animals that they may encounter.
Sources & Continued Reading
- PetMD – Cat Pregnancy and Kittens: The Complete Guide
- PetMD – Kitten Development: Understanding a Kitten’s Major Growth Milestones
- Maddie’s Fund – From Helpless Newborn
- University of Wisconsin/Madison – Guide To Raising Underage Kittens
- International Cat Care – Bringing up a litter of kittens: health considerations
- Aspen Grove Veterinary Care – Developmental Stages In Cats