I think one would be hard-pressed to find something even cuter than fluffy kittens! (Maybe fluffy puppies…) They are soft, smell so good, have cute little meows, and everything about them is tiny, fuzzy, and perfect!
No wonder kittens tend to get adopted faster than adult cats and it’s hard to be angry when your mom cat has a litter. While kittens are adorable little puffs, they do require a different level of care compared to adult cats in order to grow up healthy, well-balanced, and happy. What should you know about kittens?
Gestation Period for Mama Cat
One of the big challenges that many communities have is an overabundance of cats. This is because cats can go into heat as early in their life as four months of age (though six months is more common) and can give birth to litters of kittens that range in number between two and five but can be as many as eight or even ten! And they can do this a few times a year!
The gestation period for a cat is roughly nine weeks or sixty-three days. Then the kittens should stay with their mom for about two months and after that, a cat can go into heat almost immediately and get pregnant again. Most of the time, a cat will give birth with very little assistance from you, but it’s still important to keep an eye on her just in case of complications.
Infant Kittens Health and Care
Kittens are completely dependent on their mother for their care for at least the first three to four weeks. They are born blind and won’t open their eyes for at least a week, often as much as two.
They require stimulation from their mother to even urinate or defecate and have to either drink their mother’s milk or appropriate kitten milk if they cannot access their mother.
This does mean that for the most part, you can leave the mother cat to do most of the work of taking care of her kittens. But there are a few things you can do to make it easier:
- Make sure that the kittens and their mom have a safe, warm, and quiet place to nest and stay for at least the first few weeks of the kittens’ lives. Clean up after them when needed and make sure there’s nothing dangerous for the kittens to get into as they start exploring.
- Keep out other animals and younger children. Even the gentlest mother cat will defend her young and other people and animals can cause the babies to feel stressed
- Make sure the mom cat has access to high-quality food and plenty of water. She is burning a lot of energy right now!
- As the kittens get older and start to explore, fully kitten proof their area – remove cords, pull out furniture they can hide in, make sure they have access to toys, and don’t let them play with things like curtain rods and strings or anything else that could become a choking hazard. A room that is largely clear of furniture is best.
By and large, mama cat will do most of the work for the first four weeks or so. But by making the area safe, warm, and free of other animals and other people, you make her job a lot easier!
How Fast Do Kittens Mature?
Kittens mature awfully quickly from our point of view!
- 1-3 weeks of age: Eyes and ears open up. For the first week or so, kittens are both blind and deaf, but within three weeks, they can hear well and start to see better, usually seeing blurry before hearing. Kitten eyes are always blue when they are born, but they can change color as the kitten matures.
- By three weeks of age, they can also start purring
- 3-5 weeks: Kittens start walking and by five weeks of age, are usually ready to start litter training. They will generally follow their mother’s lead on that, but make sure the litter box is fully available and accessible to the kitten
- 6-8 weeks: By this point, you should definitely be socializing with your kitten by playing and cuddling gently, letting them explore their surroundings while supervised, and introducing them to other pets and people. This is very important as it lays down a solid foundation for socialization and creates more emotionally balanced adult cats. And who doesn’t want to cuddle little puffs of fur?!
- By this point, kittens should also have their first vet visit and get immunized for distemper, respiratory diseases, feline viral rhinotracheitis and feline calicivirus.
- By 12 weeks, kittens should get their rabies shots
- 9-12 weeks: at this point, kittens should be introduced to solid food and be weaned by eight or nine weeks of age, and eating good quality kitten food. Watch out for mama at this point – she is capable of getting pregnant again once her kittens are weaned. If you don’t want this to happen, schedule an appointment to have her spayed as soon as the vet gives the all-clear.
- At this age, kittens start learning the basics of hunting, communication, playing, and refining their litter box skills by watching their mom or a foster cat
- Socialization continues to be hugely important
- 3-6 months old: kittens should not be separated from their mother or their littermates until they have been fully weaned and socialized, so waiting until they are ten to twelve weeks old is best. (12 weeks lets them get their next round of shots). By six months of age, most kittens are ready to be spayed or neutered.
- Cats that have been separated from their mother and littermates too early are more likely to be emotionally unbalanced and can be disruptive, depressed, anxious, angry, or overly frightened by their surroundings. Be patient and tell everyone waiting for their kitten to be patient too!
As you can see, kittens go through a lot of growing up in the first few months of their lives and so they need the support of their mom and a stable place to grow up in so that they can be in the best health possible.
Why Are My Kittens All Different Colors?
As kittens mature, you’ll probably notice that they come in a whole range of colors, even ones that you don’t see in the mom cat! What’s going on?
Well, there are actually a few things going on: genetics being the primary one and how cats breed being the other one.
The main reason why a litter of kittens can come in such a massive range of colors is that the mother cat, or Queen, can be impregnated by more than one male during an ovulation period. This is called ‘heteropaternal superfecundation’.
Each kitten in a litter could be sired by a different male and while it seems weird, it can actually happen in other mammals like dogs, cows, and yes, humans. In the case of a queen cat being impregnated by a few different tomcats, you end up with several eggs being fertilized by sperm from a few different sources which can result in kittens that all look different.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this method ensures that a mom cat will give birth to at least a few kittens. And since they all have her genes in them, the coat color isn’t going to matter much to her. Now as to where those colors come from when it comes to the parents, in general, we can assume the following:
- Male kittens get both color genes (X and Y) from their mother. Male kittens will always be either the color of their mother or at least have one of the colors if the kitten ends up being patterned or multi-color, or a dilute color form
- Female kittens on the other hand take only one color gene, but it’s one from each parent. Therefore, females are either a combination of colors or a dilute form
- Only immediate parents determine the color and pattern of a kitten.
- A pattern can be inherited from either pattern
- Dominant characteristics cannot skip a generation and non-dominant colors will not combine to create a dominant one (for example, two cream-colored cats will not spontaneously create a black kitten)
- One colorpoint cat and a cat with no colorpoint in its background will have no colorpoint offspring.
- And two longhair cats will not produce a shorthair one!
There are other conventions as well, but those are enough to go along with. Most of these things only matter for breeders anyway – your average domestic cat was probably the result of a queen being mated with a few males, so who knows why you got what you got!
The fact that many female cats will mate with many male cats leads us to a huge spectrum of kitten colors, which is why in a litter, you can see a few variations.
The Importance of Not Taking Kittens Away From Their Mom Too Soon
Although many people want to get their new kittens as fast as possible, you should never let your kittens leave their mother or their littermates until they are at least ten to twelve weeks old. The first few months of a kitten’s life are absolutely critical in making sure you have emotionally balanced and healthy cats.
- The best nutrition for a kitten is from their mother (but if they cannot get it, then properly formulated kitten milk works too)
- The littermates of a kitten teach them how to play and socialize with their peers
- Kittens require stimulation in order to urinate and defecate properly in the first couple of months of their lives and their mother does it instinctively
- Kittens that are taken from their mom and litter too soon usually display signs of emotional instability such as anxiety, fear, and aggression
One of the many, many problems with “backyard breeders” or “kitten mills” is that they take away kittens far too soon in order to sell them. The mother is ready to breed too soon which exhausts her, and the kittens lose out on valuable skills, nutrition, and learning time.
Be patient! Let your kittens develop properly before placing them in their new homes.
Kittens mature fast, so the window to make sure they are socialized is small – in the four to sixteen weeks of age! If it is left too late, a kitten will be fearful of humans, fearful of other animals, and is more likely to go feral or get into trouble.
If you are able, socializing kittens as early as four weeks of age gives them the best start possible – if you are adopting a kitten, starting as soon as you can is important, though hopefully some of the groundwork has already been done! It’s important to be gentle and patient with a kitten – remember, everything is brand new to them.
There are a few different ways you can socialize a kitten, all of them fun, none of them taking very long, though they should be done regularly throughout the day:
- Talk to your kitten(s) so that they get used to voices
- Play gently with your kitten(s) using things like soft plush toys, feather wands, and laser points. This will not only burn off their energy in a productive way but also teaches them that humans are fun
- Gently dissuade them from biting and clawing skin by distracting them or using a spritz of water
- If possible, get kittens used to children by letting children talk and play with them (carefully supervised!) This is an important teaching moment for many kids too – they can learn to read when a cat has had enough playtime and what to do if they get scratched.
- Introduce kittens to several different people you trust so that they get used to different people
- You can also gently introduce kittens to other animals, under careful supervision, and in a neutral safe space. This includes dogs! Cats that are introduced to dogs early in life are less likely to be afraid of them. When introducing your kitten to other pets, ensure that every pet has their vaccinations up to date and take it slowly.
- Snuggle your kittens gently so they get used to your scent (and the scent of other people) and get used to being handled. (Like we have to tell you to snuggle kittens!)
All of these things are quite fun to do, but extremely important as well. A poorly socialized cat has bad manners, anxiety and may struggle to get adopted into new homes.
Finding New Homes for Kittens
Once your kittens are about ten to twelve weeks old, it may be time for them to head off to their new homes! Yes, we know you want to keep them all, but that’s a lot of cats.
When looking for new homes for your kittens, you should always take it slowly and carefully. You want to try to ensure that the kittens are going to good homes with people who will take care of them and are prepared for a long-term commitment.
If possible, you could even do home visits, but asking for video or photos of the home could work too (obviously minding any privacy concerns). Ask potential owners about their experience with cats, which vet they would go through, what they know about cats, and what type of cat they want in terms of personality and gender.
Invite potential owners to meet the kittens a few times and let everyone get to know each other. Ask them if they have other pets and see if it’s possible to set up a meet and greet.
Remember, it is part of your job to make sure that the kittens go to homes where they will be safe, healthy, and thrive, so ask questions, get to know the new owners a little, and give the kittens a chance to get to know them as well.
Finding people who want kittens is usually not a problem – finding the right people can take a little more time.
How Do I Take Care of Orphan or Abandoned Kittens?
Sadly, it can happen: kittens may not have a mom to take care of them. This can happen if the mother is killed, seriously ill, missing, or rejects some or all of her litter. When this happens, the humans have to step in a much bigger capacity to ensure that the kittens survive long enough to start being able to fend for themselves. If a kitten is under four weeks of age, they require a lot more care – as they get older, you can start pulling back.
Kittens under four weeks of age cannot regulate their own body temperature so they require constant warmth. A dog crate or kennel is good for this because it keeps them well contained and it’s easy to monitor the temperature.
The room temperature should be kept at about 75 degrees and a heating pad, with no automatic shut off and set to low, should be used. Place it in one part of the enclosure and cover it with old towels or blankets. That way, kittens can use it safely when they want to and move away when they don’t.
Kittens should feel warm – if they feel cold, they are too cold, and their bodily functions can stop working. If they are panting or too far away from each other, they are too warm – open the top of the crate to get some cool air in or turn down the heating pad.
Kittens also need to be bottle-fed until they are four weeks of age and then they can wean to gruel and eventually solid kitten food. Kitten formula, bottles, nipples, and cleaning supplies can be found at pretty well any pet store and even many grocery stores.
It should take about ten to fifteen minutes to feed each kitten and they should be bottle-fed with their bellies on the floor (or another surface). Kittens also need help urinating and defecating until they are about four weeks old. To stimulate their bowel movements, use a warm, damp washcloth and gently massage the anal area until they go.
Do this every time they eat and don’t start using a litter box until they are at least three weeks old (non-clumping litter). Kittens will not have solid poop until they start solid food, so don’t worry about it!
After about four weeks of age, kittens can graduate to gruel which is a combination of warm formula and wet kitten food. Warm water can be used instead of formula at the five-week mark.
And when kittens hit about five to eight weeks of age, they can transition to solid food which will be kitten kibble and wet food. It’s important to use food that is specifically designed for your kitten’s age – kittens require a lot more calories, proteins, and other minerals to grow properly compared to adult cats.
Interesting Facts About Kittens
Here are some final fun facts about kittens!
- Kittens sleep around 18 hours a day! They need all that sleep to grow properly
- Kittens learn to purr before they can hear. They also squeak and squeal when they want something
- Kittens are born deaf and blind, but they have an amazing sense of smell
- All kittens are born with blue eyes, no matter what breed they are. Their color will change as they mature or may stay blue!
- Kittens can have multiple due dates, so that poor mama cat could give birth to part of her litter one day and the rest of the litter the next day or even a day after that!
- Kittens have massively long whiskers, BUT sometimes the mother cat or siblings will chew them off, either to show dominance (Siblings) or to keep them wandering (mother). It’s unlikely you will see a mother domesticated cat do that since she should feel that the area is safe for her kittens.
- Kittens learn quickly about their surroundings and the people and animals around them
There you have it! All about those adorable puffs we call kittens. But be aware – they are cute, but they require a lot of work to be healthy, sociable, well-mannered adult cats, so be prepared to put in the time if you decide to adopt a kitten.
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.