Getting a kitten can be a wonderful and entertaining experience (not to mention very funny).
But if you separate the kitten from its mother and littermates too soon, you could end up with a stressed cat that doesn’t know how to behave or interact with humans or with other cats.
To understand at what age you can take a kitten from its mother, you need to understand what happens during the important first weeks of a kitten’s life.
The Development Process
Before we take a closer look at the development of pet kittens, let’s look into how kittens grow up and develop when they live in the wild.
Kittens in the wild remain with their mother until they reach sexual maturity, or until the mother becomes pregnant again. As a way to prepare for her new litter, she will start to distance herself from the old litter. This process could take from a few months up to a year, and would be the natural way for a kitten to be separated from its mother.
But when cats are kept as pets, this is the typical process:
Birth ⇒ 4 Weeks Old
Until they are about 4 weeks old, the kittens are completely dependant on their mother. She will clean them, keep them warm and safe, and stimulate the bowl movements and bladder to help them urinate and defecate. They get 100% of all nutrition from her milk.
This first stage is all about basic survival.
4 ⇒ 8 Weeks Old
From this point, the mother will start to teach her kittens basic skills a cat needs. For example:
- How to drink water and eat solid food.
- How to hunt.
- Where to go to the toilet (away from the food).
They will slowly start to imitate her behavior, and tasting solid food for the very first time.
It’s during this stage that the weaning process starts. A process that usually lasts between 4-10 weeks of age. It’s important to note that both the mother and the breeder contribute to the weaning.
The breeder will pick up and handle the kittens over a six-week weaning period to prepare them for a life with humans. At first only very briefly and right next to the mother, but then for increasingly longer time and distance away from its mother for each time.
When done correctly, the kittens will learn to enjoy the touch and company of humans. Needless to say, this is critical for a good relationship between owner and pet.
The mother plays an even more important role in the weaning process. Apart from teaching the kittens the basic skills required, the mother will now start to correct improper behavior. Her milk supply will slowly start to dry up, which naturally will force the kittens to eat more and more of solid food as the weeks go by.
Learn more about adopting kittens from this great book:
8 Weeks Old ⇒ Adoption
At this stage, the kittens eat mostly solid foods. Some will still be nursing though (to get comfort rather than nutrition). If the breeder is knowledgeable and serious, all nursing should normally have stopped when they get 12 weeks old, at the latest.
This period in their life is important for the development of social skills. Learning from their mother, and by playing with each other, the kittens learn how to communicate and interact with other cats (and humans). For this reason, kittens that are separated at too young of an age risk developing behavioral issues.
They also learn the importance of grooming around this time. By licking each other, they keep clean while also strengthening the bonds between them.
Another key factor is that their immune systems are still developing, and to some extent dependant on antibodies in their mother’s milk. Separating them at 8 weeks could therefore cause illness.
Some breeders and cat owners wrongfully believe that kittens are ready for separation when they are only 8 weeks old. But the truth is, they are not.
I mean, why the rush? It’s much better to allow them to play and develop for another 2-4 weeks. They will become more confident and mature, and there will be much less of a risk of any health or behavioral problems.
Things to Do When Adopting a Kitten
When bringing home a kitten, there are a few important things you should do:
- Be gentle and patient. Give the kitten time to explore its new home.
- Prepare a warm soft place where it can sleep and relax. A good idea could be to use a blanket from its birth home.
- Provide fresh water and a food bowl. Make sure you have a good litter box. Don’t forget to buy cat litter!
- Safety. Remove potentially dangerous items (detergents, cleaners, and other types of chemicals).
- Visit your veterinary for a health check, and possibly a vaccination (check with the breeder).
- Provide unlimited food until it’s 1 year old. Kittens grow fast.
Good luck, and have fun! 🙂