- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Have you ever had a cat suckle on your shirt, lick your hair, or drool while they kneed your belly? These can be signs that your furry friend was taken away from her mother too early. While those suckling behaviors might be cute, cats that are separated from their litters too young can also have real problems with aggressive and fearful behaviors.
When you are looking for a kitten to join your family, the kitten’s age and the amount of time she was with her mother cat are important considerations. Here’s what you need to know to tell how old a kitten is.
What is the ideal age to adopt a kitten?
According to New Jersey Holistic Veterinarian Dr. Judy Morgan, kittens should remain with their mother and litter mates until 10-12 weeks of age. Other sources, such as the Australian RSPCA recommend 8 weeks, or use a weight limit of two pounds. This seems to be a common guideline for US shelters, which list adoptable cats as young as 2 months of age.
Some shelters offer “pre-adoption” programs, which invite pet parents to meet and adopt young kittens before they are ready to leave their mother cat, then wait a few weeks until their new kitten is old enough to come home.
The benefits of keeping a kitten with her litter
There are many benefits to leaving a kitten with her mother and littermates until 8-12 weeks. As cat advocate Hannah Shaw, The Kitten Lady, explains, the benefits include improved immune health, good manners, and resilience.
1. Lifelong health
Cats that were taken away from their mothers too early can be prone to illness. This can result from missing out on maternal antibodies and nutrition that come from mother cat’s milk. Dr. Morgan writes, “Maternal immunity is passed from the mother to the newborns through colostrum, which is the first milk on which they feed. The colostrum contains a lot of antibodies… If the kitten misses out on the colostrum during the first 24 hours, they will not be able to absorb the antibodies later and will be left unprotected from disease.”
2. Playing nice
Kittens learn a lot about manners from their mothers and their littermates. Gentle play is good manners, and it’s a very important skill for a well-mannered cat to have. A kitten’s mother and siblings let them know when they are playing too rough. Most cat lovers have met cats that don’t have this skill, and we have the bite marks to prove it!
3. Making friends
Likewise, a kitten learns friendliness and fearfulness from her mother and littermates. If a mother cat is fond of her human caregivers, the kitten will learn that people are safe and loving. Without the examples of friendliness, and a safe environment to explore and develop confidence, a kitten can grow up untrusting and fearful of people.
Life skills like grooming and litter box use aren’t innate behaviors in cats—they have to be learned from a kitten’s mother. I’ve lived with a gorgeous long-hair cat with poor grooming skills. It ain’t pretty, and it is smelly!
How to Tell the Age of a Kitten
If a kitten is healthy and well-fed, weight can be used as a good estimate of age. A kitten’s age in pounds is roughly equal to her age in months, up to about 6 months of age. A one-month old kitten should weigh about one pound, and a six-week-old kitten should weigh about a pound and a half. Kittens ready for adoption at 10-12 weeks should weigh 3.5-4 pounds. Another way to calculate age is by adding 100 grams per week, so a 10-week-old kitten should weigh around 1000 grams (1 kg, or 2.2 pounds).
Weight can vary, of course, based on breed, size of the parents, and other factors. Interestingly, many large domestic cats, such as Maine Coons, reach their adult weight at a later age than smaller cats. They might not be a lot larger as kittens, but they keep growing (and gaining weight) until they are as old as four years, whereas most cats reach their full adult weight around one year.
Teeth can give more useful clues in determining age. Kittens get their first teeth at 2-3 weeks. These baby teeth are extremely tiny! Baby teeth keep coming in until 8 weeks. Around 8 weeks, a kitten will get her adult canine teeth.
Telling these first adult teeth from baby teeth can be tricky. Vets look for a specific groove present on the surface of adult canine teeth.
How Kittens Naturally Separate from their Mother Cat
Weaning is the process of transitioning from mother’s milk to solid food. Weaning begins naturally around 4 weeks of age and continues until the kitten is 8-10 weeks old.
At 4 weeks, kittens have a nearly full set of baby teeth that they can use to eat small amounts of solid food. The furry scoundrels can also use their tiny teeth to bite their mother while nursing. The mother cat might choose to begin the weaning process when those teeth come in—you know that’s gotta hurt!
Over time, the mother cat (also known as the “queen”) gradually discourages her kittens from nursing, until they are eating solid or canned food exclusively around 8-10 weeks of age.
They Grow Up So Fast: A Kitten Timeline
Look for these clues to help estimate the age of a kitten.
- Newborn: Kitty’s eyes are closed and her ears are folded. She can’t stand up or keep herself warm.
Weight: Most kittens weigh almost 1/4 pound (100 grams) at birth.
- One Week: Kitty’s eyes open between 7-10 days. Ears unfold at about 7 days.
Weight: Kittens steadily gaining weight and will make it to about 1/2 pound by week 2.
- Two Weeks: Kitty’s eyes are fully open and focussing. She takes her first clumsy steps and begins to interact with littermates.
Teeth: Kitty’s teeth will start to erupt at 2-3 weeks.
Weight: By week two, kittens usually weigh up to 1/2 pound.
- Three Weeks: Kitty is more playful and coordinated. She might start to practice grooming herself.
Teeth: Tiny baby teeth are visible in a kitten’s mouth, so watch your fingers!
Weight: Kittens will weight around 3/4 pound at week 3.
- Four Weeks: Kitty can pounce and run and she’s sturdy on her feet. She can retract her claws. Cat litter and dry food can be introduced.
Teeth: Baby canine teeth (fangs!) start to break through.
Weight: By week 4, kittens are one-pound balls of teeth and claws!
- Five Weeks: Kitty is a playing maniac and enjoys interacting with people. She is still nursing and growing up fast.
Teeth: Kitty has all of her front teeth.
Weight: Kittens gain another 4 ounces or so, and should be about 1 1/4 pounds at 5 weeks.
- Six Weeks: Kitty is using the litter box and eating cat food, but still nurses and snuggles up with mom.
Teeth: Kitty’s premolars (baby back teeth) are starting to emerge.
Weight: Around 1 1/2 pound.
- Seven Weeks: Kitty still nurses occasionally. Meeting new people and visiting new places are important experiences at this age!
Teeth: All of Kitty’s baby teeth are emerged and sharp!
Weight: Just under 2 pounds.
- Eight Weeks: Kitty is on her way to weaning herself and might begin to get most of her nutrition from dry or wet cat food, with only occasional nursing. Her eyes change from blue to their adult color.
Teeth: Kitty has all of her baby teeth and she’s not afraid to use them. She might start getting her adult canine teeth at eight weeks, but 11 weeks is more typical.
Weight: Kittens should weigh around 2 pounds at eight weeks.
- Nine Weeks: Kitty is eating solid food and acting more like an adult cat in body language. She is independent, but still turns to mom for snuggles.
Weight: Kittens should weigh more than 2 pounds.
- 10 Weeks: If Kitty and her littermates are in your living room, you will probably find them climbing the curtains, under the sofa, and inside the flower vases. Kitten life is wild!
Weight: Kittens should weigh around 2 1/2 pounds.
- 11 Weeks: Kitty loves to sleep in a pile with her siblings and play rough together. This is great because that rough play is teaching her good manners.
Teeth: Adult canine teeth should be visible by week 11, and many baby teeth are starting to be replaced with adult teeth.
Weight: Kittens should weigh around 2 pounds.
- 12 Weeks: Kitty is so grown up! By nearly everyone’s estimation, she’s ready to join her new human family.
Weight: Up to 3 pounds
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