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'Compassionate care for you and your pet'
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Kitten Care & Development

Most people who adopt or purchase a kitten get them from breeders or rescue centres at the age of 8-12 weeks. But occasionally, people find themselves needing to look after much younger kittens, either because they are orphaned after mum dies, or because a litter of kittens is found on the streets.

If you ever find abandoned kittens, try to assess the situation first—without touching the kittens if possible. If they are in a dangerous area, they may need to be moved to safety (ideally nearby). Try to assess how healthy the kittens look, are they well fed and clean or are they cold, dirty, thin or crying?

Often their mum has just left them to go hunting. Or, she may be hiding from you. If possible, monitor the area without disturbing it. Kittens need their mum, especially at a very young age!

If, after many hours, there is still no mother around, consider placing the kittens in a clean dry box with bedding and a heat source (for example, a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel).

Notify the local council, or Rescue Agencies such as the Cat Welfare Society, the Animal Protection Society, local Cat Adoption Centres or the RSPCA, as it is much better for the whole “family” to be taken care of.

Mother and Kittens

Developmental stages

Newborn kittens are born blind and deaf. Their eyes are closed and their ears are folded down. They just drink mum’s milk, sleep and stay close to mum to keep warm (as they are unable to regulate their own body heat). After feeding, mum stimulates toileting by licking their tummies and genital area. In the second week, the eyes start to open (all kittens have blue eyes to start with) and their sense of smell develops as well.

Herman - The abandoned kitten

“Herman” – The abandoned kitten, adopted by nurse Maya’s mother cat.

In the third week all the senses continue to develop, and they become more aware of their surroundings and explore their immediate area. The baby teeth start to emerge at this stage. They are still not very coordinated in their movements.

In the fourth week the kittens become more and more active and interact with each other, and can even explore the areas further away from the nesting box. Their sense of smell and hearing is fully developed, but their eyesight is still developing.

Important:

Orphaned kittens under 4 weeks of age, who can’t be fostered by another mother cat need us humans to bottle feed them with kitten formula every 2 hours or so. They also need caregivers to massage their tummies to help toileting, to keep them warm and clean, and to provide lots of positive interaction. We also need to mimic ‘grooming’ the kittens, ruffling the coat every which way to desensitise to being touched. Even then, we are NEVER able to properly take the mother cat’s place, and most orphaned kittens tend to be less self-confident.

In the fifth week kittens can start to be slowly weaned onto solid foods. You can start by offering kitten food, either wet or soaked dry food. If necessary, you can mixed this in with kitten formula, but the kittens will still nurse as well. You can offer a small litter tray to start the toilet training (make sure to use safe litter, preferably a non-clumping variety, in case the kittens accidentally eat some of it).

Preventative veterinary care for young kittens includes worming, vaccinations (the first vaccination is due at 6-8 weeks of age), flea treatments, and even heartworm prevention. Please contact Cronulla Veterinary Clinic for further information or to set up a first vet visit for your kitten.

Socialisation

From early kitten-hood, socialisation is very important to babies help them grow into healthy, well-adjusted cats. Most kittens go to their new homes from about 8 to 12 weeks of age. Later (from 10-12 weeks) is better.

There is a good case to be made to wait a bit longer before getting your kitten. Kittens need their mum and siblings for their mental, emotional, and social development until about 12 weeks of age. Separating them too early can cause problems with their brain development (leading to slower learning, increased anxiety and more fearful responses), and the extra stress can lead to lower immunity and increased susceptibility to illnesses. They also learn from their mum and siblings how to interact, and they learn acceptable play behaviour.

Of course, appropriate handling and socialisation with humans is important too. It does help if the breeder or rescue organisation has played part in this by exposing them to loud noises (vacuum cleaner, music, etc.), various strange people visiting, regular petting, grooming, various objects to play with (for example empty boxes), and providing scratching posts. It may be a good idea to get them used to cat carriers and even car rides at a young age.

You can then carry on providing lots of different situations and rewarding good behaviour (but NOT punishing unwanted behaviour!). Avoid rough play with biting or scratching. Redirect this kind of behaviour to toys.

In Summary

Orphaned kittens are much better off being raised by a foster cat than by humans, for their emotional health and social skills.

When getting your kitten, don’t worry if the breeder wants to wait until the kitten is 10-12 weeks old, they will still bond with you and may be better adjusted for it.

Human socialisation starts at the breeder’s place, and will continue at your home as well. Provide as many positive new experiences as possible.

For further information, please don’t hesitate to contact Cronulla Veterinary Clinic.