Tiny fuzz-balls of cuteness – the perfect description for every kitten. We cannot resist them creeping into our hearts.
You have brought your new kitten home and realise it is dependent on you for its every need. For the kitten, the world is huge, brand new and can be a bit scary. Every sight, sound, smell, person and animal are a new experience. These first experiences are likely to influence their future behaviour.
Kittens learn first from imitating their mothers, then through trial and error. The bulk of their learning occurs from birth to six months, although learning and training is still possible as an adult.
The communication behaviours, specific to felines, are established early on in life. This is known as the socialisation period which starts from about 2 weeks after birth until about 16 weeks of age.
During this time, it is important to provide the kitten with an ‘enriched environment’. In other words, they need different stimuli that will arouse their senses and spark their intelligence.
Expose your kitten to different noises, textures and objects, much as you would a newborn human baby; and interact with them as much as you can.
Good early socialisation leads to friendly, well-adjusted adult cats which are less likely to be scared. Sadly, without positive early experiences, cats can become nervous, which often leads to behavioural problems.
It is good to choose a kitten that has had good socialisation from the breeder or owner of the litter. The kitten would normally still be at home with its mother and should have mixed with other people and pets, seen everyday sights and heard normal household sounds at the breeder- or owner’s home.
The Life of a Kitten
Let’s go through the life of a kitten from birth to 18 months.
Birth to 2 weeks: Your kitten learns to orient toward sound. Their eyes begin to open, they are usually open by 2 to 3 weeks of age.
2 to 7 weeks: Your kitten becomes social. By the third week, their sense of smell is well-developed, and your kitten can see well enough to find its mother.
Cats can only detect the colours blue and green with certainty but require six times less light to see than humans. This is why they move excellently at night because they distinguish depth better than humans in the dark.
Cats’ noses can detect a single molecule of odour whereas humans need several hundred. This makes for an extremely sensitive sense of smell. By the fourth week, their sense of smell is fully mature and their sense of hearing is well-developed.
Feline ears can detect minute changes in frequency and tone making this an extra sensitive sense as well. Your kitten will learn to differentiate your voice from any other, adding to the bond between owner and pet. The kitten starts to interact with littermates and can walk fairly well. The teeth start to come in.
By the fifth week, eyesight is well developed, and kitten can right itself, run, place its feet precisely, avoid obstacles, stalk and pounce and catch “prey” with its eyes. Kitten starts to groom itself and others.
By the sixth and seventh weeks, kitten begins to develop different sleeping patterns, motor skills and social interaction abilities. Kittens are usually weaned at eight to nine weeks, but they may continue to suckle for comfort as their mother gradually leaves them for longer periods.
Now is a good time to expose the kittens to different textured food to prevent them becoming fussy eaters. Orphaned kittens, or those weaned too soon, are more likely to exhibit inappropriate suckling behaviours later in life, such as sucking on blankets, pillows or your arm.
Ideally, kittens should stay with their littermates or other “role-model” cats for at least 12 weeks but it is safe to take them away from their mother by eight to nine weeks of age.
7 to 14 weeks: This is the age when your kitten will play the most. Social and object play increases kitten’s physical coordination and social skills. Most learning is by observation, preferably of their mother’s behaviour. Social play includes belly-ups, hugging, ambushing and licking.
Object play includes scooping, tossing, pawing, mouthing and holding. Combined social/object play includes tail chasing, pouncing, leaping and dancing.
Cats are generally curious creatures and quickly learn that food comes from refrigerators or countertops. Now is a good time to teach the kitten not to jump up. A stern “no” accompanied with a sharp sound like clapping will teach your kitten that this is unacceptable behaviour.
It is difficult for felines to differentiate between which tables they are or aren’t allowed on to. For this reason, it should be an “all or nothing” rule. Remember to not hit your kitten as this may cause fear in your pet and lead to unwanted or aggressive behaviours.
Toys come in handy at this stage of life. Any toy that encourages chasing and hunting-type behaviour is beneficial. It need not be expensive but can be as simple as a piece of paper folded in a block, tied to a string and dragged on the floor.
Scratching, or ‘claw conditioning’ is a natural part of cat behaviour. It keeps their claws healthy and leaves scent marks. Try a scratching post for your cat to help prevent damage to your furniture or carpets. Ensure it's stable and tall enough for your cat to exercise at full body stretch.
3 to 6 months: Your kitten starts ranking the household and is most influenced by her ”tribe”, which may now include playmates of other species.
Kitten begins to see and use ranking (dominance or submission) within the household, including humans. Your kitten will identify your home as its territory and will organise its life around this area.
Kittens tend to prefer areas with a layout that offers opportunities to play, be up high and hide away, compared to a bare space. Within its territory, the kitten will have four distinct areas: the eating area, an area for rest, the toilet and a large area for play.
You should try to not disrupt this organisation, or your kitten could develop behavioural problems. The eating area should not be near the toilet area or your own eating area.
If possible, avoid the kitchen or dining room so that your kitten does not confuse your meals with theirs, which could lead to a nutritional imbalance.
The position of the rest area changes depending on where the best heat sources are and your kitten will probably choose to rest near a heater or in the sun. If you have a sleeping basket, position it in a warm place near you, as your kitten will enjoy being close to you.
Choose an area away from the kitten’s food for the toilet area. The litter box should be easily accessible. If necessary, have a few positioned around the house. Gradually move the litter closer to the door and then outside if you would like to train your kitten to eliminate outside.
The play area is the largest of the four and ideally provides ample opportunities for playing, racing about and climbing up high.
Cats adore places where they can be at the same level as your face and rub against you as they would another cat so your kitten will be prone to jumping on beds, couches, tables or cupboards to be closer to you.
6 to 12 months: Your kitten is an adolescent and will increase the exploration of dominance, including challenging humans. Sexual behaviour begins now if your kitten has not been spayed, if a girl, or neutered, if a boy.
Kittens orphaned or separated from their mother and/or littermates too early often fail to develop appropriate ”social skills” such as learning how to send and receive signals, what an ”inhibited bite” (acceptable mouthing pressure) means, how far to go in play-wrestling and so forth.
Play is important for kittens because it increases their physical coordination, social skills and learning limits. By interacting with their mother and littermates, kittens explore the ranking process ”who’s in charge” and also learn ”how to be a cat”.
While these stages are important and fairly consistent, a cat’s mind remains receptive to new experiences and lessons well beyond kittenhood. Most cats are still kittens, in mind and body, through the first two years of life.
Remember to take your kitten for vaccinations at 6 – 8 weeks of age with a booster vaccination after a month. A 3-in-1 vaccine is given, which treats for the 3 most common and contagious diseases in one vaccine.
At 3 months old, your kitten will receive their first Rabies vaccine with a booster required a month later. Deworming can be done from the time they are 2 weeks old and repeated bi-weekly (2-week intervals) until they are 6 weeks old.
The vet will give a dewormer at every vaccination. This is a good time to get your little one used to go to the vet. Try to make it a positive experience as well using treats and play. Good associations at the vet could save stressful experiences for everyone later on.
It is important to make it a lifelong relationship and the most pleasurable experience for all Involved. Do not hesitate to call your veterinarian for advice or questions on your new kitten.
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