Categories: Cat Anatomy

Kitten Development

In this article on kitten development, I refer to the development of the domestic cat after birth. About 70% of kittens are born nose and feet first (the so called “diving position”). They are covered in a transparent membrane (foetal membrane). The mother licks this off and eats it. The mother then severs the umbilical cord and clears the mucus from the kitten’s mouth and nose at which point the new born gasps her first breaths, and life on the outside begins.

Note: The amniotic sac surrounding the new born kitten needs to be removed within 30 seconds so that the kitten can breathe. Sometimes, rarely, the mother will fail to do this and if we are in attendance we should step in and remove it starting at the head so that breathing can start as soon as possible.

The early stages are important in developing the offspring/mother bond. It should not be interfered with.

Once all the kittens or some are born the mother encourages the kittens to suckle on her nipples by bringing the kittens close. The kittens suckle and stimulate the production of colostrum, mother’s milk. Colostrum contains the vital antibodies that protect the kitten from infection.

The milk of domestic cats contains eight times the amount of protein in comparison to human milk and three times the levels of fat. Research indicates that mothers lose weight at the rate of 5.7 grams daily when lactating (src: Sunquists).

Picture above – dog nursing near adult cat. Taken in Brazil . It is not that unusual to see cross species mothering, it seems to me, in kitten development.

The mother recognises her kitten by scent and her relationship sustains the kitten for the first weeks of life. Sometimes, due to psychological reasons the mother may neglect, injure or kill and eat her kittens or a kitten. Mothers commonly eat stillborn kittens. Cannibalism occurs not uncommonly, apparently and particularly in catteries.

All being well, the kittens grow rapidly on the rich colostrum. New born kittens eat and sleep and do little else. Nursing can take up to 8 hours of the day. They have a preferred breast to suckle on which is identified by smell. Kittens can be sexed soon after birth.

The mother should normally keep the nest clean and stimulate the elimination reflex of the kitten by licking its bottom and belly.

Kittens in large litters are smaller initially and put on weight more slowly than if they were in small litters. Here are some charts:

Litter SizeMean Growth Rate in Kitten Development
7 to 8 kittens7.3 grams per day for each individual cat
2 kittens13.7 grams per day

Stage in DevelopmentWeight in Relation to Birth Weight
1 week oldTwice birth weight
2 weeks oldThree times birth weight
3 weeks oldQuadruple (4x) birth weight
8 weeks oldMales start to grow faster
Stage in DevelopmentEvent in Kitten Development
About 2 weeks of ageTeeth begin to show.
18 days of ageKittens can usually crawl. By 21 days they can stand. By 25 days they are sight and sound “orientated”.
3 weeks old
Kittens are best left undisturbed or disturbed at little as possible until this age.  Mothers become anxious if their kittens are handled a lot.

Kittens start to regulate body temperature thus freeing up the mother to move away and not be obliged to keep her kittens warm.

By 7 weeks they can regulate body temperature. Kittens begin to walk.

4 weeks oldFeral kittens eat prey brought back to them by mother. Weaning begins at 4 – 5 weeks of age. Kittens begin to play with littermates. Kittens control their urge to go to the toilet and dislike soiling the nest.
5 weeks oldKittens start to hunt prey such as mice. Kittens can run and play with objects.
7 weeks oldMost kittens are weaned but the picture above indicates that weaning is on an individual to individual basis.
11 weeks of ageKittens can carry out complicated tasks.
3.5 months of ageAdult teeth emerge

Cats develop their hunting skills through a range of experiences not just play. Some kittens would seem to be more talented and therefore better at hunting at an earlier age but those less talented catch up by the time that they reach adulthood. Domestic cat hunting.

Early learning by watching is apparently a good way to pick up skills. And this process is made more effective if the teaching cat is known to the trainee (i.e. mother showing offspring).

Kittens tend to follow mother’s ways. For example, in their choice of prey and food. This is perhaps not unexpected since they have inherited some of her genes and learnt basic skills from her.

We sometimes forget that kittens are individuals with varying personalities. Some will be more independent or bolder than others, which may translate to being more friendly with other littermates and people with whom they are familiar and who they treat as siblings. In fact this is borne out in research.

Kitten development in respect of what breeders call socialisation (friendliness and an acceptance of people and other animals) depends on the breeder and one classic example is the development of the F1 Savannah cats that were raised by A1 Savannahs. These are first generation wild cat hybrids yet they behave like very well socialised “ordinary” domestic cats. Here is a video of Mar tin Stucki of A1 Savannahs socialising top quality Savannah kittens:

The best kittens that are to serve their lives as domestic cats are those that have been handled gentled and played with during a sensitive period of between 2 – 5 weeks of age and more.

Kitten Development to Cat Facts

To Cat Health Problems

Kitten Development – Sources:

  1. Wild Cats Of The World by the Sunquists
  2. Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook by Drs Carlson and Giffin

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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