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Understanding Your Kitten's Behavior and Development


The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, especially for cats. The fact is, well-socialized cats are more likely to have well-socialized kittens. Kittens often mirror their mothers’ calm or fearful attitudes toward people; this is a normal part of their socialization. But you can play a vital role too by petting, talking, and playing with kitty to help him or her develop food “people skills.”

Kittens are usually weaned at 6-7 weeks but may continue to suckle for comfort as their mother gradually leaves them for longer periods of time. Orphaned kittens or those weaned too soon are more likely to exhibit inappropriate suckling behaviors later in life, such as sucking on blankets, pillows, or your arm. Ideally, kittens should stay with their littermate (or other “role-model” cats) for at least 12 weeks.

Kittens orphaned or separated from their mothers or littermate too early often fail to develop appropriate social skills, such as leaning 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 increase their physical coordination and social skills and helps in learning limits. By interacting with their mothers and littermate, kittens explore the ranking process (“who’s in charge”) and also lean how to be a cat.

Kittens who are gently handled by people 15-49 minutes a day during the first 7 weeks are more likely to develop larger brains. They’re more exploratory, more playful, and better leaners. Skills not acquired during the first 8 weeks may be lost forever. While these stages are important and fairly consistent, a cat’s mind remains receptive t new experiences and lessons well beyond kitten hood. Most cats are still kittens in mind and body through the first 2 years of life. 

Stages of Kitten Development

0-2 weeks: Neonatal Period

  • Kitten learns to orient toward sound. 

  • Eyes begin opening; they are usually open by 2 weeks of age.

  • Competition for rank and territory begins. Separation from mother and litter mates at this point can lead to poor learning skills and aggression towards people and other pets.

2-7 Weeks: Socialization Period

  • By the third week, sense of smell is well developed and kittens can see well though to find their mothers.

  • By the fourth week, sense of smell is fully mature and sense of hearing is well developed. Kitten start to interact with litter-mates and can walk fairly well. Teeth start to come in.

  • By fifth week, eyesight is fully mature, and a kitten can right herself, run, place their feet precisely, avoid obstacles, stalk and pounce, and catch “prey” with their eyes.

  • Kitten starts to groom themselves and others.

  • By the sixth and seventh weeks, kitten begins to develop adult sleeping patterns, motor skills, and social interaction abilities.

7-14 Weeks: Most Active Play Period

  • Social and object play increases kitten’s physical coordination and social skills. Most learning is by observation, preferably of kitten’s mother.

  • 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.

3-6 Months: Ranking Period

  • Kittens are most influenced by their “litter,” which may now include playmates of other species.

  • Kitten begins to see and use ranking (dominance or submission) within household, including humans.

6-18 Months: Adolescence

  • Kitten increases exploration of dominance, including challenging humans. 

  • If not spayed or neutered, kitten experiences beginning of sexual behavior. (Spaying or neutering you kitten at an early age will increase the health benefits of the surgery and increase their lifespan).