Kittens are usually weaned at six or seven weeks, but may continue to suckle for comfort as their mother gradually leaves them more and more. Orphaned kittens, or those weaned too soon, are more likely to exhibit inappropriate suckling behaviours later in life. Ideally, kittens should stay with their litter mates (or other role-model cats) for at least 12 weeks.
Kittens orphaned or separated from their mother and/or litter mates too early often fail to develop appropriate “social skills,” such as learning how to send and receive signals, what an “inhibited bite” 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 litter mates kittens learn “how to be a cat,”
Kittens that are handled 15 to 40 minutes a day during the first seven weeks are more likely to develop larger brains. They’re more exploratory, more playful and are better learners. Skills not acquired during the first eight weeks may be lost forever. While these stages are important and fairly consistent, a cat’s mind remains receptive to new experiences and lessons well beyond kitten-hood. Most cats are still kittens, in mind and body, through the first two years.
- At 6 to 7 weeks of age, kittens can perform all gaits associated with adult movement.
- It might be until 10 to 11 weeks of age before more difficult movements are mastered.
- Kittens’ eyes are usually open within the first two weeks after they are born.
- Vision improves within the first month of life and will continue to improve for the next 8 to 10 weeks.
- Hunting is a normal behaviour for cats.
- Keeping your cat indoors is the best way to manage this behaviour.
- Weaning starts at about 4 to 5 weeks and is usually competed by age 7 to 8 weeks.
- Do not remove a kitten from its mother until it is weaned and can eat solid food.
Learning and social development
- Kittens are “copy cats,” they learn through observation.
- Cats and kittens can also be trained with the same positive training techniques as dogs. The use of reward based training is the most effective and humane way to teach kittens.
- The first 7 to 8 weeks is a critical time to begin teaching your kitten appropriate behaviours.
- Play is an important part of the kitten’s physical and behavioural development.
- Social play increases from 4 – 13 weeks of age and then it begins to decline.
- Object play increases significantly at 7 to 8 weeks of age.
- Predatory behaviours such as stalking and pouncing are normal kitten play behaviours.
Encourage acceptable behaviour through toy play
Play-motivated aggressive behaviours are common in cats under the age of 2 years and in single cat households. Redirect your kitten’s aggressive behaviour through use of appropriate toy play. Some kittens need a lot of play time. Try to set up three or four consistent times to initiate play with your kitten. When you initiate regular play times, your kitten doesn’t have to initiate the play with undesired behaviour such as pouncing on you.
- Toys on a string for interactive play redirects the predatory stalking and pouncing behaviours to an object and off your legs and ankles.
- Round plastic shower curtain rings are fun either as a single ring to bat around, hide or carry, or when linked together and hung in an enticing spot.
- Plastic rolling balls, with or without bells inside.
- Ping-Pong balls and plastic practice golf balls with holes, to help cats carry them. Try putting one in a dry bathtub, as the captive ball is much more fun than one that escapes under the sofa.
- Paper bags with any handles removed. Paper bags are good for pouncing, hiding and interactive play. They’re also a great distraction if you need your cat to pay less attention to what you’re trying to accomplish. Plastic bags are not a good idea, as many cats like to chew and ingest the plastic.
- Sisal-wrapped toys are very attractive to cats that tend to ignore soft toys.
- Empty cardboard rolls from toilet paper and paper towels are ideal cat toys, especially if you “unwind” a little cardboard to get them started.
- Soft stuffed animals are good for several purposes. For some cats, the stuffed animal should be small enough to carry around. For cats that want to “kill” the toy, the stuffed animal should be about the same size as the cat. Toys with legs and a tail seem to be even more attractive to cats.
- Cardboard boxes, especially those a tiny bit too small for your cat to really fit into.
- Catnip-filled soft toys are fun to kick, carry and rub.
- Plain catnip can be crushed and sprinkled on the carpet, or on a towel placed on the floor if you want to be able to remove all traces. The catnip oils will stay in the carpet, and although they’re not visible to us, your cat will still be able to smell them.
- Catnip sprays rarely have enough power to be attractive to cats.
- Not all cats are attracted to catnip. Some cats may become over-stimulated to the point of aggressive play and others may be slightly sedated.
- Kittens under six months old seem to be immune to catnip.
- Catnip is not addictive and is perfectly safe for cats to roll in, rub in or eat.
Discourage unacceptable behaviour
- Withdraw your attention if your kitten plays too roughly. Walk away and close the door behind you to provide an opportunity for your kitten to calm down.
- Redirect to an appropriate toy.
- Being consistent in your expectation of what is acceptable versus what is unacceptable will help your kitten learn.
- Do not pick-up, tap, flick, or strike your kitten for rough play. These will backfire. The kitten could become afraid of your hands or could interpret the movements as play and become more intense and aggressive in his play.
Get the most out of toys!
- Rotate your cat’s toys weekly by making only four or five toys available at a time. Keep a variety of types easily accessible. If your cat has a huge favorite, like a soft “baby” that she loves to cuddle with, you should probably leave that one out all the time, or risk the wrath of your cat!
- Provide toys that offer a variety of uses – at least one toy to carry, one to “kill,” one to roll and one to “baby.”
- “Hide and Seek” is a fun game for cats to play. “Found” toys are often much more attractive than a toy which is blatantly introduced.