Last updated: August 31, 2016
Once, when I was visiting a wine estate in Capetown, South Africa, an incredibly friendly black cat jumped on to my lap, purring like a diesel engine. Imagine my surprise when he suddenly started to suckle on my dress as if I were a Mommy cat! I felt so sorry for him and still do. Evidently, he was a rescue cat who had been taken away from his Mommy too early, and had never stopped being a kitten, poor thing! This was evidently one of those cases where the behavioral damage was such that it was almost impossible to correct. So when can kittens leave their mother? When are they mature enough mentally and physically to thrive without her?
The First Few Weeks
If you want to know when can kittens leave their mothers you must understand that kittens have a lot to learn in the first few weeks of life! Unlike prey animals who have to be ready to run as soon as their feet hit the ground, predators like cats take a bit longer to develop. Well – read on. If you had all this stuff to learn it would take you a while too!
When kittens are born they can’t even crawl, and have to wriggle on their bellies towards their Mommy’s nipples. That’s pretty helpless! For the first few days all they do is sleep, eat and grow. Wrapped in Mommy’s protective embrace with their brothers and sisters they are safe from all harm. At around ten days to two weeks their eyes open, although all they can see at that stage are blurry black and white images (like me when I wake up in the morning!)
Just like human babies, kittens are born without teeth. Their milk teeth erupt at about fourteen to seventeen days, and will last till about three months when the kittens’ adult teeth come through. Then he’ll end up with a mouthful of thirty vicious little gnashers perfectly designed to catch and kill prey then shred it into cat food.
Litter Box Training
Till I got my own cat I thought that all kittens were born toilet trained because I never ever saw cat poop anywhere! This is because they have had to learn from Mommy about using the litter tray and covering up their feces by burying it. She will put them in the litter box and lick their little bottoms to encourage them to defecate. They have evolved to eliminate their waste in sand so this will not be strange to them. They may have a few accidents at first but they’ll soon get the hang of it! If Mommy doesn’t want to toilet train them, or if they are orphaned, you can do it yourself. After you’ve fed them put them in the litter box and wipe their bottoms with a warm cloth or a moistened cotton wool ball to stimulate them to let go of their little poops. If they don’t bury it you can show them how to do it. In a few days, they’ll be perfectly toilet trained!
At around day seventeen kitty will take his first baby steps and by the time he’s a month old he’ll be as good as a veteran! Now is the time for action, and a lot of possibly injurious play fighting goes on! But there’s a lot more baby will have to learn before he’s ready for the big bad world out there. I’m sure there is a big word for it, but it’s one of the basic and essential skills, and it’s called Getting on with Your Pals! We all have to learn this, even a kitten, and it’s something he needs to learn before he leaves Mommy and his siblings.
Even in the first few weeks, kittens have already started competing for status and territory. The biggest strongest babies get the best-yielding nipples! From seven to fourteen weeks your kitten will spend just about every waking moment playing. This part of their development helps them enormously since it establishes who’s who in the pecking order and how to be a proper member of the cat species. Kittens who are separated or orphaned at this crucial age don’t learn how to play properly. For instance, if you’re play fighting with your brother or sister, how do you know just how hard to bite without breaking your playmate’s skin? Playing might look – well – playful, but it’s serious stuff!
Kittens also need to learn how to groom each other, and this is learned in the pre-weaning stage while the kittens are still totally dependent on Mommy. Cats groom each other to clean themselves, to share a common scent which binds them all to every other cat in their social group and to show affection. They will often present their foreheads to other cats as a sign of trust. When they’ve been adopted and gone to their forever homes they will transfer this behavior to their new owners and possibly the owner’s other pets. They don’t do it to anyone of either species who’s not on their Christmas lists!
Since the age of four weeks, Mommy will have been dropping hints that it may just be about time that the cute little buttons start to eat something else apart from her. Gradually she will start to supplement their milk with solid food till at last she’s not the source of nourishment anymore (and what a great feeling that is!) So weaning is usually completed by eight weeks, although the kitten may still suckle for comfort or just because he enjoys it for a while longer, but it’s no longer necessary for his development. This is the age when it’s safe to let him go to his forever home. So when can kittens leave their mothers? The perfect age seems to be between eight and twelve weeks.
By the way, don’t worry about Mommy being upset when her babies leave. That clever lady Mother Nature has designed cat Mommies to encourage her kittens to leave the nest so that she can get busy with the next lot! And those kittens won’t stay kittens for long – soon they’ll be busy with kittens of their own unless they’re neutered. But in their forever homes, the little ones won’t miss her either. They’ll be enjoying too much love to care!