How Young is Too Young?
How old should a kitten be when it goes to a new home?
Barbara C. French
First printed in CATS Magazine, February 2000. Reprinted
Dorie Wilkins* (*name changed to protect identity) had only
been breeding Ragdolls for almost two years, and had produced
her second litter. She was approached by a nice young couple
who wanted a kitten, but they objected to her policy of
selling kittens at twelve weeks of age. They were concerned
the kitten would not bond with them. They pointed to newspaper
ads advertising kittens 'ready to go' at six or eight weeks.
"I let them talk me into it," sighs Wilkins. "I sold kittens
at twelve weeks because that's what everyone else seemed
to be doing. I didn't really know why." She relented and
let one of the kittens go to its new home at seven weeks
The kitten was returned at ten weeks, weighing less than
it had when it had gone to its new home three weeks before.
The owners complained that the kitten had the sniffles and
chronic diarrhea and wasn't using the litterbox. It hadn't
settled in with their resident cat, and the kitten spent
much of its time hiding under the couch. "They said they'd
never get a purebred cat again, because obviously they're
not healthy," Wilkins relates. With veterinary care and
a lot of TLC, the kitten was back on its paws in a few weeks.
Wilkins waited until this kitten was almost six months old
before placing it again.
The kitten's problems had nothing to do with its heritage.
should leave their homes at a minimum age of twelve weeks,"
says Dr. Betsy Arnold, DVM, a veteran Siamese breeder and
veterinarian with an all-feline practice in Rochester, New
York called Caring for Cats. "In my practice I have seen
kittens coming in at six and seven weeks who weight twelve,
maybe fourteen ounces. These are infants. They needed to
stay with their mothers."
Twelve weeks may seem old to people accustomed to seeing
newspaper ads advertising kittens who are "ready to go"
at six or eight weeks of age. Most of us who have had cats
have acquired kittens that young. They are cute at that
age, and most people enjoy having such young kittens to
watch them grow. However, we may permanently harm kittens
by separating them from their mothers so early. There are
crucial mental, emotional, and developmental milestones
that a kitten experiences between six and twelve weeks of
age. Separating the kitten from mother, siblings, and familiar
surroundings at that age can cause undue anxiety and stress
at the least, and serious medical problems or even death
in the very worst cases.
POTENTIAL PROBLEMS OF EARLY SEPARATION
with immunity and health
of my main concerns with early separation is that kittens'
immune systems are really developing between eight and twelve
weeks of age," says Dr. Arnold. "The immunity from their
mother is wearing off, and the immunity from vaccination
is just starting to take over. During this time, they are
more susceptible to illness, such as upper-respiratory problems
and diarrhea." Kittens generally receive vaccinations against
panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis, and calici viruses (commonly
called the "distemper combination" shot) at six, nine, and
twelve weeks of age. However, immunity from vaccination
does not happen immediately; shots can take up to ten days
to be effective. Up until this time, kittens receive some
measure of immunity through antibodies from their mother's
milk, but this is also the age where they are beginning
to wean. Their immune system "kicks over" from immunity
from mother's milk to immunity from vaccination. During
this time, their immune system is busy with this task, leaving
the kitten less able to fight off other illnesses. "The
stress of going to a new home and being exposed to different
germs can make the kitten more susceptible to illness during
this time," adds Dr. Arnold.
six or seven weeks, a kitten has only received his or her
first shot series; the new owner must remember to give the
second boosters. Sometimes they forget, and this can have
disastrous results. Himalayan and Persian breeder Barbara
Redalia of Tuleburg Cattery recalls, " Once a pet purchaser
bought a kitten from us, neglected to give it the second
vaccination, and when their son became allergic, returned
the cat to us. Unfortunately the cat had contracted rhinotracheitis
at their home and exposed a pregnant cat to this virus at
our house. This cat, whose own immunity to rhinotracheitis
was apparently waning, became extremely ill, miscarried
her litter, and was eventually euthanized."
have spoken to many new pet owners who have purchased their
kittens at eight weeks of age, which is the minimum legal
age in Florida," says Susan Geren, who breeds Persians and
Himalayans under the cattery name Pyewacket. "The overwhelming
majority of them had health problems with their new babies,
probably caused by the stress of being separated from their
siblings and mother at such an early age. I have explained
to them my reasons for not placing my kittens early and
suggested that in the future they use this as a gauge to
ascertain which breeders are more interested in the income
provided by kitten sales than they are in placing healthy,
well adjusted kittens. It is most definitely more expensive
to keep kittens until they are four to five months old."
Some studies have shown that vaccination at six weeks might
be too early. "I once lost a 10-month-old cat to panleukopenia
(feline distemper)," recounts Mary Tyson of Thaison Siamese.
"After long discussions between the vaccine manufacturer
and my vet, Pittman Moore's research head concluded that
it was not a bad batch of vaccine. Cornell [Feline Health
Center], which had done the post mortem analysis (and also
analyzed blood samples taken while the cat was still alive),
concluded in conjunction with Pittman Moore that some cats
do not develop lasting immunity from vaccines administered
earlier than 16 weeks of age, and this cat had had his last
shots at 12 weeks. Thereafter I maintained a policy of not
letting kittens leave home until they had had their shots
at 16 weeks old." "The most important reason I place kittens
at 12 weeks of age (or older) is because kittens can be
extremely fragile, and putting them in a new home and environment
puts additional stress on them, upping the chances of getting
sick," says Burmese breeder Jaina Wendtland. "When this
happens the kitten buyer blames the seller, and rightly
so in many cases."
When a kitten is ready to leave may also vary from cat to
cat, or from breed to breed. Some cats are simply not big
enough to go on their own until they are a bit older. Devon
Rex breeder Carole Goodwin notes that cats of her breed
are small and need a full twelve weeks to mature and socialize.
Amanda Bright, who breeds Russian Blues under the cattery
names of Kyina and Talisker, notes that her breed tends
to be slender and she feels the cats need more body mass
to handle vaccinations. She feels it is wiser to vaccinate
them a bit later so that the cats can better handle problems
if they occur.
From a health standpoint, it is best to allow the kitten
to receive its entire first shot series, including boosters,
while at home in familiar surroundings. First shots are
not enough to confer immunity, and the kitten needs time
for its immune system to change over completely from one
system (mother's milk) to another (vaccination). They should
also be of a sufficient size and physical maturity before
they are ready.
with eating and eliminating
isn't an event; it's a process," says Dr. Arnold. "They
don't just start eating food one day. They eat a little
food, nurse, eat a little, nurse, and so on. Eventually
they eat more than they nurse, and then stop nursing altogether.
This doesn't happen by six or eight weeks of age."
Left to their own devices, mothers will eventually stop
allowing kittens to nurse. With most cats this occurs naturally
anywhere from eight to twelve weeks. However, this process
is very important, as it teaches the kitten to learn to
deal positively with frustration and denial. As the mother
starts refusing to allow the kitten to nurse, which the
kitten very much wants to do, she teaches the kitten how
to cope with that frustration. Kittens who do not learn
this lesson may develop behavioral problems.
Weaning is not simply a matter of getting a kitten to eat
solid food. It's an important time when the kitten begins
to assert its independence from its mother. This needs to
be a gradual process. "For the most part, my babies still
nurse at 9 and 10 weeks, and sometime beyond," says Rosi
Carroll of Bengals by RoJon. "I have never had a customer
call me up after picking up one of my kittens, complaining
about the kitten meowing for its mother. They settle right
in to their new environment."
It's also common for too-young kittens to eat poorly and
have litterbox problems. Many kittens at age six to eight
weeks aren't consistently using the litterbox. I have found
that my own kittens can take up to ten weeks to have litterbox
habits down pat. And diarrhea can accompany the changes
in diet and stress that come with a new home. Diarrhea can
be life-threatening to a small kitten; severe dehydration
and rapid weight loss is a serious problem when one has
so little body mass to start.
with socialization and behavior
People often express a desire to have a younger kitten because
they are afraid the kitten will not bond with them once
older. This is simply not true. As Ann Segrest of Kiriki
Korats says, "The older kittens bond with their new humans
just fine. Cats do not have, nor do they need to establish
their place in the "pack" like dogs must do. This is the
myth that must be dispelled so that kittens will have the
opportunity to learn from their mothers and be as healthy
and stress-free as possible when they go to their new homes."
It is true that kittens who are separated at a young age
from their mothers will often bond to a person as a surrogate
mother. This may seem cute, but it's unhealthy. Such kittens
will often suck on blankets, clothing, buttons, even earlobes
or on themselves. They may become dependent upon humans
to the point that they become fearful or neurotic when left
alone. Many hide or run at the sight of unknown people.
Most commonly, however, cats who are deprived of proper
socialization don't learn how to be with other cats. This
makes them especially inappropriate as house pets in a multicat
The kitten socialization phase starts at about four weeks
of age and can continue until up to fourteen weeks old.
Kittens learn to explore their world through this period,
under the comforting guidance of their mother. Between nine
and fourteen weeks old, they learn from their mother and
siblings how to interact with other cats. They learn how
to recognize and interpret cat body language. Quite literally,
a cat who misses out on this important social step may not
learn how to "talk" to other cats.
It's also during this time when the kitten needs to be exposed
to variety of people in a positive way so that it doesn't
become afraid of different types of people. Improper early
socialization is why some cats seem to be afraid of men,
or of people with glasses, or other odd quirks.
Manx breeder Marj Baker was faced with having to raise three
kittens whose mother had become unable to care for them
when they were three weeks old. "[These kittens] were biters
- well, actually just nibblers; they wanted to chew on my
fingers -- and wanted my full attention all the time. The
also loved my hair to chew on and any item of clothing that
was mine got licked and chewed. They seemed very mouth oriented
and were very unhappy if left alone by themselves. Most
Manx are happy to entertain themselves most of the time
but not these three. They also were harder to [train to
use a litterbox], finding the floor a convenient place to
squat. I guess I was not a very good mom cat."
Deborah Feldham of Glendoveer's Abyssinians had a similar
story. "In one instance I took in two orphaned kittens that
I had to syringe feed because they were so young," she says.
"They were not easy kittens to work with. They were jealous
and insecure, often showing their insecurities by going
to the bathroom in inappropriate places and scratching or
hissing at strangers. I believe that if these kittens had
been born in a more secure environment and raised with their
mother [to an older age], they would have been better prepared,
emotionally, to fit into their new homes. Kittens learn
from mothers, littermates and their surroundings."
Kittens need the time with their mothers and siblings to
learn important life lessons - lessons that will make them
happy, healthy, confident kittens. "I have seen kittens
taken from their mother too young become cloth chewers and
neurotic," says June Abbott Colwell of Velpaws Siamese.
"[Kittens] not only need to be with their mothers, but also
with their siblings. They learn proper acceptable play behavior
from both mother and siblings. Kittens taken away too young
are not as tolerant or as sure of themselves as older kittens."
KITTEN AT TWELVE WEEKS
At twelve weeks of age, most kittens are weaned or nearly
fully so, have had adequate socialization with mother and
siblings, have received their full series of kitten shots,
and have gotten through the critical immune system "kick-over"
period. Properly handled and socialized by people, these
kittens have learned to explore their world and will meet
it with a happy, outgoing confidence that will carry them
throughout their lifetime. This may vary from cat to cat,
or breed to breed.
The important thing to remember is this: it should be the
kitten's current and future well-being that drives the decision
of age to place, not finances or a simple desire to have
a younger kitten for whatever reason. Kittenhood is a fleeting
time. You will have a kitten only for a short time, but
the cat may be with you for many years to come. You may
find it personally disappointing to allow a kitten an extra
month or two with its mother when you had hoped to have
it earlier, but it will make a world of difference to the
mental, emotional, and physical health to the kitten throughout
its entire life. If you are searching for a pet through
a shelter, you may not have an option. If you are getting
a kitten through an acquaintence or through a breeder, insist
on at least twelve weeks for the kitten's health. You will
have a healthier, happier, and better socialized feline
friend because of it.
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