When you're excited about bringing a kitten home, sometimes it can be hard to wait. After all, they're at their cutest when tiny and awkward. Still, bringing home a kitten too early can have lifelong consequences for your future feline friend. So when can kittens leave their mom?
Newborn kittens receive crucial nutrients from their mother's milk, but they also rely on their mothers to learn a variety of other skills early in life. Arguably most important of all, kittens learn invaluable social skills from playing with their littermates and mother. If cats are removed too early, they might have problems getting along with other cats as well as playing nicely with human hands, which is bad news for you as their new owner.
Mother cats will usually start weaning their litter naturally at about four weeks of age, but this doesn't mean that your new kitten is ready to go home quite yet. They haven't quite completed the rest of the weaning process, which continues for another month or so before they can be considered fully weaned. At around 8-10 weeks of age kittens are ready to be introduced to a healthy kitten food.
When Can Kittens Leave Their Mom?
Around 12 weeks of age, kittens are typically healthy and matured enough to leave their momma and be ready for adoption to their forever homes.
Even if a litter of kittens has to go without their mother for circumstances ranging from abandonment to a heart-wrenching accident, bottle-fed kittens should still be nursed and closely watched for at least the first 2-3 months of life if possible; separating kittens from the littermates during this crucial stage can lead to physical and behavioral issues and health problems lasting the rest of their lives.
Signs That Kittens Left Their Mom Too Early
If you're bringing a kitten home, it's important to be vigilant and look for any bad cat behaviors to understand if there's a possibility your new feline friend might have left their mama cat too early. Kittens learn how to act from both their mother and littermates, so those taken away too early wouldn't have learned proper socialization with others and could display aggressive and fearful behaviors, especially when their space is invaded.
Developing health issues irregularly is a tell-tale sign your kitten was taken from its mother at an early age. As newborn-kittens get all their nutrients from their mother's milk, kittens weaned too soon may not get all the necessary antibodies, making them likely to have stunted growth and various illnesses. Bottle-feeding can serve as a healthy, nutrient-rich milk replacement if needed. Of course, your veterinarian will be able to help diagnosis health problems that may be related to missed vaccinations early in a kitten's life, too.
Cats weaned early might also have a difficulty adjusting to being an actual adult cat. As kittens learn common cat behaviors primarily from their mothers, kittens taken away too early might have difficulty doing regular cat things, like grooming themselves properly or not knowing how to use a litter box. These behaviors can be learned outside those first few months of life, but it can be difficult, and they are often indicators that they were on their own long before it was time.
What To Do If Your Kitten Was Brought Home Too Soon
If you've noticed aggressive or fearful behaviors, litter box problems, and health issues, it's possible your kitten was brought home too early. So, what can you do about it? Most importantly, be patient. Kittens weaned too early might be a bit behind their peers in the social skills department, but you can help them get back up to speed by gently handling them to stimulate the play they would have received with their littermates.
Give your new kitten a chance to feel safe with you, and gently introduce limits. After all, you're basically the mother cat now! Many behaviors stemming from early weaning can be undone with a little bit of time and patience. Cats can be trained, even later in life, but are a little more stubborn than their canine counterparts. Be patient, consistent, and loving, and reap the benefits of a forever feline friend.
Suspect your kitten might have left their mother too early? Let us know on the Wide Open Pets Facebook page.
This article was originally published February 24, 2021.