When Can Kittens Leave Their Mom? Here's What a Veterinarian Recommends
Wee kittens, with their lil' mews and waddly walks, just make us want to hold them as soon as they're born and never let go! However, it's vital to respect and abide by their natural development process. So when can kittens leave their mom?
Renee Rucinsky, DVM, DABVP(F), is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Cat Hospital and Feline Thyroid Center in Queenstown, Md., as well as the 2022 president-elect of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners. She tells Daily Paws that for quite a while, "kittens need to be around their siblings and mom to learn boundaries, how to interact with others—and how not to be annoying!"
Here's how the timeline works.
When Can a Kitten Leave Their Mother?
Ideally, kittens should bond with their littermates and Momma Cat (referred to by breeders as the queen, which seems absolutely appropriate) for eight to 10 weeks. Rucinsky says if siblings are adopted together, they can sometimes move on at 7 weeks old, but in a perfect world, the whole family would stay together for at least nine weeks.
At 7 weeks old, kittens have already experienced lightning-fast development:
- At birth, their ears are folded onto their head but start to spring up after about one week.
- Initially born blind, they'll open their eyes within two weeks and should be crawling around this time, too.
- They start developing itty-bitty teeth at 3 weeks old and taking cautious upright steps.
- Momma Cat uses her tongue to teach them how to self-groom when they're 4–6 weeks old, and they're eager to play, pounce, and generally be more spunky kitten-like now.
- Within six to eight weeks, kittens stop nursing, as their baby teeth are in place and they're ready for solid food.
"Developmentally, the time period between 4–7 weeks [old] is crucial to a lifetime of being feline good citizens. If Momma Cat doesn't teach them manners then, or if they aren't exposed to people during that time, it's so much harder to have those kitties be well mannered and well-adjusted," Rucinsky says.
She adds that when they leave the litter too soon, or if they're solo babies, they don't build essential social skills and normal behavior cues as they would from being in the whole group.
The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) note in their life stage guidelines that while kittens often inherit the personality of their father (also known as the tom), they learn everything else from their mother. This includes accepting food, bathroom habits, and "fear response" to humans and animals.
According to the guidelines, the "sensitive socialization period" for kittens—experiencing new things and meeting new people and animals—begins when they're 2–3 weeks old and lasts until they're 9–10 weeks old.
How long do kittens nurse? Rucinsky says approximately five to six weeks, with the frequency and amount gradually decreasing as they learn how to eat solid food. The weaning process depends on what's available for the kittens to eat and "how much the mom tolerates annoying babies trying to nurse!"
But as early as 4 weeks old, the little scamps become more curious about what their mom eats, and she'll push them away. When this happens, give Momma Cat a rest and help with kitten weaning by setting out tiny bits of specially-formulated kitten food: a 1-to-3 ratio of warm water to dry kibble or canned food. You'll want a consistency like fine oatmeal mush. Consult your veterinarian about how to schedule these feedings, but the general approach is often referred to as "ad libitum," which means "as often as necessary or desired." This might be roughly four times daily.
Create a feeding area away from mom with food on a flat saucer so kittens can explore and yes, play with—and in—the food. They'll soon realize mom's kitchen is closed and these eats are all there is. She'll likely nudge them along between naps as they get the hang of it. Still, kittens can't leave her just yet, as they're absorbing some of those other essential behavioral skills, but this stage is their launch toward independence.
What Happens If Kittens Are Weaned Too Early?
How can you help a cat weaned too early? It depends on the timeline. For example, if you have a home litter and something happens to Momma Cat in that critical four to seven week window, you'll become a surrogate cat with all the parenting skills right away, including bottle feeding and solid food introduction, litter training, and socialization.
Consistent socialization helps reduce aggression, anxiety, and fear in orphaned kitties by acclimating them to their siblings, other people, and animals. Without a mom to swat away inappropriate antics, you'll have to rely on positive reinforcement training techniques supported by aids such as treats, pats, and toys to keep them on the right track. A cat behavior consultant can walk you through the process. This makes it a little easier for kitties to venture into the world beyond 7 weeks old.
Nevertheless, kittens leaving their mom too early might develop some minor behavioral repercussions that become part of their character. "If for some reason a kitten is weaned too early, they may have some tendencies to try to nurse on fabric or fluffy things, kind of an oral fixation kind of thing. It's harmless most of the time and just makes them feel soothed," Rucinsky says.
Can Kittens Stay With Their Moms Their Whole Lives?
Rucinsky notes that it's fine if kittens grow up and live with mom. Momma Cat, on the other paw, might prefer a different arrangement!
"Sometimes cat moms want their kids to grow up, go to college and leave the nest, but overall, everyone can stay together," Rucinsky says. "Likewise, some individual cats may want more independence. There's not really a 'best' situation with mom cats and kittens."