How Young is Too Young?
How old should a kitten be when it goes to a new
by Barbara C. French
First printed in CATS Magazine, February 2000.
Reprinted with permission.
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 of age.
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
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.
ISSUES: POTENTIAL PROBLEMS OF EARLY SEPARATION
Problems with immunity and health
"One 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."
"I 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.
Problems with eating and eliminating
"Weaning 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
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.
Problems 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 household.
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
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
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.
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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