Not many people are lucky enough to see a cat through the first few weeks and months of life, so what happens during this time can be a mystery to most of us. Generally, kittens will experience the most drastic developmental changes in the first 8 weeks. Outside the womb, they are vulnerable to threats like injury and infectious diseases and require protection, food, and warmth.
A lot happens during this period; a kitten will develop and grow at a remarkable rate. We’ll discuss the kitten’s growth stages in detail from birth to adulthood.
A Look at Kitten Development
1. Week 1: Newborn Stage
The world is very different for a newborn kitten, as they can’t see or hear and will navigate through the world by scent. Kittens are born with folded ears, closed eyes, and no teeth, and their nose, paws, and gums might be a brighter pink than they will become. They won’t be able to thermoregulate or have a gag reflex, and their claws are non-retractable. The attached umbilical cord generally falls off after 4 to 5 days.
Newborns spend most of their time sleeping and might be able to move about by crawling. The sign of a healthy newborn kitten is one that meows or wiggles when handled. They will be in the care of their mother, who will provide them with warmth, bathroom support, and food. They are known to be very protective of their kittens and will move them elsewhere if humans interfere with the nest too much.
This relationship with the mother is also incredibly important for another reason. If she has been vaccinated or has natural immunity, she will share her immunity with her kitten through her colostrum. This will last until they can build up their own immunity or receive vaccinations.
2. Week 2: Development & Growth
Generally, a mother cat will be fed high-quality canned kitten food to replenish the nutrients lost through nursing. And she’ll need it as her kitten grows by at least 10 grams daily. Later, you will introduce this same food to your kitten when they are older.
This is the first time the kitten will open its eyes; between days 9 and 14, their eyes should be fully open. For the first several weeks, their eyes will be blue, and their vision will be blurry because the pupils don’t dilate and contract as they should. This means they will need to be kept away from bright lights.
3. Week 3: Physical Changes
A kitten’s ears should be fully erect, and the ear canals will be open. However, the sense of hearing will still be developing, and they might get startled by loud noises. Their sense of smell will be developed, as is their digestive system, so they can now eliminate their waste voluntarily.
The eye color might begin to change from blue to the color they will have as an adult, but sometimes this happens much later. The mother will still groom her kitten as they won’t learn to do that for a while, but she will start contemplating weaning now as teeth will be coming in. You might even be lucky enough to hear the kitten purring too!
4. Week 4: First Unsteady Steps
The kitten will start walking between the third and fourth week, but it will be very wobbly. This isn’t very surprising, of course; not only are they brand new, but they are also out of proportion—their head will look too large for their legs and body, and their tail will be short and thin like a small stick.
Practice makes perfect, and they will get better at this, so keep an eye out for them as they might try to escape the nest and explore their environment. They will also take more interest in their littermates.
5. Week 5: Much More Confident
Kittens will start to play and run with much more confidence. They will also be developing some much-needed social skills thanks to interactions with humans and animals. They’ll be much better at grooming themselves, saving their mother yet another job. They can also learn the basics of the litter box during this week.
If they’re healthy, they can begin weaning. They will receive kitten food and their mother’s milk. Once fully weaned, they will always need access to water, food, and a shallow litter box.
6. Week 6: Socialization & Playtime
At 6 weeks old, the kittens will be confidently leaping, pouncing, and running. It’s still hard work being this age, so they will need plenty of rest. They will have more confidence to explore their surroundings and have the coordination to jump off low furniture and land on their feet.
7. Week 7: Spike in Energy
Kittens at this age have much more energy, so they will spend less time sleeping and more time climbing cat trees, running, and flinging themselves off furniture. They will still eat wet food but might also have dry food as a supplement.
8. Week 8: Vaccinations & Adoption Ready
At this age, all of the kitten’s baby teeth will be gone, their eyes will be yellow, green, blue, or brown, and they will be independent, agile, and energetic. The first round of vaccinations is done around the 6 to 8-week point, so they might be on the first round or the second, depending on the timing. Your veterinarian will put them on a schedule for receiving their shots, and it’s essential to stick to it.
This is also the week your kitten might be ready for adoption, but sometimes you must wait until week 9 for this momentous occasion. They mustn’t be separated from their mother and littermates until they are ready. They will learn kitty communication, hunting, using the litter box, and playing through these relationships.
9. Weeks 9–12: Eating Changes
The transition to solid food will come to an end, and what they eat will depend on whether they prefer canned or dry food. Dry food can be left out, and the kitten can free-feed, but you will have to monitor their weight to ensure they don’t overeat. Canned food should be offered four times a day in small amounts, and when they are 6 months old, they can start eating twice a day. Once your kitten is 12 weeks old, they are ready to receive the first rabies vaccination.
10. Months 3–6: Neutering & Spaying
There is some debate about the perfect time to spay or neuter; many say it’s around the 6-month point, while some vets will perform the procedure when the kitten is about 8 weeks old, as long as the kitten weighs at least 2 pounds and is healthy.
11. Year One: Happy Birthday!
Your cat is no longer a kitten by the time they reach their first birthday. However, you might notice kittenish behavior lingers, like lots of energy, playfulness, and acts of rebellion or testing the boundaries. This is because, developmentally, adolescence lasts until about the 18-month mark. During this period, you might notice your cat is less affectionate than it was, but don’t worry; this tends to pass once they grow out of adolescence. By their second birthday, they should settle into their adult personality.
Kittens go through so many changes in such a short time, and it’s truly an amazing experience if you’re lucky enough to witness it. Knowing what to expect during the first few weeks and months will give you the tools you need to make the best decisions for your new kitten so they grow into a confident, healthy, and happy adult!
Featured Image Credit: MDavidova, Shutterstock