Tracking Kitten Development

What to Expect from Birth to Weaning

Germany, Newborn kittens sleeping on blanket, close up
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No doubt. Kittens are adorable creatures. Their ability to entertain us, even when they are tiny and helpless, sometimes makes you forget the growth processes they are going through in their ​first weeks of life. Kittens develop rapidly, maturing from wobbly newborns to agile cats in a very short time. Understanding their developmental milestones—many of which occur during the first few weeks of life—will help you both provide for their needs and identify any nuances that vary from the norm and may require medical attention.

Dependent Newborns

Newborn kittens weigh just ounces, fitting easily into the palm of your hand (although it's best to not handle them too soon). Their umbilical cords fall off within three to four days, but their eyes and ear canals are still closed. Newborns lack the ability to thermoregulate and maintain a close proximity to their mother in the early days, as this is their primary need. It may be necessary to place a heat source—like a heating pad set on low and wrapped in a towel—in the bottom of their nest to help littermates maintain a 95 to 97 degree Fahrenheit body temperature. Following birth, kittens will sleep for most of the day and squirm around as they orient themselves to feed and stay warm. 

Let Mom Do the Work

The mother cat instinctively knows the needs of her helpless kittens. She feeds them, keeps them close for warmth, and bathes them with her rough tongue to stimulate their digestion and help them urinate and defecate. Provided the mother has been vaccinated or has natural immunity, the kittens will receive her same immunity for the first 24 to 48 hours through the colostrum in her milk (a kittens' first superfood). This initial form of immunization lasts until they are old enough to get their kitten shots.

During this stage, it can be tempting to dote on the little ones, but too much human interference can stress the mother cat. And since queens are very protective of their kittens, they may move them to another location if humans decide to intrude. Give them space and time to bond, and nurture a comfortable and stress-free environment for mama cat to tend to her brood.

Physical Development

Newborns weigh an average of 3.5 ounces at birth and may double their weight by the end of the first week. At this point, they are little food processing factories. Their only tasks in life are to nurse, sleep, and pass waste, all in an effort to grow stronger and more independent. There is very little social interaction at this age, other than competing for their favorite nipple as they knead and suckle with their tiny paws. Although their ear canals will not open for two weeks yet, kittens may still have a reflex reaction to the vibration of a sudden noise. Between 8 to 12 days, the kittens will open their eyes. One eye may open first, while the other may lag. This is normal and should not be manipulated by humans. Once open, a kitten's eyes will appear blue until they transition to their parent's eye color as they age. 

From a Wobble to a Pounce

Kittens who haven't yet developed full limb support flop over while learning to manage their bodies. Around week two, their coordination will begin to develop as they attempt their first steps. This will soon escalate into full-blown walking and exploring by week three; which will then advance to kitten play by week four. This time period is fun for the caregiver, as the kittens begin to clumsily pounce, making eye contact with each other and even recognizing human presence.

Let the Weaning Begin

By week five, caretakers should begin the weaning process. Offer wet kitten food blended with water and encourage them to maintain closeness with their mother for supplemental nursing. After a few weeks, kittens may grow fonder of their new food (now that they have teeth) and dry food (either blended or not) can be offered, alongside fresh water and easy access to the litter box. Once weaned, track the kittens' growth to make sure they are all thriving. Around six weeks, take them to the vet for their first checkup and vaccinations and start preparing the house

Training the kitten to use the litterbox