When adopting a kitten, it's common to see very young animals for sale or adoption. While it may be commonplace, placing the kitten in a new home when it's too young can be dangerous. If removed from their mothers' too soon, kitten's lose out on essential nutrients.
Kittens and Age
Mother cats will typically start to wean their kittens off their milk at one month of age. That does not mean that the kittens are ready to go home, however; the process is slow and can take several weeks.
The weaning process usually continues for another month and the kittens are fully weaned between eight and ten weeks of age. Towards the end of the process, the kittens should start eating specially formulated kitten food. As soon as the weaning transition begins, small amounts of kitten food can be added to their diets even if they are still nursing. Getting a kitten to eat dry food can take some time, so they need to be introduced to it slowly to get used to it before going to a new home.
Consequences of Removing a Kitten Too Soon
If a kitten is sent to his new home too soon, there can be some serious health and behavior consequences.
The first few weeks of a kitten's life is essential for his later health and development. The colostrum and other nutrients are responsible for strong bones, eye health, and organ development. Weaned too soon, and you risk your cat developing deficiencies later on.
If removed early, your kitten may have trouble adjusting to his new home and new owners. Growing up with his mother and littermates is essential for his socialization and for learning good manners. Without that interaction, the kitten may grow up to be fearful, skittish or even aggressive.
What If the Mother Is Not Around?
If the mother cat is unavailable -- if mother cat perhaps got hit by a car or if a litter of kittens being abandoned at a shelter -- the kittens can still get the necessary nutrients and lead a healthy life.
Some shelters will use a foster cat to provide both nursing aid and socialization. If that is not possible, you can purchase kitten milk replacer, a specially formulated food that mimics the nutritional value of a mother's milk.
The Ideal Age
Ideally, kittens should go to their new home around twelve weeks old. While some kittens can go home earlier, the closer you wait until twelve or thirteen weeks, the better off the kitten will be. Your cat's chances of being healthy, well-socialized, and properly developed are dramatically increased by spending time with his mother and littermates.
If a kitten is removed younger than that, you will need to spend significant amounts of time working with him to make sure he adapts to his new home and learns appropriate behaviors. He may also need nutritional supplements to make up for lost nutrients.