A kitten's first year is vital to their ultimate physical development. Equally important is the human-feline bonding that will take place in the early weeks, which will set the pace not only for your relationship with your cat but also for his or her unique personality development.
How Kittens Differ From Cats
Just as children differ from adults, kittens are not simply miniature cats. Their development into adult cats is a fascinating process, and each step in their growth means a change in behavior and awareness. The more aware you are of your cat's development the better you'll be able to understand what your kitten is experiencing and what her actions are telling you.
In the wild, big cats often remain with the mother for the first full year to learn the skills necessary for survival. With domesticated cats, this is rarely the case, but under ideal circumstances, a kitten should remain with their mother for at least 12 to 16 weeks. Although the mother will start weaning her kittens sometime between five and seven weeks, the additional time helps the kittens learn socialization skills. If you are adopting a fostered kitten you may want to wait until the kitten is about ten weeks old before bringing him to a new home.
The First Six Weeks
The all-important first six weeks of a cat's life will accomplish much in determining their personality and character for the rest of their life. Feral kittens (kittens that are born in the wild) may find it hard to adapt to domestic life if they aren't fostered in someone's home at a very young age.
Healthwise, this period is also extremely important to the developing kitten, as very young kittens are susceptible to a number of threats, such as fleas and URIs. Kittens will probably never grow again at the remarkable rate they accomplish during this period, and seeing the changes in their development from week to week is an incredible experience.
You may not meet your kitten when she's under six weeks old unless her mother lives with you or you're actually fostering the kitten. In some cases, however, you may be able to meet and choose a kitten before it's ready to be adopted.
Seven to 12 Weeks
Most kittens are adopted between seven and 12 weeks of age. Kittens start developing their social skills during this time by observing their mother, playing with other kittens and cats, and/or playing and interacting with their humans. This period of time will be immensely enjoyable, both for you and for your kitten, as they practice running, jumping, stalking, and pouncing.
Kittens at this age love to play games of "hide and seek" with their humans; open paper bags or cardboard boxes make great accessories for interactive play. Your kitten will continue to grow rapidly during this period, and their motor skills will continue to develop as they practice chasing and catching "prey." They will also start adopting "adult" sleeping habits instead of just flopping wherever they happen to be.
Health Reminder: Your kitten will need their first set of shots by eight weeks, and the second set three or four weeks later. If an initial veterinary exam was not done at the time of their adoption (highly recommended), they should also be tested for worms. Topical flea treatment can be started safely at eight weeks.
Three to Six Months
Somewhere around four months, your kitten may start losing his baby teeth, as the adult teeth develop. His gums may be painful, and this would be an excellent time to start a program of dental care, by gently massaging his gums with gauze. Plastic drinking straws are also a proven aid to teething and make for great interactive play with your kitten.
Kittens will start establishing their place in the "social ranking order" of your house during this time. It is not unusual to see a kitten "challenge" a grown cat living in your home, which usually will earn the hapless youngster a cuff on the ears. Other cats, depending on their own social position and personalities, may defer to the kitten. Your kitten is still growing during this time, and it is not unusual to see a previously plump fluffball of a kitten suddenly grow long and lanky, then taller, and finally flesh out again. Kittens should continue to eat kitten food during this phase of growth as they need the additional nutrients for strong bones, healthy teeth, and supple muscles.
Health Reminder: Your kitten can, and should, be spayed or neutered between three and six months. Cats' sexual maturity can vary, and both female and male kittens as young as four or five months have been known to become sexually active. Although some veterinarians still suggest waiting until six months, advocates of early spay and neuter are proving the benefits of that practice.
Six to 12 Months
By six to 12 months your kitten will start to show the physical and social traits of a fully grown cat. No wonder: by the age of 12 months, he will have attained the physical growth of a 15-year-old human teenager, and he will undoubtedly start showing some of the same personality attributes of that age. Don't allow yourself to brood over hurt feelings if your kitten doesn't seem as responsive to you. Like a human teenager, he is testing the waters of adulthood to see what it feels like. He is also playing a "dominance" game with you, just as he might with another cat or kitten. Be patient with him and give him all the affection and love he will take, but do it on his terms. I guarantee that he will come around when he is ready to stop playing "big guy."
Your feline youngster will continue to grow and develop for another year, and some breeds (Maine Coons are a notable one) are not fully developed for four years.
Whatever the ultimate size of your cat, don't lose sight of the fact that his overall health and well-being are of prime importance.