Dervish, our orange-and-white kitten, was doing push-paws on the metal examination table. “Look at that,” the veterinarian said. “See him kneading the table? That means he left his mother too early.”
My husband, Tim, and I glanced at the kitten, then at each other. We had no idea how old Derv really was — we’d gotten him from someone who, we suspected, wasn’t exactly on speaking terms with the truth. But our vet’s comment stuck with us.
As it turned out, the kitten did have a biting problem, which Tim cured him of. Derv grew into a large, easygoing cat who lived long and prospered.
The Mom-Cat Factor
These days, it’s generally agreed that a kitten shouldn’t leave his mother until he’s 12–13 weeks old. Yes, the queen begins weaning her offspring around week 4, and the kittens can survive on their own at 6 weeks.
But the weaning process isn’t completed until week 12. Cutting it short could, says writer Jennifer M. Cline, leads to wool-sucking.
The mother–kitten bond is important in many other ways. Mom will train the kitten how to use the litter box and how to socialize. “Spending time with their mother cat and their sibling kittens will help your new kitten, especially if your kitten will be living with other felines,” Cline explains.
A kitten figures out how to deal with people and other animals by watching and copying her mom. This is also the time for her to bond with her siblings.
“By playing with her litter mates, a kitten begins her journey in understanding social cues,” notes Pamela Miller. “If this important window of time is missed and she is taken from her mother and litter mates too soon, a timid and fearful personality may result.”
In rescue work, you frequently come across kittens without mothers. The queen has died or gotten spooked. Sometimes she has even abandoned her babies. This is when you break out the eye dropper and special nursing formula and become their surrogate mom.
Hand-reared kittens don’t always have the best reputation: They are clingy and have this annoying habit of trying to nurse on their humans. They play rough and bite, as Derv did.
John Bradshaw, the author of Cat Sense, says, “Hand-raised kittens are either excessively bonded to their human owners” or are “so aggressive that other kittens actively avoid them.” Kittens who are “hand-raised on their own behave abnormally toward other cats, and kittens hand-raised alongside a littermate less so — nevertheless, all display a bizarre combination of fascination and fear on encountering another cat.”
Frankly, this seems to be putting it a little strongly. And from talking with people who have hand-reared kittens, I don’t think this is always the case.
Check out these helpful tips on feeding kittens using a bottle:
Take Rocky, for instance. The 1-day-old kitten was found with his 2 litter mates behind a hot tub lid leaning against a wall. The mother was nowhere in sight. After waiting a reasonable amount of time to see if she’d come back, veteran cat rescuer Karen Waldron brought the kittens home and began dropper-feeding them every 2 hours.
The other kittens died, but Rocky hung in there. “Rocky was the fighter,” Waldron says. “I mean, he had a will to live ever since the first day I picked him up.” Under her vigilant care, he thrived.
She did worry about his socialization, though, “and tried to make a bunch of kitten ‘play dates,’ but they always fell through.” So she made sure that the kitten was “exposed to my other cats right away.” Angus, her young black cat, bonded with the newcomer.
As Rocky grew, Waldron put him in a child’s Pack ’n Play bassinet and covered it with netting so he could see the other cats. “Papa Angus,” not wanting to be separated from his ward, would stretch out under the bassinet.
In time, the other felines “adopted” the kitten, too. So Rocky’s new cat family supplied all the socialization that his mother and litter mates never had a chance to.
Raising Them Right
Kittens who are orphaned or separated from their moms too early can develop behavioral quirks and not have all their social signals straight.
But the good news? This can be turned around. As the Humane Society points out, “a cat’s mind remains receptive to new experiences and lessons well beyond kittenhood. Most are still kittens in mind and body, through the first 2 years of life.”