Behaviour Development in Kittens

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

When a new little pet kitten joins your family there is lots of excitement ahead. It is so interesting and such a great pastime to watch them grow up. The physical changes are quite dramatic. They go from a cuddly little creature, speaking in a high pitched squeak that can fit in one hand to a mature well coordinated, confident adult in not many months. They have special dietary needs, get vaccinations, and may have surgery throughout this period depending on their age and the physical changes we see happening.

Most cat owners know much less about how a cat grows up behaviourally. Yet the same kind of rapid changes are occurring in this aspect of their development. There are also some things that cat owners should be aware of, in this regard, in order to be sure their pet becomes an adult with a healthy behaviour..

From a kitten's birth until it is 2 weeks old is considered the neonatal period of its life. As far as behaviour development is concerned, a kitten is learning to orient toward sound. Their eyes usually open at about 2 weeks of age. Competition with their siblings for rank and territory begins. If they are taken away from their mother and littermates at this time, it can lead to poor learning skills, and aggression toward people and other pets, including other cats.

From the time a kitten is 2 weeks until 7 weeks old is considered the primary socialization period. By 3 weeks of age a kitten's smell is well developed and they can find their mother by sight. When they are 4 weeks old, their sense of smell is fully mature and hearing is well developed. They become more interactive with their littermates. Their sight is fully mature by 5 weeks of age. They can right themselves, run, place their feet precisely, avoid obstacles, stalk and pounce and follow prey with their eyes. Self-grooming begins in earnest and they will also groom others. By 6 and 7 weeks of age, kittens begin to develop adult sleeping patterns, motor skills and social interaction.

Kittens that are well-socialized during this stage of their life are more likely to well-socialized cats in adulthood. Their mother's calm or fearful attitude to people will influence a kitten significantly. It will be helpful if kittens, at this stage, can have petting, talking and playing assist to build their "people skills'. It has been reported that kittens who are handled 15-40 minutes a day during the first 7 weeks are more likely to develop larger brains, are more exploratory, more playful and better learners.

Kittens enter their most active play period when they are between 7 and 14 weeks old. Play increases their physical coordination and social skills. Learning from the observation of their mother is considered to be very important. Social play activities can include belly-ups, hugging, ambushing and licking. Kittens will scoop, toss, paw and mouth and hold objects in playing. Tail chasing, pouncing, leaping and dancing is classed as both social and object play.

When they are 3-6 months old, kittens are most affected by playing with littermates or any companions of other species they contact regularly. They start to use ranking in their activities with others. They are considered to be adolescents when they are between 6-18 months. They are more explorative and show more independence. Sexual behaviour will first be demonstrated at this time.

It is interesting to note that the concept of taking a puppy to classes to aid in their socialization is well established. It is very likely many of the same benefits could be derived with similar efforts to socialize and train kittens, to help them grow up to be happy, well-balanced cats that fit into our society. However, it is only recently that animal behaviourists are recommending such classes be established for kittens. The American Association of Feline Practitioners has guidelines and information for anyone interested in starting such training programs for cats.
It is also important to remember a cat's mind remains receptive to new experiences and lessons and can learn and acquire new skills when it is well beyond  kitten-hood.