BEHAVIOR & TRAINING

When Can Kittens Leave Their Mother: Preparing Them to Step Out of Their Comfort Zone

cat and kittens
Martha Harvey
Written by Martha Harvey

When can kittens leave their mother? This is one question that cat lovers often ask. It is especially common among cat owners with unspayed queens and animal minders in shelters where cat litters are common. Other times, you may have encountered a feral or stray with her litter nearby and are probably wondering if there is anything you can do to help. So, when should the separation be done and how does one go about it?

First of all, there is no set age on when the separation should be done. However, a kitten is typically ready to leave his mother at about 8 to 12 weeks of age. The time varies from one kitten to another since several factors come to play. We have collected all the information you need to know about kittens between the time of their birth to the time when they are considered ready to leave their mother, for your perusal.

In this article, we cover in great detail each factor that will determine the ability of the kitten to lead a normal life in the absence of his mother and littermates. We also have a section dedicated to explaining how you can help usher in the separation process, if it’s taking longer than it should.

Factors that Determine the Time of Separation

The first weeks of a cat’s life are important in ensuring a healthy and fulfilled life thereafter. It’s during this time that a kitten learns to interact with his environment—from his mother to his siblings, other pets, and the humans around him.

He also has to develop resistance to feline diseases, learn survival skills, and exact dominance in the household. This is, however, a gradual process and takes different paths for each kitten.

Below are several factors that affect when a kitten will be ready to leave his mother.

#1: The Developmental Stage

cat and her kittens

Kittens should not be taken away from their mothers early in life. This is because they are born quite helpless and with almost non-existent survival capabilities. For starters, they are born without fully developed senses of sight and hearing. However, they come with a fully developed sense of smell, and they can also feel their way around by skin contact.

With their eyes shut and no way of differentiating sounds, a newborn is left at the mercy of his minders, and most importantly, his mother. During these formative weeks, a mother stays close to her kittens to ensure their safety. Just like she would in the wild, the mother will fight off anything, including you and other pets that she feels might pose a danger to her babies.

She also provides warmth to her litter since newborns cannot fully regulate their body temperature. The litter needs round the clock suckling which the mother provides. For up to three days after birth, they get to feed on colostrum, which is rich in immunoglobulins, the antibodies responsible for defense against diseases.

Feeding directly from the mother helps in accelerating growth and development, including adding on weight and strengthening muscles. Under these conditions, kittens start to open their eyes, and the ears begin to unfold. By the end of the first three weeks, the sensory organs and motor skills are well improved, enabling kittens to move around more comfortably.

The mother also plays a big role in helping her young ones to eliminate waste. She uses her tongue to stimulate the anal area. She also helps in acclimatizing her kitties to life with humans by guiding them to her minders.

The development stage continues to about eight weeks of age. By then the kittens weigh as much as 2 pounds and already resemble adult felines. They are well versed at socialization and have a complete set of 26 baby teeth. They are also ready to be neutered or spayed and can comfortably be separated from their mother and siblings to start a life of their own.

#2: Weaning

Weaning is an important growth factor for any young one. It helps in ushering newborns to a world of foods other than their mother’s milk. For cats, this happens naturally at about 8 to 10 weeks.

Kittens will depend on the mother’s milk for all their nutritional needs until the age of 4 weeks. Afterwards they will start munching on whatever is on the mother’s feeding bowl or any treats that they can get their mouth on.

Nature has weaning covered by ensuring that milk from the mother continues to decrease, and significantly so, from 4 weeks after giving birth. This forces the kittens to start experimenting on other foods to get their fill.

During this time, you can hasten the process by providing your kitty with milk substitute. It’s also advisable to feed him with different types of food during the weaning period. This enables him to develop a taste for various foods which will be beneficial throughout his life.

Natural weaning is an important part of a kitten’s development and should not be unduly rushed. That said, the process should be complete by the time a kitten is 10 weeks old, although in some rare cases, it can take up to 12 weeks. You should, therefore, make sure that a kitten is well used to taking cat food before taking him away from his mother.

See Also: How to Wean Kittens

#3: Grooming

cat grooming

Grooming may appear as an innate behavior in cats, but this can’t be further from the truth. The art is passed down from a mother to her kittens at their infancy. The behavior is learned by observing what the mother does when she is cleaning herself as well as when she is grooming her babies.

Grooming does more than keeping your fur baby clean. It maintains a healthy coat by stimulating the production of sebum, an oily secretion responsible for lubricating and waterproofing the fur. Grooming also helps to remove dirt and parasites like fleas. It also helps to remove loose hair to keep hair from knotting, especially in breeds with long coats.

Self-grooming is sometimes inadequate in that a cat is not able to reach all the places. This is where mutual grooming comes into play. Littermates learn to groom each other by following what the mother does to them. This enables them to clean hard to reach parts of the body like the head, the neck, and anal regions.

Mutual grooming also plays a big role in enhancing social interactions. Grooming each other helps in fostering comfort, love, and most of all, companionship. This enables your kitty to groom you as a way of welcoming you to his family. This he does by licking your hair, arms, and even clothes in an attempt to make you clean, just like he would clean his own littermates.

If a kitten is separated before adopting this life lessons, he may have a hard time interacting with you and other cats in your household. It may also result in destructive grooming behavior, which involves excessive licking and pulling out fur or scratching the skin to the point of drawing blood.

It’s therefore paramount that a kitten stays long enough in his nest to learn grooming. A kitten will have learned self-grooming by the time he is 4 to 5 weeks old. Mutual grooming takes time to master, and the trait is learned by the time the litter is about 7 to 8 weeks old.

As a precaution though, a kitten who is lagging behind in learning the art should be left to stay longer with the mother until he is able to groom himself and others comfortably.

#4: Socialization

A kitten starts taking on new experiences at the age of 3 weeks and continues to learn. This entails exploring his environment and socializing with both the mother and his littermates to build confidence and become friendly. When a kitten is poorly socialized, he can develop aggressive behavior.

At the end of the 12-13 weeks period, he should have learned enough from others to build some independence and should, therefore, be ready for separation. Note that this period should not be extended to more than 14 weeks as this could also make the kitten too comfortable and start dreading any new relationships.

#5: Litter Box Training

kitten in a litter box

By the time they are separated from their mother, most kittens will have learned how to use the litter box. Kittens learn from their mothers through observation, and so a mother who uses the litter box is likely to teach her kittens the same. This usually happens at the age of 3-4 weeks.

It is important to note, however, that a mother would still require a private litter box for her use. The kittens, on the other hand, require a litter box with short walls to ease the training process. For the litter, it is advisable to use the natural, unscented and non-clumping kind since some of it may end up in the kittens’ stomachs out of curiosity.

While the initial stages of litter box training may be messy, kittens will learn with time. If the kitten is still not able to use the litter box by the time of separation, this should not be a reason to delay the process as he can still be trained away from the mother.

It is possible that a change in environment, location of the litter box, or even a change of litter will necessitate a ‘refresher course’ anyway.

#6: Hunting

Although hunting is not a major trait requirement in pets, you never know when the skill might become important for your cat. Some breeds like the American Shorthair, the Maine Coon, and the Siberian are excellent hunters. However, like other breeds, they too need the skill to be honed at a young age.

Mothers carry out this important task by actively teaching their kittens. This is in contrast to motherless kittens, who have to resort to observing adult cats hunting. The lessons start at about 5 to 6 weeks of age. To begin with, the mother brings dead mice back to the nest and eats it while the kittens watch. This establishes that mice are prey and are safe to be eaten.

The curious nature of cats leads the young ones joining in on the feast. With time they learn to play around with the dead mice by tossing them around. They also learn to playfully pounce and steal the prey from each other. What starts as play soon becomes an important skill especially if they are in the wild.

After the dead mice, the mother brings half dead ones. She releases them and lets the kittens continue playing around just as they did with the dead ones. Next comes live and healthy mice who can run for their lives. By then the kittens have developed stamina and are able to excitedly run after the mice.

During the first few days of live mouse play, the prey will usually outrun the excited kitties, but the mother will always be nearby to swat the mouse back into the play.

As the lesson progresses, the kittens develop better instincts at intercepting live mice, and the pros among them start getting the lion’s share of the prey. Eventually, the kittens are taken to a real hunt. The mother chooses a spot with plenty of mice and lets the kittens have a go at catching them.

Although some kittens will still observe the mother for tips, most usually develop their own hunting skills by the time they are ready to be on their own. This allows them to become excellent hunters of their own right.

#7: The Readiness of the Mother to Let Go

kitten in grass

The queen is naturally programmed to nurture her kittens’ independence in order for them to survive away from her. All the above processes are meant to make this happen easily.

When the kittens are old enough (8-12 weeks) it is likely that the mother will start to let go of them and recover from the separation. Gradual separation allows the mother’s milk to dry off with ease as opposed to a sudden one which would make the mammary glands painfully engorged with milk and probably infected with mastitis.

#8: Interaction with Humans

From the time a kitten can see clearly, he will notice that humans are a different species from them. This can lead to initial aggression towards humans. They will hiss and try to scratch anyone that tries to hold them—unless the mother intervenes. As earlier noted, mothers will naturally bring the kittens from the nest and guide them to their minders.

This effectively establishes humans as safe to be around. Kittens also get to observe as humans play with the mother without harming her. This allows them to view you as a friend and not an adversary or prey.

Once the trust is established, it’s upon you to make it stick. This can be done by picking up the young ones, in the presence of the mother, for about two minutes and stroking them gently. At first, they will be frightened, but repeating the friendly gesture a few times every day will make them get used to humans.

#9: Vaccinations

kitten vaccination

Kittens get major defense against diseases from antibodies found in the mother’s milk. The antibodies are, however, not sufficient to last them for the rest of their lives.

Natural immunity has to be strengthened using vaccinations. Some of these are administered while the kitten is still in the process of weaning, which helps in keeping infectious diseases that may arise amongst littermates at bay.

While kittens who have been vaccinated should be tagged or come with proper medical records, it’s possible to unknowingly adopt some who have skipped vaccinations. This can be avoided by going for kitties from reputable breeders. It’s also advisable to get kittens who have suckled on their mother long enough—at least for 8 weeks.

At the same time, only separate kittens who have undergone core vaccinations. These are cats who have been vaccinated against diseases found in the general cat populations, such as feline panleukopenia, feline rhinotracheitis, and feline calicivirus. Kittens are usually protected against these diseases in the first round of vaccinations when they are about 6 or 8 weeks old.

Vaccinations continue every month after the first round until the kittens are about 16 weeks old. By then they will have been vaccinated against core diseases, rabies, leukemia, and other common feline diseases.

See Also: Cat Vaccination Schedule

Tips to Usher in the Separation Process

kitten in blanket

When all conditions are favorable for the kittens to leave the mother’s side, the goal should be to ensure that everyone involved will transition into the new life easily and happily. That is, the mother learns to live without her babies, the kittens learn to cope without their mother and fit into their new life seamlessly, and the new kitten’s owner gets a good start with the new fur baby.

This is, however, not a one-time thing; it is a process that requires consistency and patience. Below are a few tips to help you with the process.

  • Let the kittens use a familiar blanket in the new home. The familiar scent can come in handy during the adjustment process.

  • Do a ‘scent introduction’ before separation. Since kittens are so scent oriented, familiarizing them with the new owner can be as simple as placing his/her clothing in the kitten’s bed or favorite place. By the time the kitten moves, he will already be used to his owner’s scent.

  • Help the mother cope with the separation by removing anything that contains her kittens’ scent. Any lingering scent may remind her of the need to check on them and lead to anxiety when she can’t find them. An absence of the scent, on the other hand, will help her adjust.

Wrap Up

cat licking her kitten

At some point in their lives, kittens will need to be separated from their mother. The mother cat is naturally capable of training her kittens on the fundamentals of cat life such as feeding, grooming, eliminating, hunting, socialization, and survival among others. Your input, however, helps in enhancing the entire process.

The process should be allowed to take its natural course and should in no way be hurried. While there is no set time for doing this, kittens will have achieved the above skills at the age of between 8-12 weeks.

This is usually considered an appropriate time for them to leave their mother. The separation should be done in such a way that the mother, the kittens, and the prospective owners get to have an easy time while adjusting.

Have you managed to successfully separate kittens from their mother? Fill us in on any tips that we may have missed. If you are in the process and you have any concerns, we would like to hear all about it. For this and more, leave us your comments below. Next, check out our article on how to make kitten pacifier, in case your newly weaned feline friend needs it to cope.

About the author
Martha Harvey
Martha Harvey

Martha Harvey is a skilled veterinarian and a member of American Veterinary Medical Association from Greeley, Colorado. She has 20 years experience of working in Animal Hospital. Martha loves all of her patients, but her favorite one is the Russian Blue cat Stitch, who lives with her.

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