A kitten is arguably the cutest thing in the world!
But did you know the “Awww!” feeling you experience around kittens, is down to an oxytocin rush? Oxytocin is the hormone a nursing mother releases when she sees her baby, and its nature’s way of bonding them. So if you’re a sucker for cute kittens and find them irresistible, it’s all down to hormones!
Aside from being enchantingly cute, kittens are a marvel of biological engineering. In the space of eight short weeks a newborn kitten goes from blind, deaf dependence on the mother, to a miniature stalking, swatting, and scooping huntress.
Let’s take a look at their remarkable development in more detail.
Birth to Two Weeks
After around 65 days cosy in the comfort of the womb, kittens are born deaf, blind, and dependent. They are so helpless they can’t regulate their own body temperature and need to snuggle up to their mum to keep warm.
And if you thought changing nappies was bad, spare a thought for the mother cat. She licks her kittens’ backsides to stimulate them to pee and poo, and then washes away the evidence. This is a clever survival strategy as it prevents the kittens fouling the nest, which could attract a predator’s attention.
Can you guess which is a newborn kitten’s strongest sense? If you guessed, their sense of smell you’re correct.
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At birth a kitten’s sense of smell is so highly developed they can match the smell of the mother’s saliva on their own coat (where she licked them dry after birth) to the saliva on her fur (from grooming). It is this smell that draws the newborns along a saliva-scent trail to find a nipple for that first milky drink.
Through a Newborn Kitten’s Eyes
A newborn kitten’s eyes are at the same stage of development as a five-month old human foetus in the womb. The kitten’s eyes develop rapidly after birth, and open on average eight days later. And just three days after that (11 days) the kitten can recognize their mother.
As it turns out, there are several factors that influence if the eyes open earlier or later than average. So for the trivia lovers amongst you, here are the observations of a group of scientists who watch kittens for a living. (Wouldn’t that be the best job in the world?)
- The eyes of female kittens open earlier than male kittens.
- Kittens from a young mother open their eyes sooner than those born to a mature queen.
- Kittens reared in the dark, open their eyes earlier than those reared in light.
- Early handling leads to earlier eye opening.
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Let’s Hear it for Kittens
Much like the eyes, a kitten’s ears are only partially developed at birth. The ear canals are closed and start to open around day nine after birth. However, even before those ears are officially ‘open’ the kitten can sense sound and move towards familiar noises such as the mother’s cry. By around three to four weeks the kitten can distinguish sounds such as the individual squeaks of littermates.
Anyone who has been fortunate enough to be closely involved with a litter of kittens knows one of the absolute joys is watching them play. This can start from as early as two weeks, when the kitten first becomes aware of their awesome paws and indulge in what scientists call ‘self-play’, or what we know as batting things about.
By three weeks they move onto social play, which basically means jumping on each other. In the early stages this play has the important job of building muscular strength, and leads to improved co-ordination and the beginnings of knowing whether it’s socially acceptable to rough up your brother or not.
From four to 16 weeks, this play becomes more earnest and is about equipping the youngster with the hunting skills necessary to survive in the wild. This kitten play has a range of names and is referred to as stalking, chasing, ambushing, wrestling, climbing, pouncing, swatting, scooping and leaping.
Of course we all know cats are special, and science is inclined to agree with us. Felines are one of the few species that learn to problem solve through observation. This means from nine to ten weeks of age young kittens watch their mother and start problem solving by following her example – which brings us to socialisation.
For a cute kitten to make a great pet, it all depends on their first two to nine weeks of life. This is the socialisation period during which they accept what they see as normal. During this precious window of opportunity the kittens need to meet as many different people as possible, and be exposed to a wide variety of sounds, from vacuum cleaners to hairdryers, in order to make a bombproof adult cat.
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So kittens really do need you to help socialise them! If you can’t foster kittens in your home, why not try volunteering. Many animal shelters need kitten handlers to help the kittens in their care grow up to become well-adjusted adult cats.
Have you raised newborn or very young kittens? Please share your experiences.