Understanding the stages of development in cats will go a long way toward raising an intelligent feline.
Most people who call my cat shelter are looking for a kitten… the younger the better. The common
belief is that the youngest ones will bond more satisfactorily with the new family or owner, and that they will more easily learn the routine at their new home.
However, the next question is always, “Is it litter box trained?”
Somehow, people expect what is basically an infant to be well trained to minimize any potential for
accidents, as well as socialized for human contact, yet naive enough to fit in with the members of a new family, with no issues to resolve.
This is a rather tall order for a baby!
Human infants are expected to wear diapers until they are about 2 years old, and are not expected to know many words until they are 5 or so. Kittens, however, are expected to be “potty trained” before the timeline set by Nature. (Fortunately, this behavior comes quite naturally.) Then they are expected to learn things rapidly so they bond with the new family and their home routines. In effect, they are expected to know things they aren’t yet able to comprehend. Some people think instincts are a form intelligence in animals. In a way, that might be a valid concept, but animals are not driven by instinct alone. Their ability to learn is affected by the conditions in which they must live.
When we consider the normal stages of development of the kitten as it becomes a cat, perhaps one can learn to be patient with their “new baby” at home:
From birth to 2 weeks, kittens’ eyes are just opening, usually around 10 days. They follow sound, and are completely dependent on their mothers. If separated from her now, they will become slow learners in life, and often will be aggressive toward people and other pets.
During the 3rd week, they are able to locate things by sight and smell, especially their mother.
Four weeks: Sense of smell is well developed, as is hearing. They can walk pretty well and begin playing with their littermates.
Five weeks: They are playing vigorously now, which is part of their schedule for learning the various skills they will need as adults, such as pouncing, stalking and running. At this point, they are also learning how to use their feet, as cats are masters of balancing and grasping. Their claws are essential equipment now. They also begin grooming themselves during this stage, as well as each other. Shared grooming is a social mechanism that helps them learn to bond with others. Removing the kitten from its mother and siblings now interrupts this process and they may not learn how to form relationships. This may explain why some cats never accept a companion or a new pet in the home later in life. They never learned that skill!
From 7 to 14 weeks is the stage where they are most active, where playing is not just for fun, but for learning the valuable skills they will need as adults. This is a critical time in a kitten’s life, and appropriate toys are essential if they are not playing with a littermate. Separation from their mother and siblings at this stage is very common, and the new owners must understand the essential use of playtime, grooming and gentle handling.
From 3 to 6 months of age, kittens are learning about the “totem pole,” that is, their social ranking. They may become aggressive if necessary for survival due to rough handling either by humans and/or by other pets, such as dogs or larger cats who may see them as intruders.
At this age, kittens may be regarded as “teenagers,” a time when they experience new feelings, especially those associated with the onset of puberty. If not spayed or neutered at this time, they will begin trying to dominate others in the home, including the humans.
This is normal and is quite necessary in the “wild” for survival. But your home is not a wild place… or shouldn’t be… and dominance should not be needed for survival. By this time, they should trust their humans completely, but it must be earned. Cats, more so than dogs, will not respect a human who mistreats them. They will become distant, living up to the perception that cats are aloof, and may even become aggressive with all or most members of the home.
Treating a new kitten with respect, gentleness and love, along with proper nutrition, will result in having a loving, well adjusted and smart cat!