What Happens The First Eight Weeks of Life Shapes Your Kitten’s Adult Personality

By Jennie K. Willis, PhD  as printed in the Coloradoan in April 2013

The grass is green, the air is getting warmer and for shelters and rescue groups that means one thing.  It’s kitten season. When adopting a kitten at eight weeks old, many owners think they are starting with a blank slate. However, many features of a kitten’s personality are formed before they go to their forever home. Understanding the important aspects of kitten development early on can help kittens grow into well socialized and stable adults.

Kittens are born with eyes closed and their hearing is poorly developed at birth.  In contrast, their sense of smell is functional on the first day to help locate mom and her milk.  From two to seven weeks of age is a critical time for kitten social development.  During this period they form relationships with mom, their littermates and human caregivers.  If they have not had adequate exposure to these situations, they become avoidant and fearful of new people and other cats.   Kittens bond strongly to their mother and being separated from her is very stressful.   If they are weaned early, the kittens don’t finish their oral development and may display unusual sucking behaviors later in comfort seeking situations.    It is important to leave kittens with their mother and littermates for at least eight weeks.

If you are caring for a litter of kittens you can do these things to help your kittens in later life:

  • Feed a diet rich in omega fatty acids, especially DHA to a lactating mom and her kittens when they are ready.  This is important for brain growth and development and has been shown to improve learning ability in young animals.
  • Physically stimulate each kitten for a minimum of fifteen minutes a day starting as young as possible. Touch them all over their body, in between their toes, in their ears and mouth.   This will and improves their bond with humans and decreases reactivity and nervousness as adults.
  • Expose each kitten to different surfaces, sounds and temperatures.   Turn them over so they get used to being upside down and on their sides.  This creates more adaptable strategies for handling change later on and helps their overall brain development.
  • Feed orphan kittens from a bottle, not just for nutrients but for fulfillment of oral development and bonding with you.
  • Teach them how to learn.  Develop a bond with them through play and teach them a trick.

For a variety of reasons, kittens are presented to shelters at a very young age, often without their mother.    Since most are too young to stay at the in that environment, shelters need volunteers to open their homes and hearts to care for kittens in foster care.  If you love cats and have wanted to enjoy kittens without adopting another cat, call your local shelter and see if they need foster homes.  It’s a wonderful way to help save lives!

Dr. Jennie Willis is an instructor of animal behavior at Colorado State University and owns a private consulting business, which provides counseling for problem pets and their people. For more information about consultation, seminars and classes please visit www.AnimalBehaviorInsights.com


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