Veterinary column: Kittens need nurturing during development
Integrative Pet Vet
Kittens, like puppies, need to be nurtured in specific ways during their development to avoid behavior challenges later in life. Some authorities believe that kittens learn to become cats from their mothers and siblings before they are 8 weeks old.
Further, behavior lessons not learned during this time may never be learned. The socialization period occurs when kittens are very young. This period can have a significant impact on later life experiences.
Kittens are born completely dependent; they cannot regulate their own body temperature, they cannot see or hear, and they cannot move more than a few inches without assistance. They progress from this beginning to become incredibly athletic individuals that have sensitive hearing, ability to see in very low light conditions and have a heightened sense of smell.
The foundation for this transformation occurs in a few short weeks. Tactile sensitivity and sense of smell are present at birth and are important for locating the nipple during nursing. Purring begins on day two. Eyelids open by two weeks. Smell becomes well developed by three weeks. Teeth erupt during week four, and kittens can orientate to sounds. Walking and running skills improve during weeks four and five, and kittens can begin to stalk and pounce. Weaning is completed by weeks six to eight. Motor skills continue to improve and reach maturation at about weeks 10-11.
The period for socialization in cats is much earlier than dogs. This period starts in week two when eyes and ears open and are functioning. Some advocate handling kittens gently for a few minutes several times per day starting in the second week and gradually increasing the time as the kittens continue to age.
Make sure that the mother is accepting of this handling. Handling kittens for only 15 minutes per day from birth to 12-14 weeks of age produces kittens that are more interested in people. Interestingly, in one study, handling kittens for 40 minutes per day resulted in kittens that would more enthusiastically approach people and stay in their laps longer than kittens handled for 15 minutes per day.
Another benefit of handling kittens regularly from birth to 45 days is that they appear to be more confident later in life. They will approach unfamiliar objects rapidly and spend more time with the objects when they are four to seven months of age. Kittens handled by numerous people from five and a half to nine and a half weeks show less fear and more interest in people later.
Ideally, kittens should be handled by men, women and children so that they form a general picture of the human race. Kittens exposed to only one gender have a tendency to be fearful of the other gender.
It is essential to recognize the importance of the mother cat in the socialization process. Studies show that kittens separated from the mother at two weeks are fearful and aggressive to other cats and humans. They also appear to learn poorly. Social play between kittens is also critical and begins during weeks three and four. A well-socialized kitten should also be exposed safely to other species. Kittens exposed safely to another species, such as a dog, at four weeks, will show no fear of the other species when the kitten reaches 12 weeks.
It is clear from the research that gentle handling of kittens early in life is important for later quality of life. In addition, with the rapid growth and developmental changes that occur with kittens, quality, balanced nutrition is essential. Foods that contain nutrients that benefit brain development and function may provide added benefits. For example, fish oil and B complex vitamins have been shown to support brain development. Preventive health care for intestinal parasites and vaccinations should be used to avoid periods of illness during these important growth and development stages.
If you have questions about your kitten, contact your veterinarian.
Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. In addition to his doctor of veterinary medicine, he holds a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and is a certified veterinary acupuncturist and certified canine rehabilitation therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.
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