Raising kittens

As a foster parent of young kittens, you have a wonderful opportunity to make sure your foster kittens get off on the right paw in life! Raising a kitten is a serious commitment. It takes time and effort to raise a confident, friendly cat. We are thrilled that you are up to the task!

Environment Needed to Raise Kittens

The ideal environment for raising a litter of kittens should be large enough to allow for adequate separation of food, water, litterbox and a sleeping space. The room should be temperature controlled so that kittens do not get too warm or too cold. Kittens (and mom if she is with her litter) need to have hiding options and vertical space. A comfortable sleeping space with a soft bed or blanket (possibly inside a hiding area like a cardboard box) is recommended, as well as having different surfaces (carpet, grass, tile, and wood) for the kittens to walk on and get used to. Objects for scratching are important, you will want to include both horizontal and vertical scratching objects and offer different surfaces such as cardboard, sisal rope, carpet, etc. Toys should also be included, such as ball type toys, real fur mice toys, mylar/foil ball toys. If using strings, wand toys or other toys that could be ingested, they should be put away when you are not supervising the cat or kittens. As they are growing, food toys that encourage foraging and hunting for their food should be encouraged. The main idea is that cats and kittens should have as much choice and control in their environment as possible. Ideally, kittens will remain with their mother until 10-12 weeks of age, if possible.

Developmental Stages and What to Do During Each

Developmental stages generally overlap and do not begin/end at specific points. They are very dynamic and continual. Some kittens may start/end different stages at different times, but the categories below are what you will see in the average kitten. Research shows that kittens who are not given appropriately enriched environments and socialization during early development are less able to cope with normal life situations. All behavior patterns require nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) to develop. Appropriate stress in small amounts can be beneficial and produce adult cats who can cope with stress and respond confidently when they are in a less than perfect situation. On the flip side, too much stress can cause anxiety. It is critically important that we get it right to help make sure we encourage the development of confident and appropriate cats. The tips below will help you do just that.

Birth – 2 Weeks (Neonatal Stage)

Sensory Development

  • Newborn kittens do little but eat and sleep as they cannot yet see or hear. Their external ear begins to open between 1-2 weeks old. They begin to orient toward sound starting around 1 week old. Their tactile response is present at birth. The sense of smell is highly developed at birth; they show avoidance to offensive odors by day 2. They can purr starting around day 2. Pain response is observed by day 4.

  • They also cannot regulate their own body temperature and need to be kept warm. You will need to provide an appropriate and safe heat source. Empty water or pop bottles (small ones – not two liter bottles that can crush a kitten) filled with hot water and wrapped in a towel work well, microwaveable heating pads and plug in heating pads work also. Be careful when using heating pads or other heat sources, it is important to ensure that the heating source is not too hot which could hurt the kittens.

Nutrition and Feeding

  • If you have kittens without a mother, you will need to bottle feed them on a regular schedule to provide appropriate nourishment. Kittens are born with a suckling reflex that is strongest after waking. They generally will nurse on their mom for about 8 hours/day for the first few weeks. Generally, mom will initiate the feeding during this phase. Nipple preference is developed by day 3. Olfaction guides them to the preferred nipple.

  • Kittens generally double birth weight by one week old, triple birth weight by two weeks old, quadruple by three weeks old.

Elimination Behaviors

  • You will also need to stimulate them to eliminate by using a warm, moist cotton ball or paper towel to gently rub their anal/genital region, just enough to stimulate urination and/or defecation. This should be done regularly after feeding. They will be able to eliminate on their own sometime in week 3.

2-3 Weeks (Transitional Stage)

Sensory Development

  • Kittens begin to see and hear during this time, although their senses are very crude and not well developed until much later (about 8 weeks old). Eyes open between 1-2 weeks old.

  • Their motor skills will start to develop also. They will be walking between 2-3 weeks old. Their sense of smell is mature by 3 weeks old.

  • They also develop the ability to regulate their body temperature starting at week 3 and are fully able to do so by week 7.

Social Development

  • By the end of the third week, social relationships start to form. You should start to gently hold the kittens at least twice daily to start to familiarize them with the scent and feel of humans – if possible a variety of humans: children (supervised and age-appropriate for safety of fragile kittens, never leave children unattended with kittens) and men in particular. They begin to approach specific people and/or littermates at about 2-3 weeks old. Kittens (and cats) prefer to be held firmly, but not tightly and prefer gentle stroking to patting.

  • Kittens raised with other kittens are more stressed when alone. It is especially important that kittens between 2-4 weeks of age have littermates to help calm them in strange surroundings. Being alone is a skill that you should work on later as the kittens develop.

  • Self play begins at 2 weeks old (batting objects).

  • Kittens separated early from mom are more likely to develop decreased response/recovery rate when stressed and show increased emotionality.

  • Hand-reared/orphaned kittens show decreased bite inhibition and are generally rougher in play than those raised with other kittens.

Environmental Enrichment/Play

  • Start to expose them to environmental sounds (vacuum cleaners, TVs (ESPN is great for male voices, cheering crowds and buzzers/whistles, etc.). Likewise, when they start to investigate these new things (sounds, sights, etc.) allow them to investigate and interact with them as much as is safely possible.

Nutrition and Feeding

  • Nursing begins to change from mom-initiated solely to more initiation by kittens. By end of week 5, it is generally 50% kitten-initiated. Some of this is because milk teeth erupt between 2-5 weeks old (adult teeth start erupting around 3.5 months old)

  • Malnutrition has significant effect on development. Increases reaction to external stimuli, decreases responsiveness to other cats. Malnourished moms often have kittens with poor brain/physical development, increased aggressive playfulness in males, increased climbing behavior in females, increased vocalizations and decreased bonding in moms. Severe deprivation permanently affects learning capacity

3-9 Weeks (Socialization Stage)

This period is sometimes called a “critical period” because it is so important to the behavioral development of the individual. Experiences during this period have a strong influence and longlasting effect on the cat’s future personality and temperament.

Sensory Development

  • Sound recognition of littermates or people begins around 3-4 weeks old which is coordinated with mature hearing and appearance of their defense response (the Halloween cat!) that stabilizes by week 5. Kittens recognize unique individual vocal patterns by week 9. Their hearing range is similar to humans.

  • Kittens’ eyesight continues to develop during this phase but will not reach adult sight capacity until about 2-4 months of age. Their depth perception, however, is well developed by 4 weeks of age. Because cats use up to 5-% more available light than humans and have a larger visual field, they need light stimulation to develop normal vision. The most important time to have access to normal light cycles is between 4-5 weeks old. Cats are dichromatic meaning they see mostly only the yellow/blue and green wavelengths. They do have binocular vision which makes them good hunters – they see motion very well. They do not see details as humans do – their visual acuity is only about 10% of humans’ sight! Cross-eyed cats often are identified by 6-8 weeks old; have trouble locating objects in space due to decreased binocular vision compared to normal cats.

  • Smell is very important to cats. They use it to identify individuals and acquire information about their environment. Their nasal area and olfactory bulb in their brain are bigger than humans but smaller than in dogs. As early as 6 weeks old the Flehmen response is present. They open their mouth and breathe in/out forcefully to force odor into their vomeronasal organ.

  • Kittens display adult locomotion patterns by 7 weeks old. They begin climbing between 3-6 weeks old. Their eye-paw coordination matures between 7-11 weeks old. They have the ability to “right” themselves in air between 3-7 weeks old. Around 8 weeks of age they start to change their preferred location from their “nest” area to wherever mom is at the time. They also can retract their claws starting in week 3.

Social Development

  • Primary social bonds are formed during this period. Mom starts to become progressively less important to the kittens as they begin to form relationships with one another and others in their environments. It is very important that kittens are introduced to various social partners like humans and dogs (for example). It is necessary to introduce them to non-cats between weeks 36. The weeks where the most impact overall is seen socially is between weeks 5-7. Research shows that kittens handled by humans between 5-7 weeks of age show a decreased fear of strangers. Cats socialized with people are friendlier to unfamiliar people, show decreased signs of distress when approached by strangers. It is important that there are multiple people handling the kittens – just one person is not enough to socialize them to all the possible humans they will meet in their future. You may, however, notice a normal avoidance of humans between 6-7 weeks old. If you have done a good job socializing them with multiple humans, this often disappears by week 10.

Nutrition and Feeding

  • Nursing transitions to solely kitten-initiated. By week 5 mom starts to avoid kittens, avoidance increases for weaning purposes. Smaller litters nurse longer than larger litters. Milk has little nutritional value after week 12 which corresponds to the time when kittens would naturally start to disperse from the nest if raised without human intervention.

  • They begin eating solid foods (generally wet/canned foods) by 4-7 weeks of age. This has a lot of individual variation in when they begin eating on their own. You will prepare to transition kittens from bottle feeding to eating canned kitten food over the course of several weeks. At 3 - 4 weeks of age start providing a gruel mixture that is easy to eat and digest. It is made with warm kitten formula or canned food. If you do not have formula available, you can use warm canned food or water to moisten the kibble. Over several weeks start to change the consistency of the gruel from a runny liquid to a more chunky consistency to canned food.

  • When you are feeding very young kittens and transitioning from the bottle to eating from a tray or bowl, you should monitor their food intake. You can offer each kitten the bottle after offering gruel for the first couple weeks. By 4 – 5 weeks of age you should slowly wean the kittens from expecting the bottle. However, you must monitor their weight every 2 – 3 days to make sure they are continuing to gain weight when you are weaning them from the bottle.

  • During this time kittens should learn to eat from their own feeding station. Feeding the kittens in their own individual crates or carriers is a great idea that helps for a good association with the crate/carrier. We recommend that you also include food toys for the kittens (Kongs, ping pong balls with holes cut in them or other food-stuffable toys) for at least one feeding per day once the kittens are consistently eating dry food. Teaching kittens to compete for food by feeding out of one dish for the entire litter is a bad idea and can encourage resource/food guarding behaviors in developing kittens.

  • They begin drinking water from a dish by week 5.

Environmental Enrichment/Play

  • Continue to expose them safely to a variety of sights and sounds – think of things they may experience in a normal household.

  • Object play peaks at 7-8 weeks old. It is a good idea to provide objects for them to explore such as cardboard boxes, paper bags, or even glad ware containers with lids attached but holes cut in them so they can place their paws inside and play with the toy placed inside such as a ball or toy mouse.

  • Early weaning/all male litters show increase in social play. Females who are raised with boys (single female in a litter of boys) develop more male play patterns. Social play begins at 3 weeks (pawing, biting others kittens). Kittens begin stalking, chasing, arching back in week 5, wrestling in week 6, balancing on objects and climbing in week 7. Leaping presents between weeks 3-6 with a lot of individual variation for when kittens first display this behavior.

Physical Health

  • They will need to have their first vaccines, at 6 weeks of age. If you are inviting people over to meet your kittens (and we encourage you to do so!), please make sure they leave shoes at the front door (or even outside!) and wash their hands before handling. These rules should be followed at least until after they have had their first set of vaccinations.

10 Weeks – 6 Months (Early Adolescence Stage)

By this time, the initial socialization period is complete. Kittens are in the awkward stage where they are between kittenhood and adolescence. Inadequate socialization and training becomes apparent during this stage. Behavior problems may start to arise. They will start to become more independent and push limits as a normal part of testing their environment and those in it. Social play starts decreasing at 12-14 weeks. Gender differences start to become apparent in social play around 12 weeks of age.

The kitten should be fully vaccinated during this time and should be exposed to the rest of the world. Make sure they are going for regular excursions outside of their home environment. Take them for car rides in their carriers that do NOT end in a trip for medical procedures. If you can do so by using a large dog crate or cat condo, a very tall x-pen or one with a top attached, or by leash and harness, allow the kittens some outdoor time so they get used to grass and fresh air but are safely confined. You will need to supervise them at all times when outside, even if confined, as small kittens are easy prey for predators.

6 Months – 3 Years (Adolescence Stage)

This stage is defined by massive amounts of change both physically and behaviorally. Often, behavior problems that were not addressed before this age become more intense. Inadequate and/or inappropriate training and socialization result in a need for intense training and behavior modification at this age. The need for consistent and fair training is extremely important during this stage. It is normal for cats to start to push limits while searching to find their independence as individuals. We often also see them challenge the existing social structure. Continued socialization and training is critical during this period. When socialization and training are discontinued, they gradually de-socialize and eventually can become fearful, asocial, aggressive or display other abnormal behaviors. The message is – kitten socialization is not enough!

3 Years – Onward (Adulthood Stage)

Social maturity occurs during this stage. By this time their personalities are more consistent and they display predictable behavior patterns. Cats with a great foundation grow into wonderful companions!

Subject Matter Tips

Elimination – Litterbox Training

  • At about 4 weeks of age kittens start to “rake” in litterbox substrate or in dirt. They also start exploring their environment using their mouths and can easily ingest litter around 3-5 weeks of age so you need to avoid using clumping/plastic pellet litter types during early litterbox training. A few days after this oral exploration state, they often begin eliminating and covering in specific locations where they previously investigated. Also avoid using lines or heavy scents within the litterbox.

  • Location for elimination is often identified by observation and olfactory cues. Often, watching mom or another adult cat using a box is one way they learn a location preference. Additionally, it is helpful to leave feces in the litterbox to “draw” the kittens toward it. You can also use kitten attract as an additive to the litter to help encourage the kittens to use the litterbox.

  • Litterbox size is very important. Make sure that the litterbox is not so large the kittens cannot get into it (i.e. sides are too high for them to easily enter) or that it is so small that an adult cat won’t use it because it is too small. Additionally, you will need to make sure that you clean enough that the number of cats/kittens using the box doesn’t overload the box with urine/feces so that it becomes unattractive to use.

  • Location is important. Make sure that the litterbox is in an easy to access location for the kittens. They should not have to climb stairs or eliminate in a loud or otherwise scary location. A place slightly out of the main traffic area but close enough they can get to it quickly is a good choice.


  • Provide appropriate scratching options in prominent area near resting/sleeping area. Provide both vertical and horizontal scratching options. Various surfaces (sisal rope, cardboard, wood, carpet, etc.) should be provided and will allow you to learn what each kitten prefers as their scratching substrate.

  • hey learn by watching other cats using scratching locations. You can encourage them to use a scratching post by placing a toy they want to get on top of the post. This encourages climbing on the post. It is also helpful to make sure that no other scratching options (i.e. furniture) are present in the room where you have the scratching post.

  • If needed at this young age, you can use Feliway to discourage scratching on items such as furniture by spraying Feliway on those locations. DO NOT spray Feliway on any surfaces you want the kittens to use for scratching!


  • There is a decrease response to catnip in case less than 2 months old and in fearful/stressed cats. Female cats in estrus (in heat) show an increased response to catnip. Up to 50% of cats may not have the ability to respond to catnip.

  • Prolonged (regular/long term) use can lead to partial unawareness of surroundings. The general response to ingesting catnip is about 5-15 minutes in length with the most intense period lasting about 3 minutes. Once they have a reaction to catnip, they will need at least an hour before they can respond again.

When to Contact Us For Behavior Concerns

Kittens do not grow out of behavior problems. They grow into them. Therefore, it is very appropriate to use the old saying “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Below are some behavioral red flags that indicate that you should contact the foster department for assistance. If behavior concerns are addressed sooner rather than later there is a better chance that we can successfully change the behavior. It may be “cute” when it is a small kitten, but the same behavior may be a significant concern if they are engaging in the same behaviors as a large adult cat. Don’t wait until it is too late to contact the foster department – it could save the kitten’s life.

  1. Resource/Food Aggression: If your kitten at any time growls, snarls, freezes or otherwise displays protective or aggressive behaviors when they are in possession of/near a food bowl, toys, people or spaces (like a couch or bed).

  2. Problems with Other Animals: If your kitten is very fearful/afraid of other animals, aggressive toward other animals or behaving unpredictably toward other animals contact us immediately. Safety is first and foremost!

  3. Handling: If your kitten is growling, snarling, biting or attempting to bite, freezing or showing other avoidance/aggressive behaviors when you touch, pet or hold them, let us know! This could be related to a physical condition or a developing behavior concern.

  4. Aggressive Behavior: If your kitten displays any of the following, contact us: freezing, staring (hard stare), hissing, growling, biting/attempting to bite. Also note the situations in which these behaviors occur so they can be addressed with an appropriate behavior modification plan.

  5. Fearful or Anxious Behavior: If your kitten is fearful, avoids social contact, meows and whines when you are separated from them (or when they are confined) or otherwise is not the “happy” kitten one would expect at their age let us know quickly so we can provide you with a plan to make the kitten feel more confident and comfortable.

Something is just “off”: Sometimes you know there is a problem, but you can’t define, specifically, why you think that. Your gut feeling is that something is not normal. Talking with a behavior professional, who will ask questions; can help you figure out what the problem might be. Then we can identify the behavior concern and address it.

Again, it is a noble undertaking to raise kittens. With hard work and dedicated effort, you will provide the foundation for the rest of the kitten’s life! It truly does take a village to raise a kitten – support from professionals can help make all your efforts well-focused, effective and efficient – not to mention FUN! Now that you have all the information you need … go play with your kittens!!

Sources: Turner, D. & Bateson, P., (2000). The Domestic Cat. UK: Cambridge University Press. Beaver, B. (2003). Feline Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians (2nd Ed.). St. Louis, MO. Saunders.

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