Kittens: When is it Okay to Separate Them from Their Mothers?It is hard to resist the cuteness of a brand new baby kitten, especially if you see one that appears to be a stray. You fear for his safety and want to help, but is taking him in the best option for his health and safety? Taking kittens away from their mothers can actually be quite dangerous for them, even when you have the best intentions. Kittens who have been separated from their mothers too soon are often more likely to exhibit inappropriate behaviors, struggle with interacting with other cats and humans, and are at a higher risk for health complications. In the wild, kittens usually remain with their mothers until they reach sexual maturity or until the mother gets pregnant again. When keeping kittens as pets, it is important to know the timeline of their development before separating them from their mothers prematurely.

Development Timeline

During the first 4 weeks of life, kittens will be entirely dependent upon the mother for all of their nutrition and to meet their basic needs. At this age, kittens cannot regulate their own body temperatures, so the mother is essential to helping keep them clean, warm, and safe.

After 4 weeks, the mother will begin teaching her kittens basic skills to help them survive on their own. During this time, kittens will learn how to eat, hunt, and use the bathroom independently. Kittens will also learn basic communication and interaction skills by imitating the mother. The best time for a human to be introduced would be during this period. It is helpful for kittens to have human interaction beginning at 4 weeks if they are going to be kept as pets. This human interaction by no means replaces the need for the mother, as the mother plays an even more important role in the weaning process. The mother continues to teach her kittens how to behave, and will correct inappropriate behavior.

By the time the kittens reach 8 weeks old, they should be able to eat solid foods and the mother’s milk will start to dry up. Some kittens will continue to nurse even up to 12 weeks old, though usually nursing to this age is mostly for the purpose of comforting the kittens rather than for providing nutrition.

It is a common misconception that kittens can be separated from their mothers as early as 8 weeks old. However, kittens separated at this time are still at risk for developmental, social, and health issues. Instead, kittens should remain with their mothers until they are 12-14 weeks old. By this age (and with proper human interaction and training), kittens should be able to go to the bathroom in an appropriate place (i.e. the litter box), play on their own instead of needing other littermates, they will have a fully developed immune system, should be fully vaccinated, and will not be a victim of unnecessary stress that comes from weaning too early.

What to do with Stray Kittens

While these steps are easy to take when dealing with a breeder or adopting from a shelter, what can you do when you find a stray kitten? Here are a few steps you can take to help give the kitten his best chance at survival and a happy, healthy life:

  • Examine your surroundings. Just because you see a kitten or litter of kittens alone doesn’t always mean the mother has abandoned them. She is most likely out looking for food. If the kittens are in a safe place, keep your distance and take note of any signs of malnourishment, neglect, or danger: 
    • Do they appear to be well-fed? 
    • Is their fur matted and dirty?
    • Are they in a safe, dry environment away from any roadways or predators?
  • If there are no immediate dangers, walk away and give the nest space. You can return in 4-6 hours to reassess. This should give the mother plenty of time to return to and feed her kittens. If the mother has still not returned, come back the next day. You don’t want to get too close to the nest if you don’t suspect danger. Your scent can scare the mother off, and she may not return. By giving the nest space, you give the mother the opportunity to return, which gives the kittens the best chance at survival. 
  • If the kittens are still in their nest with no signs of the mother after your 2nd return visit on the following day, you may choose to intervene by offering them food and calling your local animal shelter for further instruction.  DO NOT try to bathe the kittens, as they may still be too young to regulate their body temperatures. If you choose to take the kittens in, make sure you are fully equipped to give them the extra care and attention they will need. If you are unable, it is best to take them to a shelter or rescue facility where they can receive the care they need. Be sure to research the shelters in your area, and contact a reputable one that you feel will give the kittens the best chance at survival and adoption. This should be your last resort, as the kittens will always have their best chance at survival with the mother. 

Here at Pleasant Plains Animal Hospital, we take pride in educating our clients on how to best care for their pets and the animals with which they may come in contact. For more information or for a list of resources for helping stray kittens, contact us today.

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