The Development of a Kitten: Part 1 – From Birth to 4 Weeks

The Development of a Kitten: Part 1 – From Birth to 4 Weeks

As many of my readers already know, I have been a bit of a crazy cat lady this past year and a half. Glia, Frisko and I have welcomed a total of 27 foster cats into our home since March 2016. Most of these cats have been kittens just getting a start in life. Two of these litters were born in my house, bringing with them all the love, joy, mischief, and general chaos that kittens do. During these experiences, I found myself learning a great deal about the normal process of pregnancy, delivery, and rearing of kittens/cats. As a veterinarian, you would expect that I would have already had this knowledge (and I did have a basic working knowledge), but most of the time, veterinarians don’t see kittens until they are 6-8 weeks of age. While many of you may have already have had the chance to gain first hand experience raising kittens, I wanted to share the journey with those who might not have much experience in this area.  Brace yourself for lots of kitten pictures.

Meet Shira and Elara (both fostered through the Coulee Region Humane Society):

Shira
Elara

Normal length of pregnancy in a cat is about 65 days, although there is some natural variation. Shira was a shy girl that had several weeks in my house prior to queening (yes that is the proper term for cats giving birth to kittens). It somehow seems right that a female cat is called a Queen, doesn’t it? And just in case you were wondering, intact male cats are Toms. Elara arrived ready to pop. Her kittens were born just a little over 24 hours after arriving in my house.

Elara on the day I picked her up from the humane society.

Most pregnant cats will pick out a nesting box several days ahead of queening. Mama cats are looking for a quiet, protected area that will help keep their kittens safe in the early weeks. I provided a large cardboard box lined with blankets for both cats. The night before Shira had her kittens, I left her in a large dog kennel with the box and her food/water/litterbox. Shira happily used the provided nest. Elara also used the carboard nest even though she had her kittens earlier than I anticipated and I had not restricted her choices in the foster room (all of my foster cats begin their foster experience with me in one of the bedrooms of my house. They stay isolated in this room until I have a chance to get to know them, learn their personalities, and ensure that they don’t have any illnesses that can spread to Frisko, the resident cat). Left with free range of an entire house, I have heard of cats having kittens in dresser drawers, under beds, in closets and more. I highly recommend offering an appropriate nesting area and then restricting the queen to that area of the house – private and secure.

Shira’s kittens arrived on St. Patrick’s day 2016- 3 boys and one girl that were subsequently bequeathed the Irish originating names of Seamus, Aidan, Finn, and Rosy. All arrived healthy and happy with no complications.

Shira and her kittens

Elara had her kittens overnight from May 3rd to May 4th 2017 – 3 boys and 2 girls. Again all were healthy and happy. Debate was given to naming and ultimately, the kittens were named after characters in a book series written by Sarah J Maas. Meet Feyre, Cassian, Amren, Rhysand, and Azriel!

Elara and her kittens

The act of mammals giving birth is given the medical term parturition. Parturition in cats varies in length and can depend somewhat on how many kittens are arriving. My notes from a veterinarian course taught by Margaret V Root Kustritz, DVM, PhD state that

Duration of normal parturition in the queen can take more than 24 hours; in our colony, median parturition length was 8 hours, with a range of 4 to 42 hours.

Shira had her kittens in less than 8 hours. Elara took about 12 hours.  Both were wonderful mothers and did not require any significant intervention from me. The mama cats cleaned off their youngsters and allowed them to get to work nursing.

Newborn kittens are born with eyes and ears closed. Almost immediately after birth, they will begin searching for milk and warmth, moving around the nest primarily using only their front legs. The back legs will become stronger and more coordinated over the next few weeks. At this point, with both mama cats doing a great job of cleaning and caring for the kittens on their own, my job is mostly limited to making sure that mama cat has adequate food and water. My handling of the kittens is restricted to just a few minutes a day. On day one, I perform a quick health check. Personally, I like to check heart rate/rhythm, feel the abdomen, check for all digits, determine the sex of each kitten, and check for a cleft palate. I also weigh the kittens on day one and once daily afterwards until they are about 3 weeks of age. I don’t keep the kittens away from mama cat for long, as they will need her to keep warm (kittens can’t maintain their own temperature for a couple weeks after birth). Even though I do not handle the kittens for long periods of time, I do watch them to ensure that all are nursing appropriately.

Cassian and Azriel cuddling together for warmth

For weighing kittens, I recommend a digital kitchen scale. I found that the digital reading was most accurate as it was hard for me to read the small lines on my original kitchen scale. Kittens should gain an average of 1/4 to 1/2 oz of weight per day. Each kitten should roughly double in weight by the end of the first week. Kittens should NOT lose weight. As you will see in the weight graphs that I provide in this article, my kittens will occasionally have a day of mild weight loss or lack of gain, but they should not lose weight multiple days in a row. Oftentimes, weight loss is the first (if not only) sign that a kitten is not thriving. If you have a kitten that is losing weight, this is a good time to consult with the shelter/a veterinarian. At home, monitor to see if the kitten is nursing appropriately and whether the kitten’s belly is full. Knowing if the kitten is having diarrhea, has eye or nose discharge, or any other symptoms can also help determine how serious the weight loss is.

Aidan being weighed for the first time.

Because I can get panicky sometimes when caring for tiny delicate new life, I found that it was very helpful to know that everyone was gaining weight. I also found it nice when other people posted examples of normal weight gain. So here are the weight charts for both Shira and Elara’s litters. Shira’s kittens first five days were weighed with a non-digital scale, so they are a little less accurate and the kittens were often the same weight. Because I switched scales at day 5 on Shira’s litter, I have stopped the first week charts at 5 days for both litters.

As you can see above, the kittens in both litters had nice consistent growth over their first 5 days. Birth weights ranged from 3.2 to 4.4 oz.

By the end of week one, the kittens eyes are just starting to open.  (It is amazing how hard it can be to get a good picture of a kitten at this age, so please forgive the fuzziness of these photos.)

The above pictures also clearly show how the kittens are still staying huddled together for warmth.

By the time they are 2 weeks old, the kittens will start to crawl and can get back to the nest on their own.

The two week mark is an important one, as this is the start of a kittens primary socialization window. Kitten socialization should ideally occur between 2 and 7 weeks of age. It is important to expose the kittens to lots of new positive experiences during this time period.

This is Rosy at 14 days old. Eyes are open and she is ready to start learning about the world.

Two week old kittens are extra precious because they are starting to become old enough to hold and interact with for short periods, are past the super fragile tiny stage, and have yet to turn into messy whirlwinds of activity. As evidenced below, at the start of week three of life the kittens are still much too sleepy and innocent to get into trouble.

All of the kittens are still growing rapidly, adding almost 1/2 oz per day. As you can see below, Shira’s litter had good growth from day 6-21, with just a few days when an individual kitten might maintain instead of increasing his/her weight. It always amazes me how fast they grow.

Elara’s litter also gained well. You can see that Amren had one day of weight loss, but she was still nursing well and active. Her weight went back up at subsequent weight checks.

After the kittens are a full three weeks old (by the beginning of week four), the kittens will begin to develop their fine motor skills. Activity levels increase as they explore their nearby surroundings. Watch the kittens explore their world below (Both litters are just a couple days past three weeks of age – 23 and 22 days respectively).

By the time they are four weeks old, they will develop the ability to eliminate on their own and litter box training will occur. It is important to provide the kittens easy access to regularly cleaned litterboxes during this time period. Shira’s litter was the first litter of kittens that I have raised. I made the mistake of surrounding the litterbox with towels for easy clean-up. However, two of the kittens decided to use the towels instead of the box occasionally. For Elara’s litter, I offered more boxes without towels nearby and within a week of starting litter training, everyone was using the box reliably.

Four weeks of age is also a good time to start offering canned and/or softened dry food to the kittens. I typically leave dry food out free choice for mama cat, so the kittens always have access to dry kitten food as they are growing and starting the weaning process.

A few days after turning four weeks old, our kittens have officially made it to one month of age! They are starting to look more and more like the cats they will become. Their eyes are changing color (all kittens are born with blue eyes) and their ears are upright and perky. They have full motor control and are gaining lots of adolescent energy. The following pictures of Shira’s litter were taken exactly one month after birth.

If you enjoyed learning about the first month in a kitten’s life, please follow the link to explore weeks 5 to 8. 

For another great article on kitten development, check out Alley Cat Allies.

And if anyone else out there is fostering kittens, feel free to post pictures and comment regarding your experience during the first 4 weeks of kitten life in the comments section below 🙂

2 thoughts on “The Development of a Kitten: Part 1 – From Birth to 4 Weeks

  1. Wow ,you have definitely had your hands full. We had 19 cats at one time before. I loved them all so much but we had to gt rid of some to homes where it wasn’t so crowded, the neighbors were complaining. I love cats! I would like to own a Serval cat one day but I know they are more complicated to take care of then a house cat. Maybe if my blog is a success and I earn 15k a month or something than I can just build them their own little play yard in a large cage outside so they could jump around and play. I couldn’t afford to keep one feed with my income now so i’ll just keep dreaming!

    1. You must have had quite the full house with 19 cats. My house feels full when I just have 2 cats + a litter of kittens. And yes, I love the idea of a “catio” – they can be great options to allow an energetic cat some good outdoor time. Hope your blog is a success and you can give some lucky cat an amazing life!

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