Source: Photo by Cong H on Unsplash
Kittens are born with their eyes and ears closed. They use heat detectors on their tiny faces to find their way to their mother and their littermates. The breeder keeps their bedding clean and dry, and makes sure they have a place to warm up and a place to cool down.
Even if the kittens have been born in an inconvenient place, the breeder won’t move them for forty-eight to sixty hours because it upsets the queen.
If the queen dies during the birthing process, the kittens must be either handraised or adopted by another queen with kittens born around the same time, who will raise them with her own. Introductions must be made very carefully.
A towel is rubbed on the kitten and the queen so the smell of each is familiar to the other.Then the baby is offered to the queen. If an accommodating queen can’t be found, it will be an exhausting and full-time project to feed the kittens every four hours—or more often if they’ll eat that much—and then stimulate them to eliminate by using a warm cotton ball to gently wipe the baby’s private parts.
Sometimes, a litter or a single kitten will be adopted by a female of another species who is happy to nurture babies no matter what the species. Most commonly, we’ve seen dogs who have allowed kittens to be placed with them and have accepted them gracefully. (Of course, a human caretaker will still need to feed the kittens round the clock with a feline milk replacer.) If kittens are introduced to another species at a young age, they recognize that species as a friend.
If only one kitten is born, or only one survives, it’s important to try to find other kittens close in age for her to play with. Kittens learn important social lessons from their littermates, and they also learn how to bond with other cats.
The ones who are raised solely by humans tend to be less friendly with other cats.
They also tend to be nippy, because they lack littermates who would teach them not to play roughly.
The kittens stay in their clean whelping box until they start wobbling about and need more space. As soon as they start to climb out, at about 2 weeks of age, it’s especially important to ensure their safety and not allow them the run of the house. So the breeder moves them to an enclosure where their mom can easily get in and out but the babies can’t. Bedding from their whelping box is used to line the enclosure, so it smells familiar. Sometimes, the whelping box itself is put inside the enclosure as a bed for the kittens.
As the kittens gain mobility, the breeder keeps enlarging their living area. This keeps the kittens safe until the breeder is comfortable letting them out—into a kitten-proofed room—when they’re anywhere from 3 to 5 weeks old.
Litter Box Lessons
These first five weeks are when the kittens learn to use a litter box. The kittens have their own litter box, separate from mama’s, because they need a box that’s shallow and doesn’t have much litter in it.
The breeder may make a litter box for the babies from a cut-down cardboard box that once held soda cans. The breeder throws away the whole box daily and replaces it with a clean one. When the kittens are little, the box should hold only plain, fine-grain clay litter.
The adorable little ones learn to climb over the whelping box and into the litter box. When they’re little, it takes a couple of days for them to learn to use it.
Many queens teach their kittens to use a litter box, although it’s extremely rare for any human to see them taking the kittens, one at a time, to the litter box, stimulating them to eliminate, and then showing them how to cover it up. More commonly, it’s the kittens who watch their mother eliminating in her own litter box and climb up and tumble into their litter box to copy mama. Kittens are wonderful observational learners.
The breeder may also help things along. They might set up a smaller box next to the queen’s litter box and put some of mama’s litter into the small box so the babies get the smell and the idea. As soon as the kittens start to squat, the breeder might put the kittens in their little litter box.
It’s important to start with a box that is low enough for the kittens to climb into—maybe two inches high—with just a small amount of litter. As the kittens grow, the kitten litter box can be replaced with a box that has three-inch sides, then four-inch.
Most breeders have only one litter at a time, allowing more time and space for the kittens. The kittens stay in their kitten-proofed room with a barrier that enables them to see what’s going on around the house but doesn’t allow them to have run of the house quite yet.
Breeders have different methods of keeping the kittens in one kittenproofed room. They may set up baby gates stacked two high across the doorway so the babies can see out. (Soon enough, a healthy, active kitten will learn how to climb up and over a single baby gate. That’s why two are needed.) Other breeders will add a screen door to the kitten room. This provides the same effect but is a permanent change to the house. One breeder I know puts a tall baby gate in the hallway. The gate comes up to her waist and is angled in toward the kittens. Mama can jump over but the babies can’t climb because gravity takes over.
When they’re a little older, the kittens can be moved around the house using a portable pen. This way, they can get used to all the household activities—the sounds, sights, and smells of cooking; the television; vacuuming; even dogs running past. If the breeder has one or more dogs, the dogs can also watch the kittens, who are safely out of reach in their pen.
A breeder who has both cats and dogs told me she will hold a kitten and let the dogs come and investigate while she carefully watches the interaction so the dogs don’t injure the kittens. Different breeds of dogs have different levels of prey drive, so it’s important to know your dogs and never take chances. This breeder’s kittens are usually 12 to 14 weeks old before they can run with the dogs, but only when she is there to supervise.
Having kittens who are raised with dogs is a definite plus if they’re going to a household that has at least one resident dog. Both dogs and cats should learn to live together in peace and harmony. Many dogs and cats have become best friends in a multipet household.
Handling and Socializing
Kittens are often helped by the breeder to push their way out of their mother, so they are held from the moment they’re born. They’re also picked up and weighed daily, and their tummies are felt. Their gums are checked weekly. An experienced breeder can tell a lot about how the kitten is doing from that interaction. Plus, the kitten is getting used to human scent and touch.
The kittens are handled constantly. The ones who will be chosen for the show ring will have to get accustomed to handling by a cat show judge. And the rest of the litter gains the same benefits from early handling, making them wonderful pets. One breeder points out that male kittens, especially, don’t like to have their tummies touched, so they have to be acclimated early on.
She kisses and nuzzles their little tummies so they are accustomed to loving, consistent touching. Some cats don’t like having their paws touched, either, and this can make nail clipping a chore. Early playful touching of the paws and feet helps avoid this problem.
Early handling is important for the well-socialized kitten.
As the kittens are moved around the house, people come and go, handling them gently, kissing them, and letting them learn how wonderful it is to be with adoring humans. The breeder who doesn’t have children will invite children over to interact with the kittens, when they’re old enough for visitors. The breeder will carefully supervise, making the children sit down to play with the kittens using small, soft toys, and will only allow children to carry the kittens after they’ve learned the right way to do it.
The kittens are carried around by the breeder, who puts them in every position, including laying them on their backs and rubbing their little tummies. Kittens are groomed at an early age, too, even if they don’t need it, just to get them used to these routines.
They may be combed or brushed with a very soft-bristle brush.
They’re handled while the breeder trims toenails. Pedigreed cats destined for the show ring are given short pretend baths, and then each is wrapped in a towel so they get the feel of that. (Pet cats generally don’t need a bath unless they get into something really nasty. But show cats are routinely bathed before a show. Pet cats who aren’t accustomed to being bathed can find it stressful, so it’s not something you’ll do unless it’s absolutely necessary. Kitties keep themselves meticulously clean.)
Responsible breeders get their kittens used to being in a carrier and even take their kittens on car rides in their carriers. Some breeders drive hours away to see a veterinarian who is experienced with young kittens. The kittens and their mother can ride in a large dog crate with a litter box inside on such long trips. If the breeder must travel a distance—perhaps to a cat show—the kittens will go along so they get used to traveling. This is what it all means when a breeder tells you their kittens are raised “underfoot.”
Kittens need to stay with their mothers for at least twelve weeks. They learn valuable lessons from mom and their littermates.
Kittens also get lots of toys, things to climb on, things to swat, tunnels to go through, and lots of other activities to exercise and help develop their bodies and minds.
One breeder puts a Ping-Pong ball in the bathtub with a few kittens. New types of toys are added at each developmental stage of the kittens. Toys are also traded out and rotated back into the mix to increase their novelty. Of course, mama cat’s tail is also a great source of amusement for kittens—a built-in toy.
It’s interesting to watch the way the mother interacts with her kittens, teaching them things such as climbing stairs, what to be afraid of, what not to be afraid of, and how to interact with other cats and with people. She will teach her kittens how to hunt, too—even if that just means stalking and “killing” their toys. Often the queen will walk through the house holding a small toy and calling her kittens, then inviting the kittens to follow her. She’ll put the toy in the bed, and the kittens will curl up with the toy and sleep. She’s further solidifying their desire to cluster together and sleep cuddled near one another for warmth, companionship, and security. The queen will teach her babies to play, picking up a toy mouse, for example, and showing them how to stalk the mouse, perhaps peeking around at it or a larger toy from behind a chair and then pouncing on it.
This is actually practice for hunting, as well.