Did you know that kittens in a litter choose one of their mother’s teats, and always suckle on that same one during the first eight days of their lives? This reduces the competition for food between brothers and sisters, and shortens the length of time that passes before they start to feed. (Focault, 1992).
This survival strategy shows very clearly the importance of the newborn kitten’s access to the mother’s milk. And it also helps us to understand why it’s so vital for kittens to be weaned at the right time, and in the right way.
Bear in mind that during the first two weeks of their lives, kittens spend 10% of their time suckling. This rapidly rises to 60% at three weeks of age, and then goes down once again to 10% towards the end of the first month.(Focault, 1992), when the weaning process is about to begin.
Like human babies, newborn kittens often suck without feeding, because it relaxes them, and strengthens their bond with their mother.
There is no scientific study that identifies the best time for weaning kittens, as it’s the mother herself who begins this process naturally.
The mother cat starts to stop her kittens from feeding any time they feel like it from four weeks of age onwards. This is the beginning of the weaning process, which ushers in important digestive and behavioural changes in the kittens.
Between the sixth and seventh weeks, the process is generally complete, and the kittens can begin to eat solid food, as long as it’s one that’s specially adapted to their needs.
Whenever possible you should always leave the kittens with their mother at least until they are weaned (around seven or eight weeks of age), although it’s best for them to stay with her until they are about 12 weeks old.
In any case, from week five onwards you can start to introduce the food that will substitute their mother’s milk.
Here’s a guide on how to do this correctly:
Future dietary habits are largely formed before 7-8 weeks of age, so you should take advantage of this time to lay the foundations for a healthy diet in the future.
Remember that if you adopt a kitten, giving him the same food that he was given when she was weaned will make it easier for him to settle into his new home.
When the mother weans her kittens, it represents far more than simply a transition from milk to solid food. She’s actually teaching them to put up with not always getting their own way (they want to suckle, but the mother won’t let them), which is an important lesson for adult life.
According to some studies, early weaning (before 12 weeks of age) can lead to an increase in aggressivity and stereotypical behaviour in cats, related to the degree to which they’ve been allowed to get their own way.
When cats are babies, what they need is their mother’s milk. If she’s not available, sometimes it’s possible to obtain milk from another cat who is suckling her own kittens by persuading her to accept the new kitten as one of them. When this is not feasible, there’s no choice but to opt for a commercial kitten formula milk - never give them cow's milk.
From then onwards, the weaning process for orphaned cats will be the same as the one indicated above for the rest of them.
Bottle feeding a kitten can prove a big challenge. Sometimes more importance is placed on nutritional aspects than on behavioural ones, but as we have already seen, the way that a kitten is weaned influences their conduct later in life.
According to Peter Neville, adult cats that were bottle fed by humans seem more likely to display aggressive behaviours. Neville has conducted research into this, and has concluded that:
‘This is due to incorrect weaning, where humans have been unable to reproduce the natural behaviour of the mother, who frustrates the kittens by punishing conduct that was previously rewarded when they try to feed. The need to face adversity, and the idea that life can indeed be frustrating is essential for the kittens’ survival.’