5 Signs a Kitten Was Separated From Its Mother Too Soon

Mother cat nursing four kittens

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When a tiny kitten shows up at the doorstep, many people's instinct may be to scoop up the tiny critter and help it. But how can you tell if your new kitten was taken away from its mother too soon?

Holistic veterinarian Dr. Judy Morgan recommends that newborn kittens stay with their moms until they are at least 8 weeks old. "But 10 is even better," she added. By this age, kittens will have been gradually and naturally weaned by their mothers; their eyesight and hearing have fully matured; and they will have learned how to play and groom themselves appropriately. If you find a healthy stray kitten, it may be better to wait and see if mom is still around, even if she's feral.

Here's how to tell if your new kitten was taken from its mother too early.

1. Prone to Illness

Newborn kittens get 100% of their nutrients from their mother's milk. When they are around 8 weeks old, their mother weans them from her milk naturally, but if they're taken away too soon, they may have a hard time getting the nutrients they need to grow and thrive. According to Hannah Shaw, aka the Kitten Lady, orphaned kittens, or those that are weaned too soon, need to be bottle-fed with a formula designed especially for kittens. Even with this formula, very young kittens may not get all of the antibodies they would have gotten from their mother's milk, making them prone to stunted growth and illness.

2. Aggression

Newborn kittens don't just get nutrients from their mother; they also get lessons in behavior from both their mothers and their littermates. Kittens that are taken away from their families too soon don't learn how to play without getting too rough. Morgan described one of her kittens that had been taken from its mother too soon: "He just doesn't know how to interact with others, is shy and fearful, and quick to bite or scratch when his space is invaded."

Kittens that are weaned before eight weeks are more prone to aggressive behaviors toward other cats and people. If possible, expose orphaned kittens to other kittens during their first few months of life.

3. Fear

Kittens pick up social cues and learn how to respond to humans and other species from their mothers. So kittens taken away from their mothers too soon may become timid, shy, and fearful of other animals—including humans.

Fearful kittens will often run away when approached by someone they don’t know. Interaction with humans before they’re 10 to 12 weeks old is ideal for kittens to learn not to be fearful. If kittens and their littermates are exposed to a variety of people and animals in different environments during their first few months, they can grow into confident, non-fearful cats. With patience, a calm and caring owner can gain a kitten’s trust, even one that was removed from its mother too soon.

4. Difficulty Adjusting

Kittens get so much more from their mothers than nutrition: They also get lessons in how to be a good cat. Kittens that are taken away from their mothers too soon may have difficulty learning how to properly groom themselves. "Some kittens that are weaned early will become 'blanket nursers' or will suckle on strange objects," said Morgan.

The best way to know for sure if your kitten was weaned too early is to get it checked by your veterinarian. Your vet can give you a good estimate of your kitten's age and give you advice and resources on caring for your new kitten and making sure that it gets the best start in life.

5. Litter Box Issues

Kittens that are separated early from their mothers may not have been taught how to use the litter box and may have difficulty learning this behavior. Generally, kittens start using the litter box effectively at around 8 weeks; kittens that were separated too early may take longer.

Before they are 3 weeks old, kittens aren’t able to eliminate on their own without stimulation. When the mother cat is present, she encourages the young kitten to eliminate by licking and grooming it. Kittens also observe their mother and learn how to use the litter box by watching her. 

When a kitten has been separated from their mother early, they may not know how and where to eliminate properly. Beginning at about 4 weeks of age, an owner can guide the kitten by standing it in a low litter box, wiping it gently, and helping it scratch the litter with its forepaw. Use positive reinforcement and don’t criticize the kitten for litter box mishaps. It may take a bit of time for a kitten that was taken from its mother early to learn to use the litter box properly.

What to Do if Your Cat Was Separated Early From Its Mother

If you adopt an orphaned kitten or one that was separated from its mother early, all is not lost!

You’ll need to be calm and gentle with your new kitty as they learn to feel safe with you. For a very young kitten, having a foster queen (mother cat that recently gave birth) provide its physiological needs is ideal. If that is not possible, then you’ll need to have veterinary assistance, a warm, safe space, and appropriate nutrition for your new kitten. For a very young kitten, handle it gently for 15 to 40 minutes per day so it becomes accustomed to human interaction. Offer plenty of playful stimulation similar to what the kitten would have experienced with its littermates. Teach your kitten social skills and gently provide limits. While these important skills are usually learned in the first weeks of life, most cats can still learn new behaviors beyond kittenhood.

Similarly, if you bring home an adult cat that was taken from its mother too early, it is important to be patient and allow time for bonding. Get to know your cat’s temperament and give it a chance to become secure in its environment. If you notice particularly aggressive or fearful behaviors, you may want to seek the advice of a veterinarian.

Why This Matters to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our cats, the better we can support and protect their well being. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.

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