Time and effort are required to properly socialize kittens. In fact, when they’re between four and twelve weeks old, daily socialization sessions are important in shaping the kitten’s personality and emotional growth.
You’ll want your foster kittens to become familiar with having their paws touched (front and back), their mouths opened and their ears touched. Combining this type of handling with regular grooming sessions and body massages helps to prevent skin sensitivity or aversion to touch. And acquainting kittens with a variety of sights, sounds and textures will help them to grow into well-socialized adult cats. Listed below are some characteristics of kittens at different stages and the steps you can take to help socialize them.
Appearance: Newborn kittens should be pink, firm, plump and generally healthy-looking.
Temperature: Normal rectal temperature for newborns is 96 or 97 degrees Fahrenheit.
Eyes and ears: Closed, but they can still hear (though poorly) and respond to bright light with a blink reflex.
Muscles: Healthy kittens will curl their bodies and limbs inward.
1 to 2 weeks
Temperature: Normal rectal temperature has gradually increased to 100 degrees F.
Eyes and ears: Open at approximately 11-15 days.
Muscles: Kittens can use their front legs to stand and walk shakily.
What you can do: You can engage in gentle handling and cuddling at this point. These sessions should be very short (one to two minutes), and great care should be taken in the handling process. Rub the hair coat gently with your hands, and gently finger the webbing in between the toes. Rub the ears and muzzle.
2 to 3 weeks
Temperature: Kittens are able to maintain their own body temperature within the normal range (100.5 – 102.5 degrees F).
Eyes: Vision is initially poor, even after the eyes have opened, but continues to develop until three to four weeks of age. If the eyes fail to open and the lids look sticky, wipe the lids very gently with dampened cotton lightly smeared with a little petroleum jelly to ease their opening. The eyelids should never be pulled apart. If a kitten’s eyelids still haven’t opened by 14 days, contact the foster department.
Muscles: The rear legs can now support the body. Kittens are crawling.
Teeth: Deciduous incisors start to appear, followed by deciduous canines.
What you can do:
- Provide the kittens with a whelping box area for sleeping and another area, away from the sleeping and feeding area, that contains the litter box.
- Provide five minutes of handling exercises. Gently roll the kitten over on her back for 5-10 seconds, and then draw her close to you, stroking and cuddling her. Never do this while actively feeding the kitten. Be careful not to startle the kitten with sudden movements or loud sounds.
- Start grooming: Softly and gently brush the kitten’s coat with a few strokes, touch the ears and mouth, and pretend to clip the nails by adding gentle pressure to the kitten’s paws.
3 to 4 weeks
Eyes and ears: Vision and hearing are normal. Blink response disappears with the development of accurate pupil control. The kitten is now able to use visual clues to locate and approach the mother. The eyes should be completely open by 17 days.
Muscles: By 21 days, kittens can walk with a fairly steady gait. They can also sit and have reasonable control of their toes.
Teeth: Deciduous incisors and canine teeth continue to come in.
What you can do:
- If the mother and kittens are no longer using the whelping box, it’s OK to remove it.
- At about four weeks old, the kittens will begin to eliminate on their own. This is a good time to introduce additional litter boxes. Use boxes with low edges so that the kittens can easily climb in and out. Only use non-clumping litter, since kittens often try to eat the litter when they are learning.
- The kittens will start to explore their immediate environment. Provide safe, simple toys to help stimulate them.
- The kittens can be introduced to other people at this time, but this interaction should be carefully controlled. The interaction should be limited to five minutes of time spent in gentle massage and cuddling.
- As the main caregiver, you should continue the grooming and handling exercises: holding, cuddling and stroking each kitten’s body, including ears, tail and muzzle.
4 to 5 weeks
Eyes and ears: Vision is markedly improved. From three to five weeks, kittens learn guided paw placement and obstacle avoidance.
Muscles: Kittens are walking normally and start climbing. Social play is prevalent.
Teeth: Deciduous premolars come in.
What you can do: Continue the handling and socialization exercises.
5 to 8 weeks of age
Temperature: Normal range is 100.5 degrees to 102.5 degrees F.
Teeth: Kittens have an entire set of deciduous teeth by five to six weeks of age.
What you can do:
- The kittens are totally dependent on the environment you provide to stimulate and develop them. Play with objects increases around seven to eight weeks of age, so continue to add appropriate toys to the kittens’ environment.
- Introduce the kittens to as many different people as possible — people of different shapes, sizes, colors, sexes and ages. Encourage the kittens to allow individual handling by different people: men, women and supervised children. Keep the visits short.
- Expose the kittens to mild sounds, different areas and surfaces, allowing them to investigate.
- As the main caregiver, you should continue the handling and grooming exercises.
- If you choose to, you can introduce the kittens to other animals while their mother is not around. Keep the visits very short and always supervise them. These visits should be calm and pleasant; a traumatic incident at this stage could have a lasting effect on the kittens. Keep in mind that kittens can carry diseases that can be transmitted to other animals.
8 weeks or older
What you can do:
- Protect the kittens from unpleasant or negative experiences. The kittens’ environment should be designed to help them develop a sense of security.
- Continue to introduce the kittens to as many different people as possible.
- Continue the handling and grooming exercises.
- At this stage, you can gradually introduce some more intrusive noises, such as whistles blowing, hands clapping, bells jingling and the vacuum cleaner running. Play with the kittens as you introduce the noise in the background.
Modified from the Humane Society of Boulder Valley Cat and Kitten Handbook