Most cats are still considered kittens during the first two years of their lives, in both mind and body. During this time, they go through several different stages of development.
Kittens should ideally stay with their littermates for at least the first 12 weeks of their lives. There are many things that a kitten learns from her mother and littermates during the first eight weeks, skills which, if not acquired during that time, may be lost forever. Many of these are social skills. In fact, kittens of well-socialized mothers are more likely to be well-socialized themselves as they will follow their mother’s lead when it comes to interacting with people. From their littermates, kittens learn other social skills like appropriate play and inhibited biting. Further, it’s been shown that kittens who are handled during the first seven weeks on a daily basis are more likely to develop larger brains, making them better learners as well as more exploratory and playful.
Below is a general guideline for the stages of development that a kitten goes through:
Age 0 to 2 weeks: Neonatal. During this time, kittens are learning to orient themselves toward sound and their eyes usually open by two weeks of age. Also, kittens begin competing within the litter for rank and begin to develop territory. Kittens who are separated form their mother and littermates at this time may develop problems like aggression toward people and other pets and poor learning skills.
Age 2 to 7 weeks: Socialization. By week three, the sense of smell is well developed and the sense of sight develop enough whereas kittens can recognize and find their mother. By week four, the sense of smell is fully mature while the sense of hearing is well developed. At this time, the teeth are erupting, kittens can walk fairly well, and they begin to interact with their littermates. By week five, the sense of sight is fully mature. Further, kittens are able to right themselves, place their feet precisely, avoid obstacles, stalk and pounce, and even run. They also begin grooming themselves and others. Adult sleeping patterns, social interaction and motor abilities are beginning to develop by weeks six and seven.
Age 7 to 14 weeks: Active Play. During this time, kittens partake in social and object play, which increases their social skills and physical coordination. Most of a kitten’s learning occurs by observation, and this is preferably through observation of their mother. This social and object play may include the following: hugging, ambushing, licking, scooping, tossing, pawing, mouthing, holding, tail chasing, leaping, and pouncing.
Age 3 to 6 months: Ranking. During this time, kittens are most influenced by their ‘littermates’, which now includes human, and they begin to understand and put to use ranking within the pack or household.
Age 6 to 18 months: Adolescence. During this time, sexual behavior begins if the kitten has not been spayed or neutered. Kittens also begin to further explore dominance and may challenge humans.