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Tracking Kittens' Development

Part 1: The Newborn Kitten's First Week

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4-day-old kittens

My Jaspurr (center) and Joey (gray kitten at right) at 4 days

Photo Credit: © Franny Syufy
To most of us, kittens are magical, lovable creatures with the power to entrance that one would not expect from their tiny, helpless forms. Yet, entrance us they do, to the extent that we are captive audiences whenever a kitten is available to gaze upon. How do these utterly dependent little fledglings grow into the regal, svelte, intelligent cats who gaze back at us with love, tolerance, or thinly concealed scorn, depending on their moods? These short lessons will help us in understanding the physical and social development of a kitten from birth to one year, and will be an ongoing project.

Blind, Deaf, and Dependent

The newborn kitten weighs just ounces, and easily fits into the palm of your hand. Her umbilical cord will fall off within two or three days, but her eyes and ear canals will not be open yet.

Kittens are very helpless at this age, but the mother cat instinctively knows their needs. She feeds them, keeps them close by for warmth, bathes them with her rough tongue, which also stimulates their digestion and helps them urinate and defecate. Mother cats are very protective of their little ones, and will move them to another location if humans intrude too much into the nest.

Provided the mother has been vaccinated, or has natural immunity, the kittens will receive this same immunity for the first 24-48 hours through her colostrum, and it will last until they are old enough to get their "kitten shots."

Tiny Food Processing Factories

Newborns will weigh an average of 3.5 ounces at birth and may double their weight by the end of the first week. They are simply little food processing factories at this point, and their only activities are nursing, sleeping, and passing waste. There is very little social interaction at this age, other than competing for their favorite nipple, where they will suckle while kneading with their tiny paws. Although their ear canals are not completely open the first week, kittens may have a reflex action to sudden noise. The body temperature of a newborn is only 95° Fahrenheit, and their shivering reflex is not yet developed, so it is extremely important to keep them warm during this time, especially if they are orphans or rescues without a mother cat.

Although kittens can lift their heads at birth, they haven't yet developed full limb support, so they will do a lot of "flopping" as the photo of the baby at the top of the page shows. Don't worry though - they'll soon be off and running, as we'll find in the next few pieces in this series.

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