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Kitten behaviour explained

kitten hiding under a book

Understanding your kitten's behaviour through the kitten's development.

© Pixabay

Are you thinking of getting a new kitten? Read this article first, to have a better understanding of kitten behaviour and how you need to respond to a young cat.

By Karen Wild, CCAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist

Updated on the 08/02/2021, 13:52

Most cats are certainly brilliant at letting their owners know what they need, either with their body language, or vocally with meows, chirrups and purrs. It won’t take too long before you fully understand just what your kitten is trying to communicate.

Baby kittens learn many things from their mother, as they grow. Also, by playing and interacting with their siblings, they learn hunting and social skills. To help you to better understand about a young feline and her kitten behaviour, read on.

Kittens learn from their mothers

A newborn kitten suckles from its mother until it is weaned at around 6-7 weeks old. Kittens that are weaned too early, or are orphan kittens, can exhibit misplaced suckling behaviour as older cats. They might begin to suckle on your arm, pillows or even blankets. Some cats may continue to do this anyway, if you provide a fluffy or kneadable soft surface!

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The ideal time for a new kitten to leave its mother is at around 12 weeks old. When a kitten is separated too early, she probably won’t have picked up many social skills. For this reason, they tend not to have learned how to play and may not behave appropriately, using too much force or becoming very frustrated when the fun stops. They simply have not learned to cope with the removal of the things they like, which they would otherwise have learned very early in their lives.

The kitten's development

When a kitten is frequently handled during the first 7 weeks of her life, she will be more adept and responsive. Likewise, she will be a better learner, explore more and be lots more playful. During the first 2 years of a cat’s life, many felines still act and behave as kittens do. Kitten behaviour problems can develop from this early experience, or lack of it, so when you choose your kitten it’s important to find out what their early upbringing was like.

What is typical kitten behaviour? Various stages of kitten development and typical kitten behaviour

Neonatal period – 0 to 2 weeks

During this initial period, a kitten will learn how to move towards a sound. Their eyes will begin to open, with them being fully open by 2 weeks old. Competition for territory and resources within the litter commences, and kittens learn to experience and cope with frustrations. If a kitten is removed from its mother and siblings during this early stage, aggressive tendencies and poor social skills result.

Socialisation period – 2 to 7 weeks

By week 3, the tiny kitten can see her mother and has a well-developed sense of smell. After the fourth week, her sense of hearing is more matured. Teeth begin to develop and she interacts with her siblings. Week 5 sees her walking, running and even stalking and pouncing. She will be able to groom herself and the other kittens too. During week 6 and 7, her social interaction skills will improve. Likewise, her sleeping routine will settle down.

Active play period – 7 to 14 weeks

Through this intense development period, the kitten will learn more social skills from her mother. These feline routines include licking, ambushing her siblings, and hugging. Through interactive play, she will enjoy holding and tossing objects, pawing and mouthing. She will be able to chase her tail, leap and pounce too.

‘Ranking’ period – 3 to 6 months

Certainly, the kitten will now be influenced by her playmates, be it her siblings or other pets in the house. The kitten learns who to pay attention to, and how to compete for resources and territory. They also learn from their losses - and ideally learn to deal with frustration.

Adolescence – 6 to 18 months

The kitten behaviour changes as the cat gets older and will become bolder and take more risks! At this adolescent period, sexual behaviour awakens. Certainly, neutering or spaying your kitten at a young age has health and behaviour benefits.

Is kitten behaviour ‘naughty’?

First of all, none of our kittens are a cute little ball of fluff all of the time. The idea of ‘naughty’ is inaccurate. Kittens are not spiteful or trying to ignore rules. They are baby animals, and will do things that are natural to them. We may not like these things, but it doesn’t mean the kitten is doing anything wrong.
 
We often find that they have scratched something, climbed up the curtains or our legs! Ouch!

Here are some other mischievous behaviours that you can expect from your kitty:

  • Scratching and biting – playful aggression is quite normal in kitten behaviour. As they compete for resources and space in their litter they will often bite at their siblings with sharp teeth.
  • Clawing at and scratching furniture – a normal kitten behaviour used in the first place to mark and scent their territory. It’s important to provide plenty of scratching posts (not just one - you will need a lot, and lots of different kinds in a lot of locations) to prevent damaging the furniture and upholstery.
  • Chewing houseplants – most cats really do enjoy chewing and eating grass and plants. It’s good to be aware though, of those varieties that are actually poisonous to felines. Move houseplants out of the way, or give them to others.
  • House soiling – this isn’t the kitten being naughty. Cats poop and spray urine in the house as a way of marking their own territory. Provide at least one large litter tray, in a number of different locations. Standard litter trays from supermarkets and pet shops are far too small - always provide one tray per cat plus an extra one, and put them in different locations so your kitten has a choice. It may seem unhygienic but it’s far better than your cat toileting in the wardrobe or bath!

Is it normal for a kitten to be aggressive?

Kittens aren’t deliberately aggressive unless they are perhaps scared or frustrated, where they can lash out. Often, humans aren’t prepared for kittens style of play which can involve grabbing and biting, scratching and climbing up legs with their claws! Stay calm, disentangle the kitten from your clothing or skin, and give them plenty of other toys to play with that aren’t hands, feet and clothing. Ensure that nobody is frightening the kitten - young children can be especially rough, so teach the child how to be gentle and calm and don’t let them play with the kitten unsupervised.

How long are kittens playful?

Usually a kitten will stay playful for their first six months or longer, but some cats enjoy a game right through adulthood! Offer them lots of opportunity for safe and educational play with fishing rod type toys and food dispensers, so that your kitten learns to play appropriately rather than aggressively.

How do I know if my kitten is happy?

There is a huge reward when watching your tiny baby kitten growing into a playful and loving pet companion. As a responsible owner, it helps to understand the various steps of not only physical development but also how the kitten’s behaviour develops too. Unfortunately, many cats who display what humans feel is bad behaviour are often at risk of being abandoned by their owners to cat shelters. Try to learn as much as you can about cats and remember - kitten behaviour problems are usually caused by the human who doesn’t understand kitten behaviour.