At what age can a kitten leave its mother and littermates

Do you know at what age a kitten can leave its mother? When a breeder shows you a five-week old kitten and says he’s old enough to be rehomed right after you make the payment, would you believe him?

We already talked about places to look for a good kitten and how to tell whether or not the breeder is a good one.

A kitten leaving its motherIn this article, you will learn at what age a kitten can leave its mother and littermates. We will not just tell you what this age is; we will provide explanations of kitten development to prove it to you.

In standard conditions, a kitten can leave its mother at 12 weeks of age; it should never leave its mother before it is 8 weeks old. Wondering why?

There are three very important aspects in the early life of kittens:

  1. The end of nursing must be gradual. Normally, nursing should end between 8 to 10 weeks of age. Sometimes, nursing takes longer and will not end until after 12 weeks.
  2. The socialization period is between 2 to 8 weeks.
  3. Kittens play with their littermates actively until 12 to 14 weeks, when object play gradually replaces it.

These are three key cornerstones that tell us when a kitten can leave its mother and littermates. There is also a vaccination point of view; however, the age of vaccination differs from country to country, and, in most cases, first vaccinations are given earlier than 8 weeks of age.

Now, let’s take a closer look at each of the three aspects we outlined above.

Nursing must not end abruptly; it has to decrease gradually

Mother cat nursing her kittens
Nursing is not only about food intake. It’s a sense of safety, communication, and learning. It should never be stopped abruptly.

We listed the end of nursing as the first cornerstone. However, it really is hard to tell which of these cornerstones is more important because they are all necessary for kittens; however, nursing is not only about the intake of food; it’s also about safety, communication, and learning.

Let’s take a look at how normally (in the wild) cats would stop nursing their kittens. Similarly, like in most household catteries, solid food is introduced to 4- to 5-week-old kittens. A mother brings home dead prey and eats it in the presence of her litter, so they can observe how to eat prey and, later, taste it.

Next, the mother brings wounded and, later, live, healthy prey, so her litter can learn hunting skills.

Simultaneously, as the amount of food presented to the kittens increases gradually, the mother’s milk intake decreases. In most cases, nursing ends when the kitten is 8 to 10 weeks old, but, sometimes, it may last for several months. At 12 weeks, milk contains no significant amount of nutrients to the kitten.

The transition from milk to solid food is gradual and starts at 4 weeks and lasts until 8 to 10 weeks. Not all breeders are aware of this and tend to either switch to solid food too rapidly or allow the milk intake to last too long. Both situations end up being an abrupt end of nursing, which causes stress and anxiety in kittens.

So, from the nursing point of view, 10 weeks of age, or when the kitten has been weaned, is the safest time for a kitten to leave its mother. If the kitten is still nursing at 12 weeks, something is wrong with the breeder’s strategy.

A kitten must learn a lot from its mother during the socialization period

mother and baby cat eating milk from bowl
Kittens must learn a ton of things from their mother. Eating solid food is just one of them.

The next important step of kitten development is early life experience.

You’ve probably heard it is necessary to start any training as early as possible because younger individuals learn quickly. But, did you know, there’s also a period of extremely intensive learning, also called a socialization period? For kittens, it’s between 2 to 8 weeks of age.

During this period, kittens imprint information provided to them. Whether it’s information about security, attitude toward humans, or learning how to use the litter box or communicate with cats, pets, and humans, it all is learned during this stage. Kittens learn most of this by observing their mother.

Even if the kitten is rehomed to a house where there is a cat from whom to learn those skills, studies have proved kittens learn the quickest when they observe their mother compared to when they observe other cats.

Any stress that the kitten is exposed to during the socialization period (rehoming, for instance, is an extremely huge stresser), may leave its marks throughout the whole life of the cat. As such, it’s recommended that kittens younger than 8 weeks should not be rehomed.

Playing with littermates is a social learning tool for kittens

Kittens playing together
Play is not childish. Play teaches kittens many skills they are not able to learn otherwise.

And last, but not least, kittens benefit a lot from being near their littermates. How? Play!

“So what?” some may ask. “I can play with my kitten, too.”

It’s not as easy. Play between kittens undergoes several complex stages as they grow up. It’s really hard to substitute it.

What do kittens learn from playing with other kittens? Play helps develop hunting behavior and motor coordination. It is a significant tool that promotes environment exploration, encourages maturation of the central nervous system, helps bond and form social structures with other cats, and teaches about pain (how their actions cause pain to others).

All the three stages of development are important in the later life of kittens. These three cornerstones occur simultanousely; however, these stages of development can begin at different times depending on the kitten. We recommend littermates should not be separated until they are 12 weeks old; but, of course, the learning continues, and this is one of the reasons why we say if you’re getting a kitten, take two from the same litter. If you’ve had the luck to observe two older kittens playing, you should have noticed it’s not easy to tell whether they are playing or fighting. This is when they truly learn how their actions may cause pain to others and how to limit such actions. Normally, this kind of play occurs between 10 to 12 weeks, and, if it is skipped, the future owners of the adult cat may not be very pleased.

How does all this tell us at what age kittens can leave their mother?

  1. The socialization period of kittens normally lasts until 8 weeks of age, which is one reason why 8 weeks is the earliest a kitten can leave its mother.
  2. The mother queen’s nursing of her kittens should not end abruptly; weaning can be done safely at around 8 to 10 weeks of age. The weaning process must be carried out properly.
  3. Play is not just play; it is an important learning tool. Normally, play between kittens ceases at 12 weeks, when it’s replaced by play with toys. This is why it is best to wait until a kitten is 12 weeks old before it is rehomed.

Have you considered getting an adult cat instead of a kitten? It’s not do or don’t because both kittens and adult cats have their own advantages and disadvantages, as you can read in our next article of the series about getting your first cat.