If you ask 10 different veterinarians what age is appropriate for kittens to go home to be families, you are probably going to get 10 different answers. The problem isn’t the question that you’re asking or really even who you’re asking. This “problem” stems from the fact that a majority of veterinarians deal primarily with rescue/abandoned pets. Very few animals even have an option to stay with their mothers longer than just a few weeks because frequently the mother is feral and dies.
Unfortunately enough, this issue is compounded by the fact that most breeders (especially long time breeders) do not look at the science of the issue –or- they may look at the science but choose to ignore it anyway. There is a TON of information with case studies out there about this exact topic. UC Davis, AAHA, & the National Institute of Health have all done studies about early maternal separation. And they aren’t the only ones.
Responsible breeders will not remove a kitten from it’s mother prior to 12 weeks of age. Early weaning can lead to:
- Aggression – Mother cats teach kittens “basic manners” during these later weeks. Mother cats will instigate “play fights” with their kittens during this time and rile the kitten up. This teaches the kittens the threshold for biting/scratching. They teach kittens thresholds for playing. Kittens that are weaned early and don’t get these lessons from their mothers can grow to be “aggressive”. They will bite and scratch because they haven’t been taught that this is not acceptable behavior.
- Pica (eating non-edible items) – this generally starts by trying to suckle an object like a blanket but quickly leads to attempting to eat the object. This could be straws or hair elastics. Pica often leads to gastrointestinal blockages – which can lead to death. Pica can also lead to a kitten chewing on cables/cords – which can lead to electrocution.
Also….kittens grow incredibly fast between weeks 8 and 12. This quick growth can be really stressful on kitten bodies causes a chain reaction. Quick growth -> stresses the immune system -> lowers the immune system response -> can lead to bacterial infections. Bacterial infections at that age can lead to lethargy and ultimately death within hours. An experienced breeder can see these signs early and with normal every day supplies that a typical breeder has on hand, they can resolve an infection quickly versus taking days to get into a vet appointment. Most fur-parents don’t know what to look for in these situations and don’t know to do something as simple as pinching a cat/kittens skin to test for dehydration. It isn’t a matter of being a bad fur-parent. It is a matter of just not understanding the needs of a young kitten coupled with not having the supplies on hand to cope with an issue like this.
Kittens that go home at 12 weeks or more have more muscle and body weight to withstand stressors. Assuming proper socialization, they are also confident and better adjusted.
Here are some articles from UC Davis, AAHA and NIH:
AAHA “Orphaned Kittens Show More Stress”
UC Davis “Abnormal Eating Habits in Cats”
NIH “Early Weaning Increases Aggression and Stereotypic Behaviors in Cats”
How Do Mom Cats Discipline Kittens
5 Ways to Know Your Kitten Was Taken Away from Its Mother Too Soon