If you're caring for a mother cat and her kindle of kittens you should start looking for good homes for them as soon as possible. Once you have good homes waiting, comes the question:
When can the kittens leave their mom?
Is it ok for you to give the kittens away once they start eating solid foods? Or should you wait until they are fully weaned (and when would that even be?) Or is there some other criterion you should be looking at?
You could also be facing the same question from the other side of the equation, as someone looking to adopt a kitten from a rescuer or a breeder. Those tiny kittens are just so adorable, aren't they? Why can't you just get yours right away?
The short answer is that kittens should stay with the mother cat until they are 12-16 weeks old. In fact, according to the Cat Fanciers Association, one of the ways to tell if a breeder is reputable is that he or she will never sell a kitten younger than 12 weeks old.
Curious as to why this is the recommended age span?
There are two main considerations for deciding on the right age for a kitten to leave its mother -
1. The kitten should be young enough to be able to easily adjust to its new home.
Kittens have an easier time adjusting to a new environment and new people when they are younger. Their brains are more flexible and it is easier for them to deal with changes. They don't have that many memories from their place of birth and as long as they get good care and plenty of attention and love in their new home, they should do very well.
There is no specific "cutoff" point when kittens or cats can no longer adjust to a new home. Given enough time and the right care and taking their temperament into account, even senior cats can become wonderful loving pets and bond with new owners. That said, as a rule of thumb, the younger the cat, the faster and easier the adjustment and bonding.
Have you recently adopted a cat? Read this:
2. The kitten should have enough time with its mother and siblings to learn "cat etiquette".
Feline behavior is determined by several factors. Some behaviors are entirely based on instinct. Others are taught. Some have a middle ground, involving some instinct and some learned aspects. The best teacher for the Ways Of The Cat is the mother cat. Some kittens will pick up on these behaviors instinctually but others need their Mom to show them. Also, interaction with the mother cat and with their siblings helps establish their ability to connect with other cats later on in their lives. For a cat to acquire good feline manners they should spend a few weeks playing and play-fighting with their siblings. That's how they learn to control and regulate biting and scratching, for example.
So, at what age can kittens be separated from their mother?
Ideally, it should be 12-16 weeks old. That is the age span when they have already had enough time to learn how to behave themselves, yet are still young and flexible to quickly adjust to a new home. If for any reason you can't wait until the kittens are 12 weeks old, at the very least try to keep them with the mother cat until they are able to eat solid foods which is usually at least 8 weeks old. If you can hold off on separating them, any additional day you give them will benefit their mental and social development.
Are there exceptions to this rule?
Yes. The exception would be with feral kittens. These kittens were born to a feral mother and never had any contact with humans. In this case, the need to socialize them with humans overrides their need to socialize with their mother and even siblings. If they stay with their mother for too long, they will learn to fear humans. If you care for a feral cat and her kittens, it's best to separate the kittens at 8 weeks of age. That's when they can already eat on their own but are young enough to overcome the fear of humans and be successfully tamed. Some experts even suggest 6-8 weeks as the appropriate time span, depending on the specific situation and whether you are able to keep both feral mother and kittens inside with you.
If you are inexperienced with caring for feral cats please post in our Caring For Strays & Ferals forum and ask our members for guidance and advice.
"Oh, no! I got my kitten when he was only 4 weeks old!"
Sometimes kittens are adopted at a very young age. Rescued kittens can be as young as a day old - separated from their mother for unknown reasons. In other cases, backyard breeders or irresponsible cat owners who allow their cat to breed, may be unaware of the guidelines and separate their kittens too early.
If you already have the kitten in your possession, all you can do is learn all you can about kitten care and try to provide your kitten with the appropriate environment and stimulation he or she needs. Please spay and neuter your kitten in time as well.
Need more help? Post your question in the Pregnant Cat & Kittens forum.