Responsible breeders sell their kittens at 12 weeks or older. Many do not sell their kittens until they are between four and six months old. There are some who argue that a kitten is ready to be sold at age 10 weeks; while most responsible breeders do not believe that this is best, it’s within acceptable ranges. However, any breeder who offers you a kitten younger than 10 weeks of age is not up on his or her research and doesn’t have the kitten’s best interest in mind. Run — don’t walk — from a breeder selling kittens so young.

A kitten younger than 10 weeks of age is not fully weaned or socialized. Most are not fully weaned or socialized until age 12 weeks or older. While some kitten buyers believe “the younger, the better” and that an older kitten will not bond, this simply isn’t true. Cats are not pack animals and are able to bond with new humans at any time through their lives, even into old age.

What is true is that a kitten separated from their mother too young may not learn to bond properly at all. The weeks between six and twelve weeks of age are an important time for a kitten’s emotional and mental development. It’s during this time that the kitten learns “cat language” (the body language used by other cats), learns to socialize properly with mother and siblings, learns that humans are really OK — most very young kittens largely ignore the humans around them — and develops the confidence to face the outside world alone. By age twelve weeks, the mother-kitten bond is beginning to break naturally. A kitten separated from the mother and siblings before this process is over may have lifelong problems interacting with other cats; may never be able to bond with humans properly; be fearful, skittish, or shy; and develop inappropriate attachments to items.

Most kittens, left to their own devices, will become fully weaned between ten and twelve weeks of age. Most breeders begin introducing food sometime between four and five weeks of age, and the kittens gradually substitute mother’s milk with solid food. However, weaning is a process, not an event; kittens will continue to nurse and eat food together until they stop nursing on their own or Mom begins tiring of the activity and stops allowing them to nurse. The best solution for their emotional and physical health is to let the process take its course naturally.

More importantly, the six-to-twelve week period is a critical time for a kitten’s health development. This is the time when the immune system is taking over from the immunity gained from mother’s milk to immunity gained from vaccinations. This is also a process and does not happen overnight. This period can be a stressful time for the kitten’s immature immune system. A kitten subjected to the extra stress of being taken from familiar surroundings, mother, and siblings on top of this immune system stress is far more susceptible to upper respiratory infections or digestive upsets, particularly diarrhea.

A six-to-ten week old kitten is an infant. Leave them with Mom and don’t work with a breeder who would force them to do just that.

Beware of Backyard Breeders and Pet Shops

Backyard breeders are not professionals; rather, they are people with little knowledge of cat breeding issues, such as the need to screen for genetic problems that may afflict certain breeds. In addition to increasing the risk that kittens will suffer from horrendous genetic defects and illnesses, backyard breeders often don’t know how to properly socialize kittens, and they tend to adopt them out too young, which can lead to a lifetime of physical and psychological problems. Backyard breeders can usually be recognized by their failure to register their kittens, keep them until at least 12 weeks of age, or participate in cat shows.

What age should kittens be before they are taken away from their mothers and brought to a new home?

Although many newspaper ads offer much younger kittens for sale, most veterinarians and reputable breeders say that kittens should never leave their mothers before 12 weeks of age. When kittens are separated from their mothers and siblings too early, they suffer extreme anxiety, and in some cases medical problems so severe that they actually die from them.

Problems with Early Adoption

Kittens that are taken away from their mothers too early can suffer from a variety of psychological and health problems because they miss out on critical emotional, mental, and developmental milestones that occur at 6-12 weeks of age. The following are some common problems afflicting kittens that are adopted before 12 weeks of age.

Poor Immunity – A kitten’s immune system develops between 8 and 12 weeks, and a kitten less than 12 weeks old has not received its full set of required vaccinations. A mother cat’s milk provides antibodies that protect the health of her kittens. If they are prevented from nursing before their own immune systems have become strong, kittens are more likely to succumb to a wide variety of illnesses, particularly respiratory conditions.

Rushed Weaning – Kittens shouldn’t be weaned suddenly. Rather, weaning should be a gradual process in which they alternate between nursing and eating cat food, slowly increasing the amount of cat food consumed and decreasing nursing time until nursing ceases altogether. At 6-8 weeks of age, kittens are not ready to stop nursing. Usually, a mother cat will begin denying opportunities to nurse between 8 and 12 weeks of age, and thus the kitten learns to deal with frustration in a natural way. Kittens that are taken from their mothers too soon miss out on this natural process, and are more inclined to develop behavioural problems as a result of low frustration tolerance later on.

Kittens taken before 8 weeks of age may suffer from diarrhea as a result of sudden weaning and a too-rapid shift to solid food. This condition can be life threatening, as kittens will quickly become dehydrated and lose weight rapidly. Even if they don’t develop severe diarrhea, kittens taken too early often become malnourished and fail to put on weight.

Litter Box Problems – Litter box training usually occurs between 6 and 12 weeks, and this is also a gradual process. A kitten taken too early will either not be litter trained or may have inconsistent litter box habits. This, combined with the stress of losing its family too early, can cause a kitten to develop lifelong bad habits, such as avoiding the litter box completely or using it inconsistently.

Neurotic Behaviour – While many people seek younger kittens because they mistakenly believe that an older kitten won’t bond with them properly, the reality is that older kittens have no problems bonding with new humans. A younger kitten may bond with a person as well, but it is often a neurotic bond in which the kitten is terrified of being left alone and needs to have its surrogate mother in sight at all times. Kittens adopted too young are more likely to suck on fabric, people’s earlobes, or their own fur, and they tend to run and hide when they see unknown people.

Poor Socialization– Kittens are socialized between 4 and 14 weeks of age, and it is during this critical period that they learn which behaviours are appropriate. Kittens taken too early are more likely to be hostile and aggressive toward people and other pets. They often get along poorly with other cats because they have never learned to interpret feline body language, having missed out on the longer socialization process that they should have had with their families. Overall, they are more insecure and less tolerant.

Adopting at 12 Weeks Is Ideal

While the ideal adoption age may vary somewhat from breed to breed, and even among individual kittens within a breed or a litter, most kittens should not be taken away from their mothers and siblings before 12 weeks of age. Waiting three months to adopt is worthwhile because it will increase the likelihood of having a happier and healthier cat in the long run.