How old is old enough?

A kitten with an intense look on its face.

This little girl looks ready for anything.

Well if you ask any experienced veterinarian that question you will likely be told that kittens should probably not leave their homes until a minimum age of twelve weeks and Bengal kittens are no different.

So why do we see ads in the paper advertising kittens ready to go at six or eight weeks of age? Why have so many of us cat owners received kittens, or perhaps even given kittens, under 12 weeks? The answer is largely ignorance.

No ethical breeder places their kittens earlier then 11 weeks and the vast majority of breeders wait the full 12 weeks.

There are a host of issues associated with rehoming an under developed kitten. Between six and twelve weeks a kitten goes though many crucial growth milestones and removing it from its mother, siblings, and familiar surroundings will at best cause stress and at worst it can be the root cause of numerous medical problems. There is more then just the medical issues though.

Correctly socializing your kitten is crucial in taking it from the pet level to the companion level and its tough to achieve the best results if the kitten was emotionally traumatized at a young age.

Immune system development
Kittens usually receive their first shots at six to seven weeks and immunity from vaccination can take up to ten days to become effective. Up to about seven to eight weeks the kittens are protected by their mothers immune system . That protection starts slowly wearing off as the immunity from vaccination is just starting to take over. Undue stress at this time can open the door to illness, such as upper-respiratory problems and diarrhea. Even the best planned and implemented rehoming will cause extreme stress.

Diarrhea, weight loss and dehydration
Diarrhea is the common result of changes in diet and stress that come from rehoming. Older kittens with enough body mass generally handle stress related bouts of diarrhea reasonably well as long as care and attention is given.

Headshot of a sleeping female Bengal

Mom is taking a much needed rest.

For small kittens however dehydration can result in rapid weight loss and that is a serious problem when they do not have much body mass to begin with. If they do not have the body mass their health can fail extremely quickly and kittens die from this all of the time. It is generally the breeder that gets the blame under the assumption that they were sold a sickly kitten. There is no reason in most cases to believe that the kitten was sickly but the breeder should still take the blame. The kitten was usually just to young to be removed from it mother.

So we mentioned that the kitten receives much of its immunity to disease from mothers milk up to the age of seven or eight weeks. Around six weeks the mother will start weaning the kittens off of her milk. Weaning is not an on or off proposition. Just because a kitten has started to eat solids certainly doesn’t mean it is ready for a solids based diet. It is a very important process that occurs over a period of weeks. As their body slowly learns to adapt to its new food source they are being taught some essential social skills as well. It should not be interrupted.

The mother will start refusing to nurse the kitten with the same regularity it has enjoyed up till then. Through this process she teaches the kitten how to cope with frustration and from the kittens perspective it is extremely frustrating. They must experience this lesson to avoid developing some types of behavioral problems. It is also the time the kitten starts to assert its independence.

Allowed to follow its normal course the kitten will be much better prepared psychologically to be rehomed. The process lays the beginning steps of proper socialization and when interrupted often results in a nervous and whiny cat.

One of the common reasons people express for the desire for a younger kitten is the belief that the kitten will not bond with them once older. Although completely false it is a persistent falsehood.

A Bengal kitten looking for trouble.

A Bengal kitten looking for trouble.

Under the guidance of their mother they learn how to interact with other cats and the world at large. It is in the kittens nature to be nervous and wary of anything new and they take many cues from their mothers as they watch her interact with their surroundings. It is from her that they not only learn how to tell potential harm from the harmless, but how to react to the new and unknown. This is why a well socialized mother tends to have well socialized kittens. It is not necessarily a genetic trait but it is passed on over the generations just the same.

During this period they should be exposed to a variety of people as it will help pave the way for a companion that doesn’t display specific oddities like a fear of men, or of people wearing hats, people with beards or other quirks.

There is no question that kittens who are separated at too young an age from their mothers will often bond strongly to a person as a surrogate mother but it is an unhealthy type of bond. They will often suckle on clothing, fingers, earlobes or on themselves. They might become dependent to the point that they are skittish and nervous and do poorly when left alone. They might display poor litter habits and commonly do not know how to socialize with other cats making them poor companions in a multi cat household.

Older kittens will bond to humans just fine. Some breeds, like Bengal’s, form extremely strong bonds, some breeds do not. Regardless, there is no question that if the kitten is left with its mother to at least the age of twelve weeks it will result in a kitten that is much better emotionally equipped to handle a long term relationship with a human.

an very intense looking little kitten

They depend on us to make the right choices for them.

The Kitten at Twelve to 13 Weeks
By this time most kittens should be fully weaned, received adequate socialization, have received their full series of kitten shots and have gotten through the immune systems change over period. If they have been, and continue to be, properly handled and socialized these kittens have the foundation in place to allow the the finer traits of the breed to develop correctly.

Breeder ethics and responsibilities
You can generally use a sellers willingness to rehome a kitten under twelve weeks as one of the methods to recognize a breeder whose primary interest is in the income vs the the best interest of the kitten. It costs significantly more to keep them until they are twelve weeks or older but ethical breeders accept it as a basic responsibility.

Remember the goal
When you are looking for a companion keep in mind that although the kitten phase is perhaps the cutest phase of a cats life, it is also the shortest. You need to remember that you are acquiring a friend that will be with you for many years. What is the point of acquiring one of ┬áthe worlds greatest companion animals if you compromise it’s ability to develop into that companion?