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The life of a kitten - early behavioral development

The previous section concentrated on the physical development of a kitten, here we will look at the mental and behavioral changes which take place in the first few weeks of a cat's life. For the first three of these weeks the kitten depends entirely on her mother for nursing. The nursing is initiated by the mother, who decides when to allow the kittens access to milk. After these first weeks the mother starts slowly introducing her kittens to solid food. During the first month, mother spends about 80% of her time in the nest with the kittens. But mother also has places to see and things to do, so by six weeks she spends only about 10-20% of her time with the kittens. This forces the kittens to look elsewhere for relationships, which in the first three weeks have been exclusively with the mother. But with mother away, the kittens begin to see their siblings as other than something to climb over on the way to a teat, and they start taking an interest in humans if these are at hand.

The kittens are introduced to the solid food. With wild and feral cats, this is prey brought by their mother. The domestic cat has the somewhat easier role of nudging the kitten toward her bowl of kitty food). At four to six weeks kittens may start hunting/tracking their food bowl for themselves. The initial hunting reflex is stimulated by the mother who will bring the live prey for the kittens to experiment with, an educational process little appreciated by any humans who share the premises. The hunting is very much left to the kittens natural instincts and the mother only interferes when the kitten starts to lose control. Some skills are developed by watching and imitating the mother's or siblings. However in experiments where the kittens have been left without any external stimuli or play during the first weeks of life, the cats were nevertheless good hunters as adults. This means that some hunting skills are actually instinctive in cats and perhaps genetically coded. So how much does it's upbringing affect a kitten's mental development?

In the case of hunting skills, instinct and mental hard-wiring are probably dominant, but this is clearly not always the case. A good example of upbringing being important is in the choice of prey. Research shows that a cat's choice of prey is strongly affected by the mother's preferences. So for example, cats which were introduced to mice and rats as young will hunt both, but cats which were never taught that rats are suitable victims, will prefer to hunt mice only. This does not mean that they will never kill anything else when a good opportunity presents itself, but they will not specifically go out looking for that species. It has also been shown that cats 'play' with mice because although their instincts teach them to catch the creatures, mother's input is required to demonstrate the bite to the back of the neck which should actually finish the hapless rodent off.

Interestingly if the kitten is brought up alongside with a pet rat/hamster, the kitten will show no aggression towards it. Indeed it may bond and try playing with it (in a friendly way). If the kitten has siblings, it will play mostly with these. This helps the kitten to become more sociable toward its own species, but it will still show no aggression towards pet rodents. Again, apparently a case of upbringing over-riding inbuilt instinct.

Cats are carnivores, and given a choice they will always opt for meat. But mother can still teach them otherwise. In a set of experiments, a mother was trained to eat unusual food, for example bananas. When the kitten was then introduced to solids and fed without the mother being there, the kitten was emphatically uninterested in bananas. However, once it saw saw its mother eating them, it followed suit and started to chewing bananas despite the meat in the dish beside it. Furthermore, once conditioned it would eat bananas even when the mother cat was not there. Likewise, kittens can learn certain tasks very quickly by watching their mothers. For example, if the food is introduced from a dispenser, where a lever has to be pushed to supply the food, the kittens are unable to get to the food by trial and error. However, after watching how mother operates the food supply, they quickly catch on. When the kittens watched their own mother and a strange cat doing the same task, the kittens learned faster when their mother was doing it. Kittens left to learn from watching a strange cat took considerably longer to understand what they should do. This may well be due to the trust which kittens have in their mother. With their mother, the kittens follow her example unquestioningly, but when a strange cat does something, the kittens need several examples before they are convinced that it is safe to try the same thing.

Most of these experiments confirm that mother-kitten relationships are very important during a kitten's early development. Septing a kitten from the mother too soon will lead to a abnormal behaviour. For example, kittens separated from their mother at about two weeks after birth are usually more fearful and consequently often more aggressive towards other cats and humans.


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