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Why breeders dont let their babies leave before 12 weeks.......

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How Young is Too Young?

How old should a kitten be when it goes to a new home?

by Barbara C. French
First printed in CATS Magazine, February 2000. Reprinted with permission.

Dorie Wilkins* (*name changed to protect identity) had only been breeding Ragdolls for almost two years, and had produced her second litter. She was approached by a nice young couple who wanted a kitten, but they objected to her policy of selling kittens at twelve weeks of age. They were concerned the kitten would not bond with them. They pointed to newspaper ads advertising kittens 'ready to go' at six or eight weeks. "I let them talk me into it," sighs Wilkins. "I sold kittens at twelve weeks because that's what everyone else seemed to be doing. I didn't really know why." She relented and let one of the kittens go to its new home at seven weeks of age.

The kitten was returned at ten weeks, weighing less than it had when it had gone to its new home three weeks before. The owners complained that the kitten had the sniffles and chronic diarrhea and wasn't using the litterbox. It hadn't settled in with their resident cat, and the kitten spent much of its time hiding under the couch. "They said they'd never get a purebred cat again, because obviously they're not healthy," Wilkins relates. With veterinary care and a lot of TLC, the kitten was back on its paws in a few weeks. Wilkins waited until this kitten was almost six months old before placing it again.

The kitten's problems had nothing to do with its heritage.

"Kittens should leave their homes at a minimum age of twelve weeks," says Dr. Betsy Arnold, DVM, a veteran Siamese breeder and veterinarian with an all-feline practice in Rochester, New York called Caring for Cats. "In my practice I have seen kittens coming in at six and seven weeks who weight twelve, maybe fourteen ounces. These are infants. They needed to stay with their mothers."

Twelve weeks may seem old to people accustomed to seeing newspaper ads advertising kittens who are "ready to go" at six or eight weeks of age. Most of us who have had cats have acquired kittens that young. They are cute at that age, and most people enjoy having such young kittens to watch them grow. However, we may permanently harm kittens by separating them from their mothers so early. There are crucial mental, emotional, and developmental milestones that a kitten experiences between six and twelve weeks of age. Separating the kitten from mother, siblings, and familiar surroundings at that age can cause undue anxiety and stress at the least, and serious medical problems or even death in the very worst cases.


Problems with immunity and health

"One of my main concerns with early separation is that kittens' immune systems are really developing between eight and twelve weeks of age," says Dr. Arnold. "The immunity from their mother is wearing off, and the immunity from vaccination is just starting to take over. During this time, they are more susceptible to illness, such as upper-respiratory problems and diarrhea." Kittens generally receive vaccinations against panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis, and calici viruses (commonly called the "distemper combination" shot) at six, nine, and twelve weeks of age. However, immunity from vaccination does not happen immediately; shots can take up to ten days to be effective. Up until this time, kittens receive some measure of immunity through antibodies from their mother's milk, but this is also the age where they are beginning to wean. Their immune system "kicks over" from immunity from mother's milk to immunity from vaccination. During this time, their immune system is busy with this task, leaving the kitten less able to fight off other illnesses. "The stress of going to a new home and being exposed to different germs can make the kitten more susceptible to illness during this time," adds Dr. Arnold.

At six or seven weeks, a kitten has only received his or her first shot series; the new owner must remember to give the second boosters. Sometimes they forget, and this can have disastrous results. Himalayan and Persian breeder Barbara Redalia of Tuleburg Cattery recalls, " Once a pet purchaser bought a kitten from us, neglected to give it the second vaccination, and when their son became allergic, returned the cat to us. Unfortunately the cat had contracted rhinotracheitis at their home and exposed a pregnant cat to this virus at our house. This cat, whose own immunity to rhinotracheitis was apparently waning, became extremely ill, miscarried her litter, and was eventually euthanized."

"I have spoken to many new pet owners who have purchased their kittens at eight weeks of age, which is the minimum legal age in Florida," says Susan Geren, who breeds Persians and Himalayans under the cattery name Pyewacket. "The overwhelming majority of them had health problems with their new babies, probably caused by the stress of being separated from their siblings and mother at such an early age. I have explained to them my reasons for not placing my kittens early and suggested that in the future they use this as a gauge to ascertain which breeders are more interested in the income provided by kitten sales than they are in placing healthy, well adjusted kittens. It is most definitely more expensive to keep kittens until they are four to five months old."

Some studies have shown that vaccination at six weeks might be too early. "I once lost a 10-month-old cat to panleukopenia (feline distemper)," recounts Mary Tyson of Thaison Siamese. "After long discussions between the vaccine manufacturer and my vet, Pittman Moore's research head concluded that it was not a bad batch of vaccine. Cornell [Feline Health Center], which had done the post mortem analysis (and also analyzed blood samples taken while the cat was still alive), concluded in conjunction with Pittman Moore that some cats do not develop lasting immunity from vaccines administered earlier than 16 weeks of age, and this cat had had his last shots at 12 weeks. Thereafter I maintained a policy of not letting kittens leave home until they had had their shots at 16 weeks old." "The most important reason I place kittens at 12 weeks of age (or older) is because kittens can be extremely fragile, and putting them in a new home and environment puts additional stress on them, upping the chances of getting sick," says Burmese breeder Jaina Wendtland. "When this happens the kitten buyer blames the seller, and rightly so in many cases."

When a kitten is ready to leave may also vary from cat to cat, or from breed to breed. Some cats are simply not big enough to go on their own until they are a bit older. Devon Rex breeder Carole Goodwin notes that cats of her breed are small and need a full twelve weeks to mature and socialize. Amanda Bright, who breeds Russian Blues under the cattery names of Kyina and Talisker, notes that her breed tends to be slender and she feels the cats need more body mass to handle vaccinations. She feels it is wiser to vaccinate them a bit later so that the cats can better handle problems if they occur.

From a health standpoint, it is best to allow the kitten to receive its entire first shot series, including boosters, while at home in familiar surroundings. First shots are not enough to confer immunity, and the kitten needs time for its immune system to change over completely from one system (mother's milk) to another (vaccination). They should also be of a sufficient size and physical maturity before they are ready.

Problems with eating and eliminating

"Weaning isn't an event; it's a process," says Dr. Arnold. "They don't just start eating food one day. They eat a little food, nurse, eat a little, nurse, and so on. Eventually they eat more than they nurse, and then stop nursing altogether. This doesn't happen by six or eight weeks of age."

Left to their own devices, mothers will eventually stop allowing kittens to nurse. With most cats this occurs naturally anywhere from eight to twelve weeks. However, this process is very important, as it teaches the kitten to learn to deal positively with frustration and denial. As the mother starts refusing to allow the kitten to nurse, which the kitten very much wants to do, she teaches the kitten how to cope with that frustration. Kittens who do not learn this lesson may develop behavioral problems.

Weaning is not simply a matter of getting a kitten to eat solid food. It's an important time when the kitten begins to assert its independence from its mother. This needs to be a gradual process. "For the most part, my babies still nurse at 9 and 10 weeks, and sometime beyond," says Rosi Carroll of Bengals by RoJon. "I have never had a customer call me up after picking up one of my kittens, complaining about the kitten meowing for its mother. They settle right in to their new environment."

It's also common for too-young kittens to eat poorly and have litterbox problems. Many kittens at age six to eight weeks aren't consistently using the litterbox. I have found that my own kittens can take up to ten weeks to have litterbox habits down pat. And diarrhea can accompany the changes in diet and stress that come with a new home. Diarrhea can be life-threatening to a small kitten; severe dehydration and rapid weight loss is a serious problem when one has so little body mass to start.

Problems with socialization and behavior

People often express a desire to have a younger kitten because they are afraid the kitten will not bond with them once older. This is simply not true. As Ann Segrest of Kiriki Korats says, "The older kittens bond with their new humans just fine. Cats do not have, nor do they need to establish their place in the "pack" like dogs must do. This is the myth that must be dispelled so that kittens will have the opportunity to learn from their mothers and be as healthy and stress-free as possible when they go to their new homes."

It is true that kittens who are separated at a young age from their mothers will often bond to a person as a surrogate mother. This may seem cute, but it's unhealthy. Such kittens will often suck on blankets, clothing, buttons, even earlobes or on themselves. They may become dependent upon humans to the point that they become fearful or neurotic when left alone. Many hide or run at the sight of unknown people. Most commonly, however, cats who are deprived of proper socialization don't learn how to be with other cats. This makes them especially inappropriate as house pets in a multicat household.

The kitten socialization phase starts at about four weeks of age and can continue until up to fourteen weeks old. Kittens learn to explore their world through this period, under the comforting guidance of their mother. Between nine and fourteen weeks old, they learn from their mother and siblings how to interact with other cats. They learn how to recognize and interpret cat body language. Quite literally, a cat who misses out on this important social step may not learn how to "talk" to other cats.

It's also during this time when the kitten needs to be exposed to variety of people in a positive way so that it doesn't become afraid of different types of people. Improper early socialization is why some cats seem to be afraid of men, or of people with glasses, or other odd quirks.

Manx breeder Marj Baker was faced with having to raise three kittens whose mother had become unable to care for them when they were three weeks old. "[These kittens] were biters - well, actually just nibblers; they wanted to chew on my fingers -- and wanted my full attention all the time. The also loved my hair to chew on and any item of clothing that was mine got licked and chewed. They seemed very mouth oriented and were very unhappy if left alone by themselves. Most Manx are happy to entertain themselves most of the time but not these three. They also were harder to [train to use a litterbox], finding the floor a convenient place to squat. I guess I was not a very good mom cat."

Deborah Feldham of Glendoveer's Abyssinians had a similar story. "In one instance I took in two orphaned kittens that I had to syringe feed because they were so young," she says. "They were not easy kittens to work with. They were jealous and insecure, often showing their insecurities by going to the bathroom in inappropriate places and scratching or hissing at strangers. I believe that if these kittens had been born in a more secure environment and raised with their mother [to an older age], they would have been better prepared, emotionally, to fit into their new homes. Kittens learn from mothers, littermates and their surroundings."

Kittens need the time with their mothers and siblings to learn important life lessons - lessons that will make them happy, healthy, confident kittens. "I have seen kittens taken from their mother too young become cloth chewers and neurotic," says June Abbott Colwell of Velpaws Siamese. "[Kittens] not only need to be with their mothers, but also with their siblings. They learn proper acceptable play behavior from both mother and siblings. Kittens taken away too young are not as tolerant or as sure of themselves as older kittens."


At twelve weeks of age, most kittens are weaned or nearly fully so, have had adequate socialization with mother and siblings, have received their full series of kitten shots, and have gotten through the critical immune system "kick-over" period. Properly handled and socialized by people, these kittens have learned to explore their world and will meet it with a happy, outgoing confidence that will carry them throughout their lifetime. This may vary from cat to cat, or breed to breed.

The important thing to remember is this: it should be the kitten's current and future well-being that drives the decision of age to place, not finances or a simple desire to have a younger kitten for whatever reason. Kittenhood is a fleeting time. You will have a kitten only for a short time, but the cat may be with you for many years to come. You may find it personally disappointing to allow a kitten an extra month or two with its mother when you had hoped to have it earlier, but it will make a world of difference to the mental, emotional, and physical health to the kitten throughout its entire life. If you are searching for a pet through a shelter, you may not have an option. If you are getting a kitten through an acquaintence or through a breeder, insist on at least twelve weeks for the kitten's health. You will have a healthier, happier, and better socialized feline friend because of it.



A Winn Feline Foundation Report

Are fears of negative side effects of early neutering warranted? Background and medical issues including a summary of an ongoing Winn Foundation funded project to evaluate the long term effects of early altering.

Developmental and Behavioral Effects of Prepubertal Gonadectomy. Mark S. Bloomberg, DVM, MS; W.P. Stubbs, DVM; D.F. Senior, BVSc; Thomas J. Lane, BS, DVM; University of Florida at Gainesville. Funded by the Winn Feline Foundation, February 1991. Continuation funded February 1992.

A progress report on a study funded by The Winn Feline Foundation

Summary prepared by Diana Cruden, Ph.D.

The concept of early spaying and neutering (e.g. before the animal is sexually mature) is not a new one. In the early 1900's, early neutering was the norm and it was not until much later that questions were raised about the negative side effects of such a procedure. Today most of the experts acknowledge that there has not been enough scientific information available about the most appropriate age to neuter a pet. Until recently, there was no research data that either supported or disproved the idea that neutering dogs and cats at ages younger than five to eight months was deleterious. There is, in fact, little scientific basis for selecting this age group as the most appropriate time for neutering. Indeed, one investigator points out that many veterinarians have been practicing early neutering for years, since there is an incredible range of ages when puppies and kittens reach sexual maturity. Large animal practitioners have long practiced early neutering on their livestock and consider it not only acceptable, but desirable in many cases. Even before concerns for the burgeoning population of unwanted pets raised our collective consciousness, there were many scientifically documented reasons to spay and castrate. Spayed females are protected against mammary cancer and uterine infections. In males, castration reduces the risk of testicular cancer and enlargement of the prostate and related infections. From the pet owners point of view, the spayed or castrated pet is a much better companion. They are less aggressive and more affectionate than their unaltered counterparts. Since they are not driven by the urge to reproduce, they are less likely to roam and fight.

Controlled studies into the short- and long-term effects of early neutering have been sadly lacking until recently. While there had been numerous anecdotal reports of early spaying and neutering, these cases were generally uncontrolled from the scientific viewpoint. Most reported cases were random bred, unrelated animals from a variety of backgrounds and no attempt was made to control for these variations. There have been few university based studies in this area. M.A. Herron of Texas A&M reported in 1972 that neutering before sexual maturity had relatively little effect on the diameter of the urethra in male cats. Studies have more recently been conducted at Angell Memorial Hospital in Boston, the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota, and the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at the University of Florida. The Florida project, begun in 1991 and completed in 1992, was funded by the Winn Feline Foundation in conjunction with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). A serious attempt was made in this study to limit background influences and genetic variation. The kittens were bred especially for the project and litter mates were divided among the three groups. The queens were bred and housed in quarantined facilities since both pre- and post-natal nutrition and other factors can contribute to the ultimate size, weight, and overall health of the kittens. Dr. Mark Bloomberg indicates that although long-term follow-up results are incomplete, the initial results are extremely positive. Prior to undertaking the Winn Foundation study, Dr. Bloomberg had completed a similar study in dogs. Animals involved in that study have now been followed for over five years, with no negative side effects reported. In the Winn Foundation study, there were a total of 31 domestic shorthair kittens from 7 litters born on the Gainesville campus.

The kittens were divided into three groups:  

  • Group 1 (11 kittens) were neutered or spayed at 7 weeks of age.
  • Group 2 (11 kittens) were neutered or spayed at 7 months.
  • Group 3 (the control group of 9 kittens) were not neutered until maturity and after the completion of the first phase of the study at 12 months.

The investigators reported that the surgical procedures in the Group 1 kittens were straightforward and uncomplicated, and that the kittens recovered even more rapidly than the Group 2 kittens and Group 3 cats. Dr. Bloomberg notes that although there is very little material on pediatric anesthesia in animals, the pediatric patient in human medicine is generally considered to be a very good surgical candidate and there is no reason why this should not also be true for dogs and cats. The major concerns in pediatric surgery are: preventing hypothermia (maintaining body heat); utilizing proper doses of anesthetic agents (since the respiratory centers are not as well developed in the pediatric patient); and maintaining proper blood glucose. The investigators did not fast the pediatric patients as long as adult patients and administered small amounts of Karo syrup prior to induction of anesthesia as a precaution. It should be noted that due to the rapid recovery of the pediatric patient, the common practice of reducing anesthesia during final stages of the surgery was modified.

Critics have claimed several possible detrimental side effects from early neutering. It is commonly believed that neutered animals are less active and more prone to obesity than unaltered animals. It was also suggested that neutering at an early age would stunt normal growth. In male cats in particular, it was feared that early castration would affect the development of the urinary tract and lead to an increased incidence of cystitis or urinary obstruction. Concerns have also been raised as to the effect of early neutering on behavior, food consumption and dietary requirements, etc. The investigators attempted to answer most of these questions by evaluating several parameters in the three groups of kittens. In particular, they looked at weight and body composition (i.e., percent of body fat); bone length and the age of physeal closure (the age when long bone growth stops); behavior; food consumption; development of the urinary tract; and the development of secondary sexual characteristics and degree of sexual maturity.

The results of the comparisons of weight showed some differences between the three groups. Males weighed consistently more than females, but this was uniform in all groups. The studies of body composition and body fat indicated that Group 1 (neutered at 7 weeks) and Group 2 (neutered at 7 months) were identical and were generally fatter than Group 3 (neutered at 12 months, after they were sexually mature). Investigators point out that by 12 months, the male cats in Group 3 were already exhibiting the normal adult male characteristics of decreased weight and the development of jowls, which accounts for some of the differences. It has also been noted that in the course of follow-up, the differences between the weight in cats from Group 1 and 2 and Group 3 are becoming less apparent. All these cats have been placed in selected and supervised pet homes and are more active than they were in the University facilities. A three-year follow-up exam was to be conducted in May of 1994.


There was generally no difference in food consumption between the three groups other than the differences between males and females, which were consistent in all groups. There was no difference observed in the growth rates in all three groups, although the males grew faster in all groups. Increased long bone length was observed in both males and females in Groups 1 and 2. This appeared to be due to the fact that physeal closing (closure of the bone growth plate) was delayed in Groups 1 & 2. This explains why cats neutered and spayed as kittens are frequently larger (longer and taller) than unaltered cats or cats altered later in life. This seems to be particularly true for males.

In terms of behavior, after 7 months, the cats in Group 3 were noticeably less affectionate and more aggressive prior to altering than the cats in Groups 1 and 2. Contrary to popular opinion, neutered animals were as active as their unaltered age mates.

Observations of urinary tract development showed no differences between the three groups other than the differences related to sex and these were consistent across all groups. The investigators measured the diameter of the urethra in the male kittens only and found no differences between the groups. Concerns have been raised that early neutering would result in smaller diameters in the urinary tract, resulting in an increased incidence of cystitis and related problems. This does not appear to be the case. The main differences observed between the groups occurred in the comparison of secondary sex characteristics. Males were examined for differences in the development of the penis and prepuce (skin covering the penis), as well as for the development of penile spines. The penile spines were absent in Group 1, smaller than normal in Group 2, and normally developed in Group 3. In the examination of the female kittens, investigators found that the vulvas were more infantile in Groups 1 and 2 and normal in Group 3. None of these differences had any impact on the ability to catheterize the kittens. Concerns that development of the urinary tract might be arrested or impaired by early spaying and neutering proved unsupported.

The results of this study so far indicate that the differences between cats neutered at 7 weeks and 7 months are insignificant. The differences observed between animals in Groups 1 and 2 and the animals in Group 3, while in some cases statistically significant, are not differences which appear to affect the health of the animal in a negative way. While the final results will depend on the analysis of long-term follow-up, the indications are that early neutering is not detrimental to the overall health of the animal. From the perspective of shelters and particularly in respect to the problem of surplus puppies and kittens these results are encouraging. If all the animals adopted from shelters, including puppies and kittens, are neutered prior to adoption, there should be a corresponding decrease in the numbers of animals euthanized each year in this country. Preliminary results from Alachua County, near the University of Florida at Gainesville, would seem to support this theory.

Alachua County Animal Control has been working with the investigators at the University and have had an early neuter policy in place since 1990. No animal leaves the shelter without being neutered. In 1987 the county euthanized 1,250 cats and dogs per month. Since implementing the early neuter policies they have seen the numbers drop to 940 per month in 1992 and there has been no increase in morbidity or mortality associated with the program.

In the last year, recognition of the safety and efficacy of early spay/neuter has grown rapidly. The American Humane Association has endorsed early neutering prior to adoption as a "feasible solution to decreasing pet overpopulation and the tragedy of resulting deaths." In July 1993, delegates to the American Veterinary Medical Association Annual Meeting voted to give AVMA's support to the concept of early neutering. Work done by veterinarians at Angell Memorial Hospital for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals supports Dr. Bloomberg's observations. Other organizations involved in early neuter programs include the Denver Dumb Friends League in Colorado, the Miami Humane Society and Alachua County Animal Control in Florida, The Humane Society of Austin and Travis County in Texas, the Chicago Animal Control in Illinois, the King County Animal Control in Washington state, the Vancouver SPCA in British Columbia and the Southern Oregon Humane Society in Oregon. The Dekalb Humane Society in Decatur, Collie Rescue of Metro Atlanta, the Georgia Alliance of Purebred Canine Rescuers, The Haven (dog rescue) and Dog River Sanctuary in Douglasville are among the Georgia organizations working with early neuter in dogs and cats, as well as exotic species.

The Cat Fanciers' Association (CFA) has changed its show rules to permit altered kittens to compete. Many breeders of pedigreed cats are working with their veterinarians to neuter pet quality kittens prior to placement in new homes. Those breeders who have adopted this policy report that they are very happy with the practice. New pet owners indicate that acquiring an already neutered animal relieves them of the worry and expense of scheduling the surgery at a later date, enabling them to relax and enjoy their new companion. As is the case for shelter managers, breeders can relax in the knowledge that the kitten they place today is not going to contribute to the surplus pet population tomorrow.

Please Note: The Winn Feline Foundation provides the feline health information on this site as a service to the public. Diagnosis and treatment of specific conditions should always be in consultation with one's own veterinarian. The Winn Feline Foundation disclaims all warranties and liability related to the veterinary advice and information provided on this site.