The early days of a kitten's life have lasting effects on a cat's behavior. Early weaning, fighting for food, having no sense of territory are all events that can alter behavior. When deciding to bring a new companion pet into your family, it is essential to know how that kitten began its life. Keeping kittens within their feline family unit in a home environment for 12-14 weeks benefits their lifelong behavior.
Many factors explain why it is essential for a kitten to stay with its family unit for 12-14 weeks. The first is the negative impact of early weaning. In 2017 Scientific Reports published a study that discovered "Early Weaning Increases Aggression and Stereotypic Behavior in Cats." The effects are rooted in both biological and environmental causes. Early removal of kittens from their Mom can affect dopamine and serotonin levels, which we know are connected with emotional wellness. Due to the chemical changes in the brain, kittens weaned before eight weeks have an increased chance of being aggressive adult cats, and kittens weaned at 12-14 weeks are "significantly less likely to display aggression towards strangers than early-weaned cats." Early weaning affects shyness again, with kittens weaned before 12-14 weeks being shyer than those weaned later. Overall, the risk of developing the most common behavioral problems increases with early weaning. Therefore, the study on early weaning concludes that "delayed weaning [is] a simple means to improve the quality of life in domestic cats."
Beyond the possible chemical changes in the brain, why does early weaning cause behavioral problems? Kittens have a lot to learn from their family unit, and if they are removed from that family unit at too young of an age, they miss out on these crucial lessons. One of their first lessons is one in communication - how to read and project cat body language. Their first lesson in communication will be their communication with Mom and her response to their interaction. But they will also watch Mom communicate with other cats in the family unit, and they too will begin to interact with others in the family unit. Most pet cats will be in a home with another cat - either immediately or at some point in their lifetime. To coexist with other cats, they must learn cat body language. Body language in the cat world is a make-it-or-break-it skill. If a cat doesn't learn to approach another cat correctly, it may never be able to integrate with other cats and be labeled as cat aggressive. Kittens best learn to communicate appropriately with other cats within their homegroup of cats. We can see how vital these communication skills are when observing kittens that are bottle raised by a human with no other cat in the household. When these cats try to meet and interact with another cat, they cannot read or display cat body language, making the feline relationship quite tricky.
Body language lessons are essential in learning how to claim and be comfortable in a shared territory. A cat's security, and therefore happiness, all hinges upon its ability to claim and retain territory. This lesson has to be learned in a home environment; it can't be taught within a cage's confines. Once the kittens are potty trained, they must begin to explore beyond a restricted environment. Expanding their environment allows them to observe and smell how cats appropriately claim and retain territory by rubbing their scent glands on their home objects. The kittens watch adult cats confidently move throughout the home and appropriately place their scent on items through scratching and rubbing; this becomes the norm for the kittens. Having experienced and lived within a home peacefully shared by other cats can help prevent territory insecurity because it has been established as normal. Kittens who are caged through their first 12 weeks do not get this experience, so just staying with the breeder for 12-14 weeks isn't the only factor to consider. When looking for a purebred kitten, one needs to know how the kitten lives within that time frame. If a kitten spends its first 12 weeks in a cage, it is more difficult for that cat to feel secure in the larger environment.
Another critical aspect of growing up in a nurturing home is equal access to unlimited quantities of food. Kittens need a lot of food. If they grow up in an environment where food is scarce, that teaches them that food has to be fought for and protected, putting them on the defense around other cats. It can make them food aggressive to the point where they will bite or scratch anyone - human, cat, dog - that comes near their food while eating.
Finally, simply filling a kitten's life with positive experiences, not negative ones, decreases the likelihood of emotional issues such as PTSD. If a kitten has a traumatizing occurrence in its early life, that can continue to affect it, causing fear when it hears an associated noise or sees an associated object.
Unfortunately, most anxieties within cats do not surface until the onset of maturity, so one may not see the effects of a deprived or traumatic kittenhood until the cat is over a year old. It is entirely possible that one could bring a kitten home and not fully experience the adverse behavioral effects of a poor upbringing until the kitten has grown into an adult cat. Buying a purebred pet should offer the purchaser some securities, but they need to make sure they are buying from a breeder who offers their kittens the best beginning. A breeder must keep their kittens for at least 12 weeks, and the kittens must have room to roam and expand their territory once they are potty trained. By having their first territory expansion into a more significant portion of the home within a safe homegroup of cats, they learn to communicate with cat body language and rub their cheeks on objects to claim and retain the territory. When looking for a new kitten, make sure it will stay with its breeder for the first 12-14 weeks and that it will live in a home environment with other cats.