A kitten should stay with his mother until a minimum of 10 weeks, but preferably 12 weeks. Even though kittens are relatively independent by 8-10 weeks and can survive without their mother.
Benefits of staying with the mother and siblings
The only food the kitten consumes during the first few weeks of its life are milk which contains all the nutrients the kitten needs. Milk constantly changes to meet the kitten’s demands and life-stage. The first milk is known as the colostrum, which is thick and full of antibodies to protect the kitten.
4-5 weeks – Kittens begin eating small amounts of food (which should be soft, such as canned), but, they are still very much dependent on their mother’s milk.
6-8 weeks – Kittens are now eating 4 small meals a day, but still nursing from mum.
9-12 weeks – Some kittens may still be nursing at this age, but can survive without her milk. Nursing is mostly for comfort.
Developing social skills
Kittens learn cat behaviour from their mum and their brothers and sisters. This includes body language, grooming, litter box habits, how to play and boundaries. There is no better way to learn these skills from family members. Have you ever watched littermates playing? They are rough and tumble, but if a kitten pushes a sibling, or mum too far, they will be quickly put in their place with a swipe, a bite or a hiss.
Not all cats removed from mum grow into adults who have bad habits, but to reduce your chances, and raise a well-rounded kitten, plenty of time with mum, siblings, and humans is an absolute must.
When a kitten is little, he or she gets antibodies via their mother’s milk which helps to keep the kitten safe from infection. From 8 weeks of age, a kitten will have THREE vaccinations, spaced 4 weeks apart (6-8 weeks, 10-12 weeks, 14-16 weeks). The reason for this is that maternal antibodies can affect the effectiveness of a single vaccine, and these antibodies wane at different times in different kittens. Ideally, a kitten will have received at least two vaccinations before going to a new home.
My story adopting a young kitten
I adopted a 6-week old kitten from some markets many years ago. This poor little lad looked so scared and alone in his cage, and I felt the need to get him out of there. I paid $6 and took him home. The second day there he vomited roundworms all over the floor. Roundworms can and do happen in kittens, but when they are raised properly, they will be routinely wormed so this kind of thing can’t happen.
The kitten grew into an adult with several behavioural issues. He had no idea how to interact with other cats, and would beat them all up, he constantly sprayed, he suffered from petting-induced aggression, which I could manage (I knew the signs), but he took out many of my friends, and he would urinate and defecate all around the house. I truly do believe that all of these problems were due to his being taken away from mum way too early. I don’t regret adopting him, to get him out of that tiny cage in a crowded market, but until the day he died at thirteen, these issues never resolved.
Kittens are kittens for many months, letting yours stay with mum and siblings until 10-12 weeks ensures that you will get a well-rounded kitten, but he will still be young enough to enjoy much more time as a kitten. It is worth waiting the extra four or so weeks to avoid a possible lifetime of behavioural problems.