Cat Life Stages

posted: 05/15/12
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For the first few weeks, both small wild and domestic newborn felines gain about 3 ounces in weight per week, while big-cat cubs gain proportionately more. For example, Siberian tiger cubs pack on the same amount in a day as their smaller cousins do in a week. To stimulate milk flow, kittens start to tread on the mother's breasts almost immediately after birth. They will continue to employ kneading as a comfort mechanism right into adulthood.

Feline mothers, both wild and domestic, are among the most protective in the animal world. They keep their kittens warm and clean, licking them head to toe -- even the genitals are licked, both to clean them and to stimulate urination and defecation. To keep the nesting den clean and free of odors that might attract potential predators, the dutiful mother goes so far as to consume her litter's bodily wastes.

The First Several Weeks

The helpless newborn cubs and kittens spend nearly all of their time on their bellies, their heads pressed against the ground. They don't have the strength to stand. The intensity of their early feeding, however, brings quick physical results. Although their limbs will not fully support them for some time yet, week-old domestic cats may crawl as much as a few feet at a time, usually to rejoin siblings in the perpetual huddle for warmth.

- Most cats can stand at around 3 weeks of age.

- At about the same time as the kittens' first teeth emerge, domestic mothers begin to wean their young to solid foods.

- When they start to eat solids, the mother stops consuming their bodily waste and the kittens begin to bury their excretions in the ground or litter box.

- At about 4 weeks of age, kittens slowly but surely begin to walk. Their tails, until now limp and of little use, also may become upright, assisting the new walkers in maintaining their balance on shaky feet.

- Before long, as their bodies fill out, the kittens start to run, jump and climb with frenetic intensity.

- By 6 or 7 weeks of age, domestic kittens usually are fully weaned and eating only solid foods.

- At 8 weeks of age, many are taken from the litter to new homes, but 12 weeks is a better time for this separation -- the extra time spent with the feline family is important for social development, as long as there is also interaction with humans.

The Self-Taught Cat

By the age of 4 or 5 weeks, the physical skills of domestic kittens have progressed to the point where their play exhibits all of the energy and techniques of the hunt, complete with high-speed chases and pouncing. Around this time, if the mother is allowed to go outdoors, she may bring home dead prey to present to the litter. The sight and smell of the prey often triggers an innate reaction in kittens, causing them to become focused and considerably more aggressive. As the kittens mature, the mother will offer them stunned or injured prey, introducing live prey once they are weaned, to stimulate their interest and provide them with the opportunity to develop their killing skills.

Extended Kittenhood

Although wild cats' physical development roughly parallels that of domestics, most of them achieve independence much later: at around 3 1/2 months of age, although the period can vary dramatically among species. Wild mothers must take a more cautionary approach in rearing their young. Because their survival is so closely linked to successful hunting, wild cubs need to master the art of stalking and killing before going off on their own. The animals preyed on in the wild are generally larger and far more combative than the domestic's field mouse or bird, so wild mothers take a sober, gradual approach to their offspring's hunting practice sessions, but the steps are the same as those of a suburban house cat.

- First, the mother will bring prey back to the den and eat it in front of her young. Eventually, she will share some of her catch with them.

- As her offspring reach about 3 months of age, she will bring home stunned or injured animals for them to kill.

- Once their bodies have matured and their mouths are equipped with teeth, the cubs begin to accompany adults on hunting trips. Some species, such as tigers, take down prey, then stand aside to let their cubs move in for the kill.

Lion cubs have a cushier youth than most other types of wild cats, thanks to their living in prides. Since food generally is provided for them by the adults, lion cubs seldom kill on their own before reaching 12 to 15 months of age. Cheetahs, too, are late bloomers, reaching independence at about 18 months of age.

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Adolescence and Sexual Maturity
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At 8 to 10 months of age, domestic cats have completed most of their physical development. The breaking up of litters and the growing aggressiveness of what was once play weaken the ties that bind kitten siblings together. By the time they're about 18 months old, they are drifting into adolescence.

Cats will continue to play throughout their lives, but the frenetic energy of kittenhood gradually yields to a considerably more mellow, routine pace. Like adolescent humans, cats continue to grow and develop through to adulthood, becoming sexually and intellectually more mature along the way. Because domestic cats are provided with food and shelter and usually are spayed or neutered while kittens, an artificial environment is created for them, a perpetual kittenhood of sorts.

Depending on one's point of view, "fixed" domestic cats are either spared from or robbed of what would otherwise be a preoccupation defining much of their adolescence and adulthood: sexual activity. Just as they grow from helpless kittens to skilled hunters in a relatively brief period, cats quickly become sexually mature.

- The testes of males may become visible as early as 4 weeks of age. In domestic cats, males reach full sexual maturity, if they remain unaltered, between 9 and 12 months of age.

- Most females reach sexual maturity at around 10 months of age, although instances of much earlier pregnancies have been recorded.

- Many domestic breeds reach sexual maturity much later in life. Persians, in particular, may have trouble mating until well into their second year.

- Wild cats mature later as well. Cheetahs are sexually mature at close to 2 years, leopards at about 30 months, and tigers don't reach full maturity until 3 to 5 years of age.

Any breeding difficulties felines experience are usually the result of cats' solitary nature -- a lack of available partners -- rather than from physical incapability. The cycle of female sexual receptiveness is closely linked to exposure to daylight. Cats living near the equator can become pregnant at any time of the year. Dwellers of temperate climates are called seasonally polyestrus, meaning that they have many periods of heat, or estrus, within a certain season. These periods, which vary substantially among breeds and species, last for as little as two days and as long as two weeks.

For all cats, mating season can be hazardous. Depending on the density of the local male population, the competition for females can be fierce. Ferocious fighting often occurs between competing males or incompatible males and females. Especially among the big cats, serious and sometimes fatal injuries are quite common.

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For domestic cats, improvements in veterinary medicine and care by owners have helped extend life expectancy well into the teen years, sometimes into the 20s. But cats age quickly in terms of human years.

By the time they are 6 months old, they are the human equivalent of 10. Although cat-to-human age comparisons can vary, after the age of 2, cats take on about four human years for every cat year. An 11-year-old cat is the approximate equivalent of a 60-year-old human, right down to the onset of aches and pains, health problems, declining fertility and weight gain or loss. But in terms of changes in diet and health care, cats are considered "senior" at about 8 years of age, equivalent to middle age in humans.

Unless they live in zoos, where they receive regular veterinary care and a good diet, wild cats rarely live more than 10 years. Malnutrition, parasites and a host of other factors serve to shorten their decidedly harsher lives.

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