Little kittens are about the most adorable critters on the planet. Rescue kittens have the best chance of being adopted while they are very young. You may be begging the organization to let you take the kitten home at four, five or six weeks, but they won't allow it.
Like most baby animals, kittens are vulnerable and dependent upon their mothers for protection, sustenance and tender loving care. In the nursing vs. formula debate, cats fall solidly on the side of nursing and all momma cats are card-carrying members of the La Leche League. They know kittens get their nourishment from their milk, which is full of colostrum, an immune-building substance that helps the kittens grow strong and fight off infection and other diseases. The longer a kitten stays on Mom's milk, the stronger the kitten grows. While the colostrum is not present during the entire nursing period, the mother's milk is still the best source of nutrition for kittens. A full course of nutrition takes place over the entire time a kitten nurses, and they are usually fully weaned at 8 weeks. This is the most important reason why rescue facilities will not adopt out a kitten under the age of 8 weeks.
Rescues also refuse to adopt out kittens until they are 8 weeks of age because mother cats are great disciplinarians. As the kittens grow, they become quite rambunctious and engage in horseplay with their siblings and mom. If you've ever watched a mother cat entertain and play with her kittens by simply swishing her tail back and forth while the kittens knock themselves out trying to catch it, you have seen how well Mother Nature has it all figured out. When the kittens get too rough, mom can give them a little scratch or nip; she can hiss or growl to send a message to the kitten that what he has just done hurts and is wrong. Humans can't teach kittens these important manners as well as feline moms can. Socialization is important or the kittens may be returned to the rescue group for scratching or biting. Mom also teaches them important (she thinks) skills, like how to be big bullies to prey animals by teasing them to exhaustion.
It's The Law
Many states have laws prohibiting breeders, brokers and rescue organizations from adopting out puppies and kittens until they are 8 weeks of age. These laws were passed to protect the kittens and puppies from being taken away from their mothers too soon, causing a real disadvantage for the animal's future health and well-being. Furthermore, many local governments have passed ordinances requiring all companion animals be sterilized prior to adoption in an effort to address overpopulation problems. Kittens cannot be safely spayed or neutered until they are at least 2 pounds, and it takes approximately 8 weeks for them to reach that weight.
There are some serious diseases that can be lurking inside a kitten that can kill him and any cats around him. These communicable diseases are passed on through the mother's milk. If the mother is not present or if she is carrying a disease, it's important to ascertain the kittens are healthy prior to adoption. There are some diseases, such as feline leukemia, that may be present in the kitten, but kittens can't be tested until they are about 6 to 8 weeks old. Aside from the fact that it's pretty hard to get blood from a tiny kitten, these tests can show a false positive if done too early. Parasites, such as those that cause giardiasis, are shed intermittently and may not show up in a single fecal test, so multiple tests are necessary over a period of several days or weeks, depending upon the vet's preference. Keeping the kittens until the age of 8 weeks gives the rescue organization time to do those tests.
There are exceptions. If a litter of neonatal kittens are rescues without a mom, organizations sometimes place them in a foster home where a human mom will serve as a surrogate. In these cases, the kittens are released to the foster home, but only on a temporary basis and the ownership of the kittens is not officially transferred to the foster, if applicable, until they reach the age of 8 weeks. It's hard to be patient when you're getting a kitten, but doing so is in the little guy's best interest and he is certainly worth the wait.
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.