Did you know that kittens are born with their eyes shut and ear canals closed? Like puppies, they are completely blind, deaf, and helpless. They’re fully dependent on their mother to clean them, keep them warm and safe, nurse them, and even help them use the potty. Kittens remain blind until their eyes open at about one to two weeks old, at which time they still have poor vision and hearing. Over the next couple weeks the kitten’s development stages will grow their sight and hearing to its full potential. But why are such capable predators born without the two most important senses?
An Evolutionary Path to Increase a Species’s Survival Chances
Many herd animals, like deer, cattle, and antelopes, are born into this world fairly mature with eyes open, acute hearing, and the ability to walk and run within a few hours of birth. These grazing animals have long gestation periods and produce a small amount of offspring at one time. Soon after birth, they need to be able to move with the herd and out run predators. Their evolutionary path created young that would be best suited to survive their living situation.
For cats, their evolutionary path took them in a different direction. Their gestation period is short and produces more offspring, which helped them as hunters to sustain their species. Felines are slowed down by young when they need to hunt and feed, so their kittens with unopened eyes are left in a safe, warm den area. This gives the mother time to care for them in between hunts.
You may also notice that kittens go limp when they are picked up. This is another evolutionary instinct that has helped them survive as a species. When mother cats need to move their kittens, they use their mouths to grab them by the scruff. The instinct to go limp and limber helps keep the kittens from being injured in the move.
Kitten Eye and Ear Development Stages
The First Stage – Unopened Eyes and Ear Canals
In the first developmental stage, when a kitten’s eyes are unopened and their ear canals are closed, it is important to take great care of them. They must be protected from dirt, debris, and pathogens that could damage the development and cause kitten health issues. Bright light and loud sounds can also damage the fragile photoreceptors and ear drums. Never try to open a kitten’s eyes or ear canals early, as this could permanently damage their potential eyesight and hearing capabilities for life.
During this first stage, they do have a good sense of taste, touch, and smell. They use their whiskers to help navigate their world and the instinct to feed drives them to find their mother’s nipples. Her smell and touch helps the kittens form lasting bonds with their mother. Ever wonder why cats knead? This is an instinct that helps kittens coax milk out of the mother when nursing. For some reason, cats can carry this into adulthood and may knead on people who they see as a mother figure.
The Second Stage – When Kittens’ Eyes and Ears Open Wide
In the second developmental stage of kittenhood, when kittens open their eyes for the first time and their ear canals begin to let in sound, they are still developing these senses. Vision and hearing is poor, and they can still be damaged by bright lights and loud noises. It will take another couple of weeks before the kittens have fully developed eye and ear parts. For this reason, along with weaning, kittens are not usually separated from their mother for adoption until they are about six weeks old. After six weeks, the kittens eyes are open, they are seeing the world in full color (as much color as is possible for cats, as they can’t see the full color spectrum that we can), and piercing through the darkness with night vision that is at least six times better than our own. Their hearing develops to be one of the best on the planet for land mammals. They have, in other words, become tiny superheroes.
Kitten Eye Health Issues
Because kittens have developing immune systems, they can be very susceptible to diseases and parasites. These potential threats can cause gooey, running, and crusty eyes in kittens and lead to more health issues if left untreated. Diseases like feline rhinotracheitis are common to cats, cause poor eye health, and can be detrimental for their future. Always keep your kittens clean, free of fleas and parasites, and give them their core vaccinations as soon as possible, which typically starts at six weeks old. Never let poor health symptoms persist for more than a few days. Seek help from a veterinarian so that your kitten’s health issue can be treated before it progresses into a bad situation.