Early weaning actually increases aggression and stereotypic behavior in cats, claims a new study from Professor Hannes Lohi’s research group. Based on the study conducted at the University of Helsinki, the recommended weaning age of 12 weeks ought to be raised by at least two weeks. Delaying weaning is an easier and more cost-efficient way of improving the quality of life of cats.
The cat is clearly the most popular companion animal, and people are increasingly interested in its well- being. One of the topics under international debate is the proper weaning age, i.e., the age at which kittens are separated from their mother and siblings and brought to a new home. In Finland, the recommended minimum age of weaning is just 12 weeks, but in many other countries, such as the United States, weaning of kittens as young as 8 weeks is common.
It has previously been thought that the critical period of socialization in cats ends by 8 weeks of age, after which social experiences will have little impact on behavior.
“We found that positive changes in the cat’s behavior can occur after the currently recommended age of weaning, 12 weeks. I’m a cat lover myself, and this study supports my own previous experiences on the importance of the weaning age on the well-being of cats. I think raising the recommended age of weaning would be the animal welfare act of the year,” stated doctoral student Milla Ahola.
While the detrimental effects of early weaning have been studied in various other animal species, no studies on the topic have been conducted on cats, despite suspicions of its connection to feline behavioral problems.
“We found an easy way to improve cat welfare: we propose that the recommended age of weaning be increased by two weeks. The number of cats in the world is immense, and behavioral problems are very common. This could have a significant positive impact on the well-being of both cats and their owners on a global scale,” states Professor Hannes Lohi.
The study used the results from the health and behavior survey Professor Lohi’s group had previously conducted on almost 6,000 cats, currently the most extensive cat behavior database in the world. According to the survey, many behavioral problems and issues are more common than expected. More than 80% of cats were reported as exhibiting mild behavioral problems, while serious behavioral problems were reported for 25% of all cats. Feline behavioral problems may include shyness, stereotypic wool sucking, excessive grooming and aggression.
“The age of weaning has an impact on the cat’s later behavior. Cats weaned under the age of 8 weeks displayed more aggression and stereotypic behavior. Cats weaned in adulthood had fewer such problems than other cats. Cats weaned at 14 weeks of age had fewer behavioral problems than cats weaned earlier,” Ahola went on to explain.
Studies done on other animal species have produced similar results. For example, among rodents, monkeys and minks, early separation from the mother actually leads to a higher prevalence of stereotypic behavior and aggression. A similar phenomenon has been detected in humans.
“These behavioral changes are also linked. We found that increased aggression correlated with increased stereotypic behavior. The impacts of early weaning seem to manifest specifically as aggression and stereotypic behavior, which suggests changes in the neurotransmitters of the basal ganglia,” concluded Professor Lohi.