There’s no denying the cuteness factor of a newborn kitten or puppy. The miracle of birth is an awesome process to witness, as is the incredible bond that quickly develops between mother and babies. Puppies and kittens are born with their eyes shut and ear canals closed, which makes them functionally blind and deaf for their first few weeks of life. It seems odd that nature would deny these predator species access to two major senses – sight and hearing – at birth. However, there is a good reason why kittens and puppies are born deaf and blind.
The evolutionary process is a complex series of experiments that over time improves the survival chances of a species. At a time when the different mammal species were adapting and learning the best way to live in their environment, they had to make a choice about reproduction and development of their young. It was an evolutionary decision that would give their offspring the greatest success of living.
Grazing animals like deer, bison, antelope, bighorn sheep and other large prey mammals have relatively mature births after a long gestation period that usually produces a small number of offspring. Newborns have fully functioning eyes, ears and brains, and are capable of moving around on their own and running – which is important since a newborn needs to be able to run along with a herd to escape predators. Mammals that have mobile and mature offspring are called precocial. It comes from the word “precocious” and is used by biologists to indicate mental maturity beyond the years you would expect for the age of the animal. The newborn is active, able to move around freely and requires minimal care from its parent.
Before dogs and cats began to live with humans, they survived by hunting. In the wild, a female carrying a litter of puppies or kittens is slowed down and has a harder time trying to catch prey. In the social structure of a pack, members are expected to do their part in a hunt and carrying pups put the female at a disadvantage. The evolutionary trade-off for dogs and cats was a short gestation period and larger litters that are born immature and completely dependent on their mom. With her infants safely tucked away inside a warm den, mom is free to resume hunting while caring for her babies in between hunts. Species that give birth to offspring that are immature, dependent and need care for a long period of time are referred to as “altricial,” which means “to nurse, rear or nourish.”
Puppies and kittens are born completely helpless with their eyes shut and ear canals closed off because they need extra time after birth for these two senses to develop fully. While the optical system is still developing, the eyes need protection from dirt and other pathogens, as well as bright light that could damage the photoreceptors. Never try to force open the eyes of a newborn. Puppy eyes begin to open in about 2 weeks; for kittens it’s sometime between 7 to 14 days, but it will take another couple of weeks before their eyes are fully mature.
The ear canals are closed to allow the auditory system to mature. This helps prevent changes in ear pressure which is created by sounds that can move structures in the ear. Silence protects the developing ears from being damaged. A puppy or kitten’s ears will open around the same time as the eyes, but it takes another week or so for their hearing to become acute. If the ears are forced open before they are ready, it could severely damage hearing ability.
Another behavior carried over from evolution explains why young puppies and kittens sometimes go limp when you pick them up. Life is full of dangers for animals living in the wild, even young predators. The safest place is in a den, so when the mother detects danger she needs to get her babies out of harm’s way if they are out in the open. A mother dog or cat grabs their young by the scruff of the neck when moving them. As soon as a little one feels the ground give way under his feet, he goes limp. This behavior is a survival instinct that allows their mother to quickly transport them to safety when necessary, and prevents a young one from being injured during transportation. Even though our pets don’t live in dens, this behavior is innate in young puppies and kittens.
Kittens and puppies may be functionally deaf and blind at birth, but their sense of smell, touch and taste are functional. When they are old enough to be weaned, provide them with a high quality pet food like CANIDAE to ensure healthy growth and development.
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