Look at the ridges on its tiny nose pad. They form a pattern as unique to an individual kitten as a fingerprint is to a human. Behind this nose pad lies a maze of bones and cavities that serve a kitten well. This area, called the mucosa, is nearly twice the size of the olfactory mucosa in humans and indicates the importance of the sense of smell to cats.
A newborn kitten's sense of smell enables it to locate its mother's nipples. Many kittens, shortly after birth, tend to stake out a single nipple which they claim for their own. This acute sense of smell combined with the sense of touch helps guide the newborn until its eyes open at about three weeks and its other senses develop.
The hairless skin of a kitten's nose and its paw pads are particularly sensitive to touch. A kitten learns to use its paws to investigate the texture, size and shape of an unfamiliar object. It may extend a paw, gently touch an object and then touch it firmly before drawing closer to use its nose for a final inspection. Its sense of smell and the tactile paw pads will continue as investigative tools throughout its adulthood.
A newborn kitten relies on its senses of smell and touch because its eyes remain closed for seven to ten days after birth. At first its vision is poor because its retina is not completely developed. It is not able to see as well as an adult for about three months. From then on, its vision becomes one of the most important of its senses.
A kitten's as well as an adult cat's eyes are large compared to the size of its head. If our eyes were as large in comparison to the size of our heads, they would be at least the size of a softball. The large eyes are part of the kitten's heritage, designed to facilitate its work as a hunter.
Throughout its life, a kitten depends upon its whiskers to provide information about its surroundings. Whiskers serve as wind detectors, which, combined with a sense of smell, contribute to its swift identification of the source of any odor. This can be observed as an inquisitive kitten twitches its whiskers as it sniffs.
Whiskers also protect a kitten's and an adult cat's eyes. A springing twig or a sharp blade of grass will touch the whiskers before catching the eye and trigger a protective eye blink. Whiskers fall out periodically to be replaced by new ones.
The loss of whiskers can impair a kitten's or cat's motion and orientation to its surroundings. Sometimes the mother cat will bite off the whiskers of kittens who may wander too far away or are too inquisitive. Mother knows best. Once a kitten is in your custody, never trim or cut off those whiskers.
When a kitten gives you an affectionate lick, you may liken the experience to the feeling of rough sandpaper. This is the result of numerous knobs called papillae on the surface of the kitten's tongue. They form backward-facing hooks which help hold food and provide the abrasion needed for self-grooming.
The taste buds are carried by mushroom-shaped papillae at the tip and sides of the tongue and the cup-shaped papillae at the back of the tongue.
Kittens have their own distinctive eating habits. They tend to consume a large number of small meals. Usually a kitten approaches its food, sniffs it quickly and then starts to eat. After consuming a small portion, a kitten leaves and returns at intervals to eat. This "occasional eating" is typical cat behavior and should not be confused with reluctance or refusal to eat.
As a kitten drinks water, notice how its tongue laps under the water in much the same manner as an elephant uses its trunk. It flicks its tongue quickly in and out of the liquid, swallowing after every third or fourth lap. Because water is involved in virtually every function of a kitten's body, it's important to keep fresh drinking water available at all times in a clean bowl.
While most of us associate catnip with causing a few minutes of extreme playfulness in a kitten, this reaction may not occur. A kitten's capacity to detect and react to catnip is inherited and sometimes described as the presence or absence of a "catnip gene." About 30 percent of cats do not have this gene and will not exhibit any particular behavior in association with catnip. Kittens with the gene usually don't respond to catnip until about six to eight months of age.
A final thought: Perhaps a kitten's most unique trait is its individuality. Each one has its own personality. Properly socializing a new kitten by introducing it with care to its new home, family and friends, will help develop its personality. The result is a delightful companion for years to come.