Caring for a Kitten: What should you take into consideration?
By Elizabeth Racine, DVM January 16, 2019
Adopting a new kitten is an exciting time for any family. However, it is important to prepare in advance so that your kitten’s transition to his new home is smooth and stress-free. This article will explore a few things to consider prior to bringing your kitten home.
Preparing for Your Kitten
No pet should ever be an impulse purchase or adoption. Before you bring your new kitten home, there are several factors you should consider.
- Is your household well-suited for a kitten?
- If you rent your home, are pets allowed? What will happen if you move?
- Are there existing pets in the household that may not get along with the kitten?
- Do you have time to commit to a new pet?
- Who will be responsible for caring for the new kitten?
- What will you do if your cat develops destructive behaviors such as scratching the furniture or urinating outside the litter box?
- Are you financially prepared to provide your cat with all of his needs, including both routine and emergency veterinary care, for the next 10-20 years?
If you have decided that you are adequately prepared for a new pet, the next step to consider is preparing your home for his arrival. Ideally, your kitten should be kept in his own small room for at least the first week after his arrival. This will allow him to adjust to his new home in a safe, non-threatening environment. The room your kitten will be staying in should be equipped with all his basic needs: food, water, litter box, toys, scratching surfaces, climbing space, and comfortable resting spots. Be sure to “cat-proof” the room by removing anything you do not want your new kitten to chew, scratch, eat, or play with. Remember, kittens are rambunctious and like to explore!
Your kitten should be eating a high-quality diet specifically formulated for kittens. Look for the AAFCO statement on the food bag, which should say something like “formulated to meet the needs of growing cats” or “complete and balanced nutrition for growth.” Avoid statements like “formulated for maintenance of adult cats” as these foods do not contain the correct calorie and nutrient balance for a growing kitten. The AAFCO statement is usually found in the fine print on the back or side of the bag.
Your kitten should continue to eat a kitten diet until he is about a year of age. At this point, you can gradually transition him to an adult diet. Cats are very texture-based eaters, so it is recommended to offer your kitten both canned and dry food to allow him to get used to both types. Feeding your kitten meals at specific times of day with measured portions will help prevent excess weight gain. You can also feed your kitten from puzzle toys or by scattering food around the house to help him stay active and to stimulate his natural hunting behaviors. To learn more about cat food and diet, read the article “Cat Food and Diet: Researching the Cat Munchies.”
Your kitten should have free access to clean, fresh water at all times. If there are multiple pets in the household, there should also be multiple water bowls for everyone to use. If your kitten is very young, using a wide shallow bowl is best. However, many cats will develop specific preferences for the size, shape, depth, and location of their water bowls. Some even prefer running water, such as a dripping sink or a fountain. Most cats prefer to have access to water in multiple locations. To learn more about your cat’s water requirements, read the article “Staying Hydrated: Your Cat’s Water Requirement.”
Your kitten should be kept indoors. Indoor cats live much longer, healthier lives and are at a significantly lower risk for injury, disease, and early death. If you absolutely must let your kitten outside, then wait until he is fully vaccinated, neutered, and at least 6 months of age. Outdoor cats should have free access to safe, sheltered areas to allow them to escape predators and inclement weather. They should be microchipped and kept up to date on vaccines, deworming, and flea and tick preventatives. To explore the pros and cons of an indoor versus outdoor cat, read the article “Should You Let Your Cat Outside?”
Life indoors does not have to be boring. You should provide your kitten with a wide variety of toys that stimulate different behaviors, such as stalking, chasing, pouncing, and batting. Your kitten should also have appropriate surfaces for scratching and climbing. Comfortable, safe resting areas out of reach of other pets are also a necessity. Implementing good environmental enrichment will help keep your kitten stimulated, active, and happy in his new home. To learn more about creating an enriching environment for your cat, read the article “Environmental Enrichment for Indoor Cats: The Purrfect Place to Stay”.
Before introducing your kitten to any other pets in the household, you should bring him to your veterinarian for a wellness visit. The veterinarian will perform a full physical exam to ensure your kitten is healthy and free of any illnesses or parasites that could be passed to your other pets. Depending on your kitten’s age, lifestyle, and previous medical history, the veterinarian may also recommend starting his vaccination and deworming series. Just like human children, kittens do not have fully developed immune systems and are at greater risk for certain diseases than their adult counterparts. Adhering to your veterinarian’s preventive care recommendations is extremely important, as this can affect your kitten’s health for the rest of his life. Even indoor cats are not immune to disease!
Many rescues and shelters will spay and neuter kittens prior to adoption, so check your kitten’s adoption paperwork to find out whether this procedure has already been performed. If not, ask your vet when the best time would be to schedule your kitten for surgery. The first veterinary visit is also an excellent time to discuss any questions or concerns you may have about your kitten, so do not hesitate to bring these up with your vet! If your cat is not spayed or neutered, learn more by reading our article “Information on Spaying/ Neutering Your Cat.”
Introductions to Your Kitten
For the first few days after his arrival, your kitten should stay in his room. This will give him time to settle in and adjust to his new surroundings. Set aside time each day to spend with your kitten – playing, snuggling, and getting to know each other. If there are multiple people in your household, each adult person should visit with the kitten separately at first. Too many strangers at once may frighten your kitten. Young children should always be supervised when interacting with the kitten and play-time should be kept short at first while your kitten gets used to them.
If you have other pets in the household, slow progressive introductions are the key to preventing discord among your pets. Introduce each pet to the new arrival one at a time. Start by allowing your kitten to interact with the other pet under the door of his room. You can also feed both animals on either side of the door so that they get used to each other and associate the interaction with a positive experience. Gradually, you can progress to allowing them to see each other from a distance, and work up to allowing them to get close enough to each other to interact. If either pet shows signs of fear or distress during the introduction, stop and go back to the previous step. The most important thing is to progress at the animals’ pace, and never rush them into interacting if they are not ready to do so. This may mean that the process takes several weeks or even months to fully integrate your kitten into the household. This may seem tedious, but it will save you many headaches and fights in the future! If you want to learn more about cat-to-cat introductions, read the article “How to Introduce a New Cat to Your Existing Cat? A Cat Parent’s Experience.”
Training and Socialization
Training is unfortunately often overlooked for kittens because many people consider cats to be the type of pet that takes care of themselves. However, training is just as important for kittens as it is for puppies! Good training and socialization can not only prevent problem behaviors, but can also make even basic cat care easier. Imagine having a cat that isn’t terrified of strangers and doesn’t hide at the sight of the cat carrier! These goals are very achievable with some basic training. The more you can expose your kitten to these things at a young age, the better he will tolerate them when he is older.
The critical period of socialization for kittens is considered to occur from 3-9 weeks of age. This is the time where kittens are learning about their environment and how to interact with those in it. Much of this behavior is learned from their mother and their litter-mates. Unfortunately, many kittens adopted from shelter or rescue situations have been separated from their mother either before or during this critical period, and they may have missed out on learning these important skills. This can predispose them to behavior problems as they age. Kittens are often adopted after this critical period of development has already ended, but this does not mean that your kitten cannot continue to learn! An excellent resource for socializing your kitten is Dr. Sophia Yin’s Kitten Socialization Chart, which outlines all the different things to which your kitten should be exposed. Just like with introductions to other pets, remember to progress through each step at your kitten’s pace and never push him if he becomes frightened or stressed.
Cats are naturally fastidious and most kittens will begin using the litter box at around 5-6 weeks of age, even without specific training. Provide your kitten with a low box that is easy to get in and out of – a boot tray or cookie sheet works great for this. Most kittens prefer an unscented clay cat litter, but you can also provide other substrates for your kitten to explore such as shredded newspaper or pellet litter. Kittens will occasionally miss the litter box or simply not make it there in time while they are still young, so lining the floor around the box with towels or newspaper will make clean up easier. If you want additional information about litter box management, read the article "Litter Box Management: A List to Consider."
Adopting a kitten can be one of the best decisions you will ever make, but there are a lot of factors to consider. Ensuring that you are ready for a new pet and preparing accordingly can make the transition smoother for everyone. By establishing good veterinary care and training early on, you’ll help set your kitten up for a healthy and happy life.