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How to Care for a Kitten: Kitten Care Basics

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Meowing kitten

Along with kitten cuteness, comes great responsibility… for her guardian!

Caring for a kitten is about more than providing food, warmth, and a comfy bed (although this is important). You must also love her and provide preventative healthcare (vaccination, deworming, and parasite control) along with meeting the kitten’s emotional and behavioral needs.

The payback is a well-adjusted kitten that grows into a fit and healthy cat that will be a fur-friend from many years to come. But we all know cute kittens are extremely distracting, so to help you focus, we’ve put the information in one place, so you can cover all bases without taking too much time out from playing with the new addition.

Settling In

First impressions count, so let the kitten settle in slowly and don’t overwhelm her.

Bring the kitten home to a quiet room set up for her comfort, with her own food and water bowls, bed, hiding places, litter box, and toys. Take her out of the cat carrier and place her in the litter tray so she knows where it is. Then let her explore at her own pace.

Sit quietly on the floor and let her explore. If she wants to hide, then that’s fine let her do so. Hiding is a coping mechanism and once she’s sussed out that her new home is a good place to be, she’ll come out to play.

Here’s some more details on how to handle the First Night Home with a New Kitten: What to Expect.

A Kitten’s Behavioral Needs

Play: Eat: Poop: Sleep: Repeat: What’s so complicated about that!

OK, so a kitten’s basic needs are straightforward, but to raise an adult cat that is friendly and well-adjusted, takes a little extra thought.

The key to working out a kitten’s behavioral needs is to think about an adult cat’s behavior in the wild. These include natural actions such as scratching with claws, scent marking, hunting, and defending territory; and all these instincts are still present in the house cat.

For example, if you don’t show the kitten where she’s allowed to scratch her claws, then she may choose the furniture instead. Plan ahead with a youngster and teach her how to use a scratch post, along with giving her safe outlets for all her other instincts such as climbing. Ignore these needs and risk her developing bad habits.

Scratch Posts and Scratching

Give your kitten a couple of scratch posts (minimum). Chose one that lies flat on the floor and one that’s vertical, to see which one she prefers. Put one of the posts beside her bed, as cats like to stretch their claws and toes when they wake up. We have a good article on how to make your own scratch post.

Make the post irresistible by wiping her paws on it and spritzing it with Feliway (a synthetic form of feline pheromone). This spreads her own scent which is then amplified by the Feliway, making it her go-to place to scratch ….saving the carpet and furniture

Litter Box and Toileting

Get the litter box right and you’ll avoid problem toileting in the house. Start out using a cat litter she is used to. Locate the tray in a quiet corner, away from food and water, and where she won’t be disturbed by other pets passing through or machines that make a noise (so avoid a tray next to the tumble dryer.)

Keep the tray clean by pooper scooping daily, after all no-one likes using a dirty toilet. Some more advanced techniques are discussed in our article on toilet training your cat.

Toys and Play

Kittens love to play, which is all about practicing their hunting skills. Provide a range of toys that allow her to pounce, swat, toss, and chase. But remember, cats are sprinters not marathon runners, so play with her for 5-minutes at a time, but regularly through the day. This gives her vital exercise and prevents boredom. Also, make sure that the toys you got for the kitten are safe.

Sleep and Safety

That baby cat has a lot of growing to do and needs her sleep. Provide secluded places (such as a cardboard box lined with a fleece) for her to snuggle down in safety. Don’t disturb her whilst sleeping, and wait for her to come out to you for playtime.

Climbing and Perching

Cats have a reputation for getting stuck up trees, which is because they love to climb. Provide an outlet for this urge by giving kitty a tall cat tree, preferably one with several raised platforms for her to perch on. This will save your curtains from being climbed, and satisfy her natural urge to be up high.

Kitty Socialization

Vets dread them…the cat that was poorly socialized as a kitten. These cats are fearful of strangers and new places, which make them hiss, spit, and lash out to protect themselves. Unfortunately, it’s not just the vet that comes a cropper, but the owner may never see their scared kitty (because she hides all the time) or the cat may be liable to lash out at children.

The trick to avoiding this is to handle the kitten lots in those early weeks. Invite different people round to play with the kitten, and expose her to the vacuum, hair dryer, car journeys…and as many different experiences as you can think of.

Of course, this needs to be a good experience for the kitten (or the opposite will happen and she’ll learn to fear strangers.) So keep the meetings low key and praise kitty when she is brave. If she’s in two-minds about a stranger then have them sit quietly on the floor with their eyes averted (a direct stare is an aggressive signal to a cat) with some tasty treats in front of them. Then quietly praise the kitten when she comes out of hiding to investigate. We have a more detailed overview of the power of socializing your kitty.

Socialize the kitten on a daily basis, and she’ll grow into a confident, cuddly, well-adjusted adult cat.

Basic Physical Needs

On a more mundane level, the kitten’s physical needs must be met, such as providing food and caring for her coat.

Feeding

Dry food or wet? Ad lib or mealtimes?

These are deceptively big topics, with arguments for and against the different options. The decisions are largely one of personal choice and which suits your kitten and your lifestyle best. Let’s take a quick look at the major pros and cons.

Wet Cat Food

  • Contains a high percentage of water, which promotes good urinary tract health
  • Highly palatable, so kitten is likely to eat it
  • Spoils quickly when left out in hot weather, and can attract flies
  • Often produces smelly poop!
  • The sticky texture encourages plaque and tartar formation on the teeth

Dry Cat Food

  • The dry texture has a slight scrubbing effect on teeth and reduces the risk of dental disease
  • It’s convenient and can be left out without spoiling
  • Easier to store
  • More concentrated calories, which can lead to weight gain in greedy cats
  • Linked to urinary tract problems in some cats

Ad Lib

  • Leaving kitten’s food out all day for her to graze on mimics eating behavior in the wild.
  • Cats are ‘snackers’ rather than ‘feasters’, so small snacks regularly suits their metabolism better
  • Bored cats with access to food all day long are prone to overeating and weight gain
  • Some cats are poor at judging their portion control and are prone to overeating

Mealtimes

  • Allows you to measure out the food and control portion size
  • Some cats binge eat their meals, and no longer listen to their internal calorie counter
  • Cats learn to nag their owners for their next meal, who mistakenly believe their cat is hungry
  • It’s less convenient for an owner who works long hours

Grooming

Introduce your kitten to a brush and comb from a young age. Allow her to play with the grooming tools, so she becomes used to them. Then gently stroke the cat with the tool, whilst praising the kitten. Again, do this for a short time regularly, and your kitten will grow up loving the attention.

Tooth Brushing

Yes, you really can teach a cat to have her teeth brushed, especially when you start young with a kitten. The secret is to purchase pet toothpaste. The latter tastes scrummy to the kitten who thinks it’s great that you’re spreading yummy pate in her mouth. Get her used to the taste first, then slowly introduce the toothbrush.

And yes, daily brushing is the gold standard if you want your kitten to grow up with perfect pearly whites!

Health Care

Last, but certainly not least is healthcare.

Once the kitten has settled in, get her checked by a vet. They will thoroughly examine her to make sure she is healthy (and is indeed a girl…It wouldn’t be the first kitten named Lily who turns out to be Billy.)

This is also the moment to start her preventative health care regime.

Deworming and Parasite Control

Even indoors kittens and cats need regular deworming. This is because they acquire worms’ eggs from the mother’s milk and pick up worms from fleas. There are many options for deworming ranging from pills to spots ons, so speak to your vet about which is best for your kitten.

Parasites such as fleas, ticks, or ear mites are unwelcome visitors on any kitten, but more serious still is the potentially deadly heartworm parasite. For outdoor cats then year round protection is required, and for indoor kittens and cats, speak to your vet who can risk assess the individual for a tailored parasite control strategy.

Vaccination

Again, even indoor cats need protection against viruses which you can walk in on your shoes.

Vaccines are divided into ‘core’ or essential and ‘non-core’ or optional, and which to give is based on a risk assessment of each individual cat.

  • Core vaccines include rabies, cat flu, and feline distemper
  • Non-core includes feline leukemia and chlamydia.

Vaccinations should start from 6 – 8 weeks of age, and be repeated every 3 – 4 weeks, until the kitten is 16 weeks old. This initial course will needs  boosting in a years’ time, and then at intervals after that (as recommended by your vet.) We also prepared a more in-depth look at the cat vaccines.

ID chip

A microchip injected under the skin between the shoulders is an invaluable way of permanently identifying your cat. Then, if she escapes and gets lost, she can be scanned and reunited with you. The chip can be implanted at the time of vaccination or when she’s under anesthetic for neutering.

Neutering

Neutering, spaying, desexing, call it what you want, but this should be done preferably before the kitten becomes a mature adult who could have kittens. The timing varies, from 10 – 12 weeks for some rescue kittens to around 5 ½ months for home-grown kittens.

Play on Prescription!

That’s a lot of information to take in.

Above all, don’t forget to play with your kitten. Not only is this great fun, but it teaches kitten co-ordination, alleviates boredom (and therefore bad behavior) and helps socialize her. All-in-all, play is definitely what this vet prescribes!