Kitten guide: Caring for a new kitten
Authored by Jodi Helmer
Authored by Jodi Helmer
You viewed online profiles, attended adoption events and visited shelters to find the right kitten to add to your family. Now that it’s time to bring him home, be prepared to provide the best care and help your fluffy new friend feel like part of the family.
Caring for a kitten is a big (and exciting) commitment and understanding the basics of nutrition, litter box training, grooming, vet visits, establishing house rules and introducing your kitten to existing pets (and very, very excited children) are all important parts of raising a healthy, happy cat.
Follow these tips to prepare for your new kitten.
Stock up on supplies: It’s best to stock up on kitten supplies before you bring your new addition home. Having everything you need before adoption day will make it easier for your kitten to settle in and start feeling at home—and shopping early means more time playing and snuggling and less time running out to the store once he arrives.
Your new kitten shopping list should include the basics such as food, food and water dishes, collar, litter box, litter, litter box scoop and grooming tools. You may also want to provide extras like a bed, scratching post, a climbing tree and toys. A product like Feliway, a plug-in diffuser that releases natural cat pheromones, could help instill a sense of calm in your kitten during the transition.
When it comes to toys, skip the DIY versions (and never let kittens play with household items) and shop for toys made for kittens. These toys are less apt to be torn apart, splintered or swallowed than rubber bands, balls of string or other things your kitten may choose to play with.
Set up a kitten room: A big house is overwhelming for a small kitten. Setting him up in a separate room—like a large bathroom or a spare bedroom—will give him a chance to get used to his new home.
The kitten room should be set up with a litter box, scratching post, bed and food dishes. Make sure he has a cozy hideout like a cat tunnel or spot behind the couch to help him feel safe and secure.
Make sure to kitten proof the room, removing trash bins, medications and breakables; install outlet covers and electric cord protectors to prevent electric shock; secure window blind cords and keep the toilet lid closed if your kitten is in the bathroom. It’s also a good idea to consult the ASPCA Poison Control Center for a list of products that are toxic to kittens to ensure you’re not putting your curious kitten at risk.
Your new kitten may have just been separated from his mom and littermates so spending too much time alone could leave him feeling lonely and fearful. Your presence will help calm him. Visit frequently to interact with your new kitten; the time you spend together now will help develop a bond that lasts a lifetime.
Give your kitten a few days to decompress in his own room before gradually allowing him to explore additional rooms in the house.
Make a vet appointment: Even the healthiest kittens need regular vet care, especially during their first year. Set up a vet appointment for your kitten’s first “wellness visit” within a week of bringing him kitten home.
If this kitten is your first pet, ask friends for recommendations for a vet or check online reviews for veterinary clinics near you—there are even vets who specialize in treating cats and “fear free” certified clinics designed to make your vet visits as stress-free as possible.
Your vet will perform a physical exam to confirm your kitten is hitting all of his growth milestones and administer vaccinations to keep him healthy. They may also recommend additional tests such as bloodwork or fecal samples to test for parasites and diseases like feline leukemia.
Ask your vet about a microchip. These small devices (about the size of a grain of rice) are inserted between your kitten’s shoulder blades and contain a unique number that links to your name, address and phone number. If your kitten ever gets lost, a microchip increases the odds you’ll be reunited.
Most kittens need an average of five vet visits before their first birthdays for wellness visits, booster shots and spay/neuter appointments to prevent unplanned litters. Once your kitten celebrates his first birthday, you’ll need to schedule an annual wellness exam to keep him up-to-date on vaccines and parasite prevention.
Training your kitten to go into his carrier may take a little time but it’ll alleviate a lot of stress when it’s time for the next vet appointment. To get started, leave the carrier in the room with a soft blanket inside; your kitten may use it as a cozy spot to curl up for a nap. If you find him in the carrier, reward him with a treat. You can also use treats to lure him in and offer praise once he steps inside. The more often you expose your kitten to the carrier and make it a positive experience, the easier it’ll be to transport him to the vet.
Pay attention to behavior changes: As you get to know your kitten, you’ll notice which behaviors are normal for him and which seem a little off. Changes in energy level, weight loss, increased shedding, litterbox troubles, rapid breathing, discharge from the nose, licking or even excess meowing could be signs that your kitten isn’t feeling well.
Call your vet if you notice any behavior changes or signs of illness. Getting medical attention is the best way to diagnose the problem and get your cat feeling better fast.
Introduce the litter box: Kittens don’t need a lot of coaxing to use the litter box. Make sure the box is shallow enough for tiny kittens to get in and out, fill it with litter and place your kitten in the box so he knows where it is. After that, he should go right to the litter box when it’s time to use the bathroom—but following a few simple litter box training tips can help, too.
Remember, kittens need smaller litter boxes than adult cats so you’ll need to upgrade the size of the litter box as your kitten grows.
Prioritize playtime: Kittens are curious and love to run, jump, climb explore and “zoomies” are a great way for your furry friend to burn off energy. These activities provide lots of exercise that will help your kitten develop strong muscles and bones and maintain a healthy weight.
Playtime is also important for mental stimulation and wellbeing. In addition interactive toys like electronic fly spinners, flopping fish and jingle balls that run on tracks, choose dangling feathers and other toys that allow you to play together.
Playtime is also important for socialization. Make sure all members of your family are involved in playtime so your kitten gets used to feeling safe and confident around a lot of different people. This quality time is important for your kitten’s happiness and development; it’s also a good chance to teach children how to safely handle a kitten.
Children should be instructed not to chase the kitten, grab it or pull it’s tail. Explain to children what it means if a kitten hisses or hides (these are signs the kitten needs a little alone time) and make sure they pay attention to those cues. Remember, kittens have sharp teeth and claws and may accidentally scratch or bite. Don’t punish the kitten; redirect him to a scratching post or teething toy so he understands the acceptable places to use his teeth and claws.
Create a routine: It’s a good idea to stick to a schedule for feeding, napping and playtime. Repeating these activities around the same time each day will help your kitten adjust to family life and feel more secure in his new home.
Grooming should also be part of your routine and the sooner you start the easier it’ll be to get your kitten used to it. Aim to brush your long-haired kitten daily and shorthaired cats at least once a week. A scratching post will help your kitten keep his claws from getting too long but he’ll also need regular nail trims. You can buy nail clippers and do it at home or take him to the vet or an experienced cat groomer for regular trims.
Establish house rules: Kittens are curious and will be tempted to jump onto the kitchen table, scratch the furniture or chew on socks. Setting ground rules now and teaching your kitten how to follow them ensures he won’t carry these unwanted behaviors into adulthood.
Kittens respond best to positive reinforcement. Instead of punishing your kitten by yelling, which can make him fearful, redirect him to more acceptable behavior. When he scratches the furniture, take him to the scratching post and reward him with pets and praise for scratching there instead; take away off-limits “toys” like phone chargers, plastic bags and hair scrunchies and replace them with stuffed mice or jingle bells; offer more positive reinforcement when he plays with them.
Feeding your kitten: A complete and balanced diet is essential for healthy growth and development. Kittens should eat multiple small meals per day to maintain their frequent burst of energy and their dietary needs will change at different stages of development.
You’ll have to decide between feeding your kitten wet food or dry food (or a combination of both) and ask your vet for recommendations on how much to feed your fast-growing kitten to make sure he has the nutrients he needs to grow into a healthy adult cat.
Remember, foods like to chocolate, nuts, onions and garlic are toxic to cats. Stick to food specially formulated for kittens; it’s healthier and safer than table scraps.
There are a number of vitamins and nutritional supplements available, too. Talk to your vet before offering your kitten fish oil, probiotics, antioxidants or other supplements to make sure there are no possible medication interactions or health reasons that would make supplements off limits.
Make introductions to other cats: Your resident cat needs time to adjust to a new kitten. Successful introductions are slow and follow several important steps: Let the kitten and resident cat sniff each other from opposite sides of a closed door (this can be done while your kitten is in his kitten-proof room). Watch for signs of aggression such as hissing and growling.
After a few days of sniffing each other through the door (but not interacting) put your cat in the kitten’s room and let your kitten out to explore the house. This is another way for the felines to get used to each other’s scents. Put the kitten in his carrier and place in the middle of a room and let the cats observe each other and sniff through the carrier door.
As long as there are no signs of aggression, it’s time to let the cats interact. Allow them to approach each other (or not) at the own pace. Never force an interaction. Their visits should be short and supervised until you feel certain that they are getting along and at low risk for fighting. Separate the cats if there is any aggressive behavior and go back to the first steps to help them get comfortable with each other before attempting another supervised visit.
You’ll need to follow a similar process to introduce your kitten to a dog.
Think twice before letting your kitten outside: Indoor cats tend to live longer, healthier lives than cats that spend time outdoors where they are at risk of getting sick, injured or lost.
You can train a kitten to wear a harness and leash to safely explore the outdoors on walks. If you want a “free range” outdoor cat, it’s important to wait until your kitten is spayed or neutered, up-to-date on vaccines before he goes outside.
Outdoor cats should be microchipped and wear a collar with identification or a GPS tracker to increase the odds that he’ll get back home if he’s lost. Outdoor cats also need access to food and water, shade and a heated cat house or other warm spot to sleep in cold weather.
Remember, your kitten depends on you to provide everything he needs to stay healthy and feel like part of the family. Preparing for his arrival and managing his care will help develop a lifelong bond.