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Bringing home and raising a new kitten is an experience that's loaded with challenges and rewards. Whether you're considering getting a kitten or have already welcomed a fuzzy little bundle of joy into your life, you no doubt want to be the best pet parent. Keep reading to learn all about kittens and how to give your tiny friend the best start in life.
All About Kittens: What to Expect
Raising a kitten is an entirely different experience from having an adult cat. Kittens have boundless energy and curiosity, which means they require a lot of your time and energy. Your new kitten needs not only lots of affection and playtime in order to be properly socialized, but also a ton of supervision to keep her out of trouble. The truth is that kittens, while charming and lovable, can be exhausting. Keep in mind that the kitten stage doesn't last forever, and your cat will never be this small or cute again. Enjoy this stage, and remember, the bond you form with your kitten will last her entire life.
Preparing for Your Kitten
In order for life with your new kitten to run smoothly, make preparations before bringing her home. The first thing you should do is kitten-proof your home by viewing each room from kitten level. Close or block off windows, vents, and any nooks and crannies she might be tempted to explore. Move electronics and power cords, window blind cords, and any other strings out of reach. Completely remove objects that might pose a choking hazard.
It's also a good idea to set aside a quiet area as "base camp" for your kitty to get used to her new surroundings. This space should be off-limits to other pets, and young children should only be admitted with adult supervision. Furnish the space with a litter box, food and water dishes, comfortable bedding, and a toy. It is usually a good idea to keep the food and water away from the litter box, as cats don't generally like to eat near where they do their business — but then again, who does! This area will serve as a safe space for your kitten to not only get to know you, but also to get used to the strange sounds and smells of her new home. If you have other pets, keep the door closed or use a pet gate to keep them out. Gradually allow them to approach the gate and allow them and the kitten to meet and sniff each other from a safe distance. Only allow them to make full contact under supervision once they appear to accept one another's presence with no signs of aggression. Wait to introduce your new kitten to other animals until she has had her shots and received a clean bill of health from the veterinarian.
You'll need a number of supplies to help you care for your kitten. Here are the basic items you should stock up on before bringing her home:
- Quality kitten food
- Cat treats - you can make quality treats using kitten food to make sure she is still getting quality nutrients.
- Food and water dishes
- Litter box and cat litter
- Cat bed
- Cat carrier
- Collar and ID tags
- Cat brush and/or flea comb
- Toothbrush and pet-safe toothpaste
- Scratching post and kitten-safe toys
Feeding Your Kitten
Ideally, kittens remain with their mother and litter mates until they're at least eight weeks old. At which point they should be fully weaned and able to regulate their own body temperature. If, however, you find yourself in the position of caring for a newborn or infant kitten, you must keep her warm and bottle-feed her kitten formula every two hours. In cases like this, it's best to consult your vet about a proper feeding schedule and other special considerations.
Typically, though, when you bring home your new kitten she will already have been weaned onto solid food. If possible, ask the prior guardian or the shelter to supply you with a week's worth of the food she's currently eating. While you may decide to keep feeding her the same brand and type of food, if you change her food, do so slowly by mixing a small amount of the new food and gradually increasing it over the course of a week to prevent digestive problems. Check out our tips for switching your cat's food here.
Whatever you decide to feed your kitten, look for a quality food that's specially formulated for growing kittens. Kitten food should be high in calories, protein-rich and easy to digest. Adjust your kitty's feeding schedule by age:
- Up to six months: Feed your kitten three to four times per day. At this stage of rapid growth and development, kittens require a lot of calories. It might be easier at this stage to free-feed your kitty by leaving a bowl of kibble where she can access it whenever she's hungry.
- Six to nine months: As your kitten enters adolescence and growth slows, your kitten needs fewer calories and shouldn't be fed more than twice a day.
- Nine to twelve months: By twelve months, your cat is no longer a kitten. As she approaches adulthood at nine months, you can begin transitioning her to adult cat food. You should also start keeping an eye on her weight to make sure she's not being overfed.
Along with quality kitten food, make sure your kitten has easy access to clean, fresh water. Avoid giving her milk, which might upset her stomach. Despite what you might have heard about cats enjoying a bowl of milk or cream, the fact is that cats can't properly digest dairy and these types of treats may result in diarrhea, which isn't a treat for either one of you.
Training and Socializing Your Kitten
Litter box training should be near the top of your priority list on your kitten's first day home. Kittens that stay with their mothers until they are fully weaned usually learn a litter box's purpose by watching their mothers. Typically, your kitten will already know what to do, and your only job will be to show her the box. You may need to remind her where the box is and use positive reinforcement, such as treats and praise, until she gets used to using it on her own without any prompting. At this stage, it might be helpful to have a couple of litter boxes around the house, just to make sure she has easy access to one while she's figuring things out.
Beyond potty-training, training a kitten is usually about establishing and reinforcing boundaries and household rules. Again, rely on positive reinforcement to train your kitten, and avoid punishing her or speaking to her harshly. Never, ever hit or shake your kitten. Instead, ignore her when she's behaving badly and give her affection, treats and praise to reward her good behavior. If ignoring isn't an option, redirect her attention to something else. For example, if your kitten bites or scratches your hand, give her a toy to play with instead. If she scratches the furniture, patiently redirect her to a scratching post or pad. If all else fails, give her a time out by confining her to base camp until she calms down.
Despite what you might think, cats are actually trainable in other ways too. Much like puppies, kittens are very smart and have the capacity to learn a lot — their independent nature may make it seem otherwise. With training any pet, it takes patience. Start with simple commands like calling her to come to her name. Then, you can slowly introduce other commands such as sit, lie down and stay. Again, it's important to use positive reinforcement if you want these actions to continue as she gets older.
Kittenhood is a crucial time for socializing your cat. In order for her to grow into a well-balanced adult, she should be played with and comforted frequently and also exposed to as many new sights, sounds, smells, and sensations as possible. While she's young is the best time to get her used to things such as wearing a collar, riding in a pet carrier, riding in a car, and tolerating grooming tasks like bathing, brushing, nail trimming, and tooth brushing. Keep in mind that she is still a kitten and is experiencing the world for the first time. There may be times where sights or sounds frighten her. In these cases, it is important to comfort her and understand when too much stimulation might be enough, and you can take her back to her safe place to rest. As she starts to get used to these things, you can slowly introduce more stimuli. However, you might find yourself surprised — kittens have a curious nature and you might find that they can be fearless and explore more than you'd think. How else can you explain a small kitten willing to snuggle up next to a large dog?
Play and Exercise
Beyond just socialization, kittens need to be played with to get their exercise. Not only does this help form a bond between the two of you, but it also helps get the blood flowing for her, which is vital to her healthy development. Set aside time each day to play with her, whether it's having her chase a mouse on a string or a light around the room, to ensure she gets her adequate daily exercise. This will also ensure that your kitten is tuckered out before bed time, which leads us to our next kitten topic...
Kittens sleep a lot at a young age — like between 16-20 hours a day a lot. For this reason, it is important that she has a comfortable place to take a nap and sleep at night. You might be tempted to want to keep her in your bedroom, but unless that's where you want to keep her litter box, it is best to section off somewhere in the house that is just for her. This will allow her to get comfortable in her own space without disturbing your own. It's not uncommon for kittens to wake up in the middle of the night and meow loudly, hoping to get your attention, but unlike babies that cry at night, you should do your best to ignore them. Slowly, they will learn that nighttime is for sleeping, and you're not going to come to her every cry. It also avoids setting a bad precedent where you have to get up every night.
Vaccinations and Health Checks
Your kitten should be taken for a health check within a week of having her home. On the first visit your vet should check for parasites, feline leukemia, and other health concerns, and he or she will administer her first round of vaccinations if she hasn't yet had them. You should also talk to your vet about scheduling booster shots, starting a flea and parasite control regimen, and spaying or neutering at this time. This visit is also a great time to ask your vet any questions you have about your kitten's care and feeding.
Raising a kitten can definitely be a challenge, but if done well the reward is years of love, loyalty and affection, not to mention the satisfaction of watching your cat grow from a tiny fluff ball into a sleek and healthy adult. Now that you know all about kittens and how to raise them, you're well-equipped to provide your new kitten with a warm and welcoming home and a great life.
Jean Marie Bauhaus
Jean Marie Bauhaus is a pet parent, pet blogger and novelist from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she usually writes under the supervision of a lapful of furbabies.