Taking Care of Your Kitten

A six-week old kitten.
A six-week old kitten. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Kitten Care: Bringing Home Baby

Can a little fur in your life lower blood pressure, boost immunity, reduce anxiety, even diminish depression? It turns out that people with pets get more than just love, purpose, and fulfillment from their fuzzy companions. Having pets can help make a person healthier, too. Ready to bring a kitten home? Here's what you need to know, from adoption to feeding to fun.

Tips for Adopting a Kitten

There are millions of homeless pets, so it's a great idea to adopt your feline friend from an animal shelter or a rescue group. Although pet stores and breeders can also be reputable sources, anyone can call themselves a breeder and decide to sell cats. Adopt from a shelter or a rescue group and you get two feel-good bonuses: You save money -- and a life.

One Cat or Two?

As you cuddle a couple kittens at a shelter, the question is bound to occur: One cat or two? Many people in multi-cat households enthuse that two compatible cats offer each other company, exercise, and stimulation. Questions to ask yourself include: Do I have enough space? Time? Money? If the answer is yes, prepare for double the commitment -- and double the rewards!

Preparing for Kitty's Arrival

Before bringing home a baby, you buy diapers, bottles, a car seat and much more. Fortunately, it's a little easier bringing home your kitten! A few must-haves include: A litter box, cat carrier, food and water bowls (and something to put in them), a collar and tags, and several toys to entertain your fuzzy tot. Take time to cat-proof your house before kitty arrives: put away household chemicals and pick up anything she might accidentally swallow.

Will Kitty Be Indoors or Outdoors?

Cars, disease, predators, people, dogs, other cats: These are just a few of the dangers lurking outside for your new kitten. Many veterinarians recommend keeping cats indoors, maintaining that on average, indoor-only cats lead longer, healthier lives. If you choose to keep your kitten indoors, remember to create an enriched environment for your little friend with window perches, lots of companionship, toys, even outdoor enclosures.

Do You Really Need Kitten Food?

Until they're 1 year old, kittens need up to three times the calories as adult cats. So look for food formulated especially for kittens and feed your kitten the amount recommended by the food manufacturer. Talk to your vet about using canned food, dry kibbles, or a mixture of both, so you can make the best choice for your kitten. Just be sure to put the food somewhere the dog can't get to, as kitty food can upset a dog's stomach.

Water, Water Everywhere

Always have lots of cool, clean water available for your kitten every day -- place several water bowls throughout the house. Encourage her to drink by keeping the water bowls well-scrubbed. If you notice your kitten isn't drinking much from her bowl, try offering water in a flatter dish, one that doesn't surround her small face quite so much. Some cats prefer moving water and may do better with a kitty water fountain rather than a standard bowl.

The Low-Down on Litter Boxes

Cats have an instinct to eliminate in soil or sand, usually learning this behavior from mom by 3-4 weeks of age -- so your kitten will likely be used to a litter box upon arrival. Locate it in a quiet spot and show her where it is. Kitty litter choices include regular and clumping clay litter, litter made from wood chips, grains like wheat, newspapers. Although one test showed cats favored fine-grained clumping litter over other options, the choice is really up to you -- and your kitten. And, some cat boxes are too high-sided for kittens to get in and out easily, so you may need to start with a low-sided box until your little one is taller.

The Benefits of a Cat Bed

Cats sleep as many as 16 hours a day, kittens even more. As much as you love cuddling with kitty, she'll probably enjoy a spot all her own. You don't need a bodacious bed from the pet store. She'll happily curl up on a perch attached to a window ledge, a cat tree, a fuzzy pad on a chair, or in her very own snuggly cat bed. If you have a dog, it's important to provide your kitten a safe and private place to sleep undisturbed.

The Importance of Play

Playtime with your kitten isn't all fun and games. It also has a purpose. By gently playing with your kitten daily, you teach her not only the people skills she needs to be a happy household companion, you also help her keep fit, develop physical coordination, and find an outlet for instinctive behaviors like chasing and pouncing. If kitty likes to use her teeth or claws, give her something to bite on or cling to as you play. Don't use your hand as a toy! This bad habit can result in injury to children or unsuspecting guests.

Keeping Kitty Safe

Cats often interact with the world through their mouth, and as cute as your kitten looks playing, not everything in your house is a suitable toy. The American Humane Society suggests keeping string, ribbon, yarn, rubber bands, plastic milk jug rings, paper clips, pins, dental floss, and anything else that could be eaten away by your cat. Also, tuck away cleaning supplies, pills, and drugs of all kind, as well as antifreeze and motor oil.

Teaching Your Kitten the Rules

Your kitten is new to the world and your house -- so she'll need to learn the ropes, one step at a time. Want to deter some behaviors? Provide acceptable outlets. For example, to keep kitty off the curtains, give her a sisal-covered pole to clamber up. Don't want kitty blunting claws on the couch? Provide scratching posts around the house. Tip: Pretend to sharpen your claws on the scratching post, as this shows her it's OK to do this. Ideal scratch posts are well secured, as instability is off-putting to many cats. Your job as teacher is to be patient, consistent, kind -- and creative!

A Word About Declawing

Declawing kittens and cats is controversial; consider the pros and cons carefully. Because a cat's claws are adhered to their bones, this surgery involves removal of the last joint of each "finger". Those who argue against declawing feel it is inhumane and amounts to mutilation. Those on the other side argue it makes a cat a better pet, and possibly less likely to end up in a shelter because of destructive behavior. If you choose to declaw your cat after other methods to prevent scratching have failed, surgery should be performed before 6 months of age. Declawed cats should always be kept indoors because they have trouble defending themselves.

Quick Tips to Manage Scratching

Because declawing is a last-resort solution, try these tips for managing kitty's claws. Nail clippers: They're easier to use than you think, and usually you need only clip the front claws; care should be taken to avoid cutting the central "quick" – the blood supply to the growing nail. This is easily identified as the pink central part of the nail. Gently press on the foot pads to extend the nail before clipping. Ask your vet to show you how if you are unsure. Scratching posts help cats help themselves; look for sisal, cardboard, carpet, and wood posts. Claw caps (also called nail caps) are tiny vinyl sleeves that fit over your cat's claws, painlessly preventing them from scratching in unwanted places.

Food Harmful to Your Kitten

Although drinks like alcohol, coffee, and tea may be tasty to you, they're dangerous for your cat. To help keep kitty safe, avoid onions and garlic, as these foods cause anemia in cats. If you find your kitten likes these or other family nibbles, offer them their own goodies, like a pot of catnip or oat grass. Think your cat has eaten something dangerous? Call your vet at once, or call the Animal Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435.

Plants Harmful to Your Kitten

Several house or outdoor plants can also pose a poison risk to your kitten, including chrysanthemum, azalea, tulip bulbs, and oleander. Lillies are particularly poisonous to cats, and even small amounts can cause severe illness. Not sure if a particular plant is kitty-safe? Talk to your vet. And if you think she's eaten something potentially poisonous, call your vet right away, or call the Animal Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435.

8 Weeks: Time to Spay or Neuter

With an estimated 6 million dogs and cats entering shelters every year, there are too many pets and not enough loving families for all of them. That's why groups like the Humane Society and the American Veterinary Medical Association recommend spaying or neutering your cat, which can be done as early as eight weeks. Some groups can even help with the cost of surgery. You can help reduce pet overpopulation -- one litter at a time.

Fleas: Fighting Back

All it takes is one flea hitching a ride indoors on your pants hem and a flea infestation can begin. If you notice your kitten is losing hair, has irritated skin, is chewing and licking often, or is scratching a lot, your little one may have fleas. Ask your vet which flea control he recommends for kittens (some products also prevent heart worms), and then treat all the pets in the house. Some flea treatments commonly used in dogs can be very toxic to cats, so always read the package carefully.

Protecting Against Intestinal Worms

Kittens are prone to a variety of intestinal parasites. Many kittens are infested with roundworms through their mother's milk. Roundworms may cause diarrhea, vomiting, and pneumonia. Human infection by this parasite is possible. A fecal test performed by your veterinarian can detect hookworm eggs, and inexpensive medications are available to eliminate the worms. Tapeworms, transmitted by ingesting a flea, are not eliminated by the standard kitten deworming medications and are not detected on a routine fecal examination. If the classic "rice grains" tapeworms are seen in the stool or on kitty's behind, then a specific medication from your vet is required to eliminate them.

Don't Forget Vaccinations

Just like you, your kitten's vaccinations will help keep her free of contagious, and sometimes deadly, diseases. Common illnesses that can be prevented by vaccinations include rabies, feline distemper, feline leukemia, and upper respiratory infections. Because some vaccines last longer than others, and because disease risk can vary based on your cat's lifestyle and location, talk to your vet about a customized vaccination program.

How to Tell When Kitty Is Sick

To protect themselves from predators, cats are good at hiding illness. Yet there are signs to look for that tell you your kitten may be sick, including refusing food or water; panting; sleeping much more than usual; coughing; sneezing; vomiting; or losing weight. Even if these symptoms aren't present, if you think your little buddy isn't up to snuff, play it safe: Talk to your veterinarian. Never give your cat something from your own medicine cabinet; some of the over-the-counter products we use routinely can be deadly to cats.

Hints to Help You Pick a Vet

A good way to find a great veterinarian is to ask people you trust for recommendations; then, after narrowing your choices, visit each clinic. Does the clinic look (and smell) clean and well-managed? Do the vets listen to you? Answer your questions clearly? Do they seem to like cats? How about the support staff -- are they calm and caring? Like choosing your own doctor, the fit needs to fit. Don't be shy about changing clinics if necessary.

They Grow Up So Fast!

Like all babies, kittens seem to grow up right before your eyes, and before you know it they're braving the world on their own. So be sure to take lots of pictures and enjoy every moment as your rough-and-tumble little kitten changes and grows into your contented cat companion.

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