It’s been about 13 years since we had a kitten in the Dr. D household, and, with the addition of Mango’s progeny Watermelon (now called Pudge), I am having a refresher course in Kitten 101. I darn near forgot how much energy kittens have! And how they get into everything (electrical cords, closets, toilet paper.) Good thing Pudge is cute. Here’s a basic primer on what you need to know to care for your new kitten.
Kittens should not be weaned before 8 weeks, as this can result in undesired behavioral concerns, so most rescues and shelters do not adopt out kittens younger than two months old. At this age, most kittens are already using the litter box. A general rule of thumb is that you should have one litter pan per cat in the household, plus one extra for good measure. One thing we know about cats: they are opinionated! Many studies have defined feline preferences with litter box usage. Here’s what we know: cats prefer clay-based clumping litter (such as Tidy Cats) over pellets or crystals; they prefer big, wide, open litter pans over hooded ones; they shy away from automated self-cleaning litter pans; they consistently choose clean litter boxes over soiled ones, so scooping pans a minimum of once daily is essential; felines like deeper litter over shallow litter, so 3-4 inches of litter depth is needed in each pan.
By 8 weeks of age, kittens are typically eating mostly solid food. A small percent of kittens at this age will eat dry food, but most prefer canned kitten food. Kittens should have dry food available throughout the day, and can be fed wet food twice or three times daily. It’s not unusual for recently weaned kittens to experience separation anxiety from MamaCat, and this may cause Kitty to not eat for a few days in his new home. Tempt him to eat by microwaving his canned food for a few days to enhance the aroma (ensure it’s not too hot) and encourage him to eat by putting a small amount of food on your finger for him to lick. You can also wipe a small amount of wet food on Kitty’s paw, which will prompt him to clean himself and maybe inspire his appetite. If Kitty is eating regularly throughout the day, he does not need milk replacer. However, if Kitty is really inappetant, you may want to considering offering him KMR (Kitten Milk Replacer) for a few days until he settles in and starts eating; KMR is available at all pet stores. Kitty should have unlimited access to fresh water throughout the day. Typically kittens are fed kitten food until they are spayed/neutered, or until 6 months of age. Then you can begin to transition to adult food by mixing the new and old foods together over the course of several days.
All new kittens should be examined by a veterinarian soon after adoption. Your vet will listen to Kitty’s heart and lungs, evaluate his weight and body condition, ensure he does not have external parasites such as fleas or ear mites and discuss the basics of kitten care. All new kittens (and newly adopted adult cats) should receive a blood test for feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV); these serious, often fatal, diseases can be passed from MamaCat through the placenta or via nursing. Most clinics have an in-house FeLV/FIV test that requires only a few drops of blood and yields a result within a few minutes. Bring a fecal sample to your vet visit, as kittens should be screened for intestinal parasites; Kitty will likely also be prophylactically dewormed by your veterinarian.
Some kittens will have been vaccinated prior to adoption at 8 weeks of age. If not, all kittens should receive the FVRCP (Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, Calicivirus and Panleukopenia) vaccine by 8 weeks of age. (This is commonly referred to as the feline “distemper” vaccine, since panleukopenia is sometimes called feline distemper.) The FVRCP vaccine is boosted every 3-4 weeks until the kitten is 16 weeks of age, or older. The last vaccine must be given after 16 weeks of age to ensure adequate immunity, and then the vaccine is boosted at one year of age. The rabies vaccine is required, by law, in Pennsylvania for dogs and cats 12 weeks of age and older; this vaccine is given one time, and then it is boosted again at one year of age, and then every 3 years thereafter. The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) also recommends that every kitten receive a series of two vaccinations for feline leukemia virus, given one month apart.
Kittens should be spayed and neutered no later than 6 months of age. For female cats, spaying before the first heat cycle is essential; there is a defined correlation between the number of heat cycles and increased risk for mammary (breast) cancer in cats. Spaying a cat before her first heat effectively eliminates the risk of this disease altogether; it also eliminates the risk for unwanted pregnancy and the likelihood of Kitty driving you crazy with her hormone-crazed heat antics. See this video for more on the unique sounds of a cat in heat.
Since kittens have boundless energy, it is important to provide ample opportunities for play. Toys such as crinkle balls, toy mice, Kong “bird teasers”, and even simple items such as balled up paper and toilet paper rolls are all good things to have on hand. Scratching is natural feline behavior, so Kitty should have a scratching post, or incline scratcher to steer his focus away from your sofas. Finally, Kitty should have a designated bed or two, where he can comfortably sleep away from household chaos (kids, other cats, dogs). Most new kitten owners elect to confine Kitty for several weeks, to avoid the likelihood that he will chew on electrical cords or get into other trouble in the house. (Curiosity, and all that.)
Most kittens adapt well to new homes, people and other pets. They’re a lot of fun, and cute to boot!