How to Raise a Kitten
By Mary Jo Mersol-Berg
The exciting day has come. You finally are bringing home a kitten to make your family complete. Are you prepared for the new arrival? Just as you would make preparations for a new baby, you should prepare your home for a new kitten.
Before the kitten ever sets paw in your home, secure a qualified veterinarian for the kitten’s regular checkups and in case of emergencies. Establish the kitten’s routine, and assign kitten-care chores. You don’t want everyone to stand over the dirty litter box insisting, “It’s not my job!”
When your new kitten comes home, take it slow and easy. Imagine how anxious the kitten is, being thrust into a world full of strange places and people. Do your best to comfort and reassure the new family member, but don’t be pushy. Kittens can only take so much excitement before needing a long nap to recover and prepare for more. Your kitten will be a member of your household for 15 to 20 years, so don’t rush things.
Think of your new kitten as a baby who has just been brought home from the hospital. Everyone is happy to see it, but the little one needs plenty of sleep, tender loving care and quiet.
Your preparations should involve kitten proofing your home. To prevent tragedy, try to look at your home through a kitten’s eyes. It may help to get down on the floor at kitten level and consider what might be dangerous or tempting to a little one. Like small children, kittens explore by putting objects in their mouths. They find the darndest things with which to play.
Keep the following items our of your kitten’s reach: needles, pins, thread, string, yarn, fishhooks, bones, Christmas tree needles, tinsel, broken glass, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, foam rubber, poisonous houseplants (your veterinarian can provide a list), insecticides, rodent poisons, harsh cleansers, phenol or pine oil as found in some common liquid cleaners, antifreeze (cats are attracted to the sweet smell of this toxic substance), plastic bags, rubber bands, and cellophane.
Don’t forget to examine your furniture and appliances. Rocking chairs and recliners can crush a small tail or paw. A hot iron can fall on a kitten playing with the cord. An upper-story window left open without a screen, even for a second, can spell trouble. Make sure your kitten does not become trapped in the freezer, refrigerator, kitchen cabinets, drawers, washing machine or dryer. Teach the kitten to stay off the stove and kitchen counter.
Your kitten probably will go through a teething stage, chewing on just about anything regardless of hazard. To prevent harmful chewing, coal electric cords with an awful-tasting substance such as “Bitter Apple,” a cream available in pet stores and veterinary clinics. Eventually the kitten will settle into your home, but you need to look out for its safety and welfare-especially at the beginning.
The Litter Box
When your kitten comes home, you should have a litter box ready for it to use. Litter boxes come in several styles and sizes. A covered box allows your kitten privacy and helps keep litter inside where it belongs. Your new kitten may not be familiar with this strange contraption, so place the kitten inside to help it get the idea.
Another option in litter boxes is a rimmed box. This box has a removable rim, allowing a cat to step over the sides but preventing most litter from being kicked out. It is easy to inspect and scoop. You also can choose the basic box with no bells and whistles. As a general rule, a large, roomy box is preferable to a smaller one.
The most important aspects of the litter box are accessibility and cleanliness. Kittens quickly learn what a litter box is for, but they are impulsive and often have to go in a hurry. It is critical that the kitten is never too far from a litter box. Do not, for example, expect a kitten to find the box if it is kept on a different floor of the house.
Early on, introduce your kitten to one room at a time so the kitten doesn’t become lost and confused and use the most convenient place to relive itself. While you are away from the home, try to restrict your kitten’s environment to a small area, such as a bedroom or laundry room, where it can easily find the litter box. Once your kitten establishes the lay of the land, you no longer need to make these accommodations.
The most common cause of cats having accidents around the house is a dirty litter box. To prevent such accidents, remove wastes daily with a litter scoop. The scoop can be large or small, plastic or metal. My personal preference is a small metal scoop-it’s easier to manipulate and doesn’t spill as much litter. If your kitten has an accident on the rug or furniture, you must remove all trace of odor, or the kitten will be attracted to that spot again.
Once a week, change the litter and clean the box with a mild detergent or bleach solution; if the litter becomes too wet or smelly, you may need to clean more often. When choosing a litter, keep in mind that perfumed or chlorophyll litters may repulse a cat anxious to use the box. Plain, dust-free litter is the best, most economical choice. Clumping litters also make good choices.
As your kitten matures, it suddenly may begin urinating around the house to mark its territory. This is not a litter box issue; it is a hormone issue. The best way to handle the problem is to have the kitten spayed or neutered as soon as possible.
Food and Water
Before you bring home your new kitten, try to find out what its been eating. A kitten’s gastrointestinal tract is sensitive, and sudden changes in food can cause diarrhea, stomach upset, or refusal to eat. It you want to change your kitten’s diet, do so gradually by slowly adding the brand of food you prefer and eliminating the former brand. Be aware that a change in water also may cause diarrhea.
If your new kitten develops diarrhea, don’t panic. It may be related only to the change in diet and will resolve itself soon. Call your veterinarian if the kitten is dehydrated, feverish or lethargic, or if you have reason to believe the kitten has internal parasites. Just as children do, kittens make it clear when they don’t feel well and need proper attention.
When choosing a diet for your kitten, remember that finicky cats are made, not born. If you offer something more enticing when the kitten doesn’t eat the first food offered, you quickly will have a spoiled cat. Before you know it, you will be loading up your grocery cart with dozens of cans of food in hopes that one will tempt your little darling. It your kitten refuses a meal, wait until the next regular feeding time. If the kitten refuses both wet and dry food for more than 24 hours, contact a veterinarian.
Start your kitten’s grooming routine early, and your cat will let you clip its claws and groom its coat. The grooming sessions can be extremely satisfying for both you and your cat.
Clipping claws isn’t nearly so enjoyable for the kitten, but you and your furniture will be grateful. If you establish a routine of claw clipping every week, your kitten will accept the procedure as a normal part of life.
All you need to clip a cat’s claws are a pair of clippers and a firm but gentle hand. You will find specialized cat claw clippers in most pet stores, veterinary clinics, and cat shows. If you don’t want to buy a new set of clippers, you can use a regular set of human nail clippers. Though specialized clippers are better suited to cat’s nails, human nail clippers do a serviceable job.
To clip, gently hold the kitten, push the claw out of its sheath by pressing on the kitten’s paw, and cut through the translucent pare of the claw. If you clip the darker area closest to the paw pad, you will cut through the blood vessels and nerve ending of the claw. Needless to say, this will hurt your kitten, and you may have trouble convincing it that claw clipping is a good thing. Be patient, take things slowly, and your kitten will become comfortable having its claws clipped.
You can train almost any cat to scratch a designated area instead of your favorite sofa. Rather than submit your kitten to declawing, your can keep your furniture and you kitten’s paws intact.
First, offer the kitten an alternative to the furniture; a scratching post. You can purchase a scratching post at a pet store, at a cat show, or through a mail order company. The post should be large enough and strong enough for the kitten to get a good stretch as it scratches. Second, always keep your kitten’s claws trimmed. Finally, teach your kitten the post is for scratching and the furniture is not.
To encourage appropriate scratching behavior, place the post in an easily accessible area. Whenever you see the kitten scratching something else, place it gently on the post. Rubbing catnip on the post may help reinforce good scratching behavior. A squirt from a water gun or a loud handclap is a useful punishment when the kitten scratches something other than the post.
If you allow the kitten access to forbidden furniture only when you are around and consistently reinforce the behavior you want and punish the behavior you don’t want, your kitten will learn what is expected. This applies to any lesson you want your kitten to learn. Your kitten needs to learn the rules of the house from you-it doesn’t automatically know what it shouldn’t do.
A Joyful Home
Though these guidelines don’t cover every possible situation, they present a sensible and sensitive way to bring a new kitten into your home. A kitten can be the joy of your life-it’s up to you to make sure that you kitten has an equally joyful home. With a good start, your kitten will grow into a cat that will love you and share your life for years to come.