Caring for your kitten
Kittens are little more than balls of fluff when you bring them home, they’re ineffably cute but they’re also vulnerable and need a great deal of care to maintain kitten health and ensure their happiness well into adulthood.
It’s not just physical kitten health that you need to worry, but emotional and mental well-being too. We look at some guidelines to care for your kitten to the best of your ability and see that her every need is met.
Kitten health tips before you bring her home
You need to prepare your house for a kitten before bringing the little tyke home. You need to do two important things:
- Make your house kitten-proof, which essentially means taking a kitten’s eye-view of your home to find and eliminate any potential dangers, such as curtain cords that could be fun to play with until kitty gets stuck in them and injures herself in her panic to get out, and electrical wiring that could also be tremendous fun to play with, until she chews through and electrocutes herself.
- Prepare a safe place where your kitten can get used to her surroundings before unleashing her on the rest of your house. It’s best to designate one room in your house (the spare room) as the kitten’s room for the first couple of weeks. She should be confined to this room until she settles and gets used to all the different people and animals that she will encounter when she’s out.The room should be warm and quiet and should have enough space for her food and water to be kept far away from her litter trays (the litter tray rule should be one tray per cat plus one). Include additional soft spots (blankets on a chair) for her to nap on, a couple of interesting toys, some catnip, a cat tree and a scratching post so she has some things to keep her occupied during the day. A hidey hole is also a good idea; it could be as simple as cardboard box or a special cat tunnel; just some place where she can hide and be extra safe.
Find a vet
This is something you should also do prior to bringing your kitten home, as you need someone you know and trust before you have to panic and find a vet in an emergency. Talk to your friends with pets to get some recommendations and find out which vets local pet shops and shelters recommend.
You should make an appointment to see your vet soon after you bring your kitten home, so you can get an idea of her health status immediately and so you can get advice on how to care for any issues that crop up and prevent any problems from occurring. The first visit should really just be a check up and should remain as pleasant as possible so that your kitten can build positive associations with the vet, rather than have the first association be pain and fear.
The first visit is also a good time to discuss a vaccination schedule for your kitten and the best age for sterilisation.
Kitten vaccination schedule
Kittens should get their first vaccination when they’re 8 – 9 weeks old and their second vaccination at approximately 12 weeks old. Sometimes a third course is advised at around 16 – 20 weeks. The vaccinations are usually combined, so that your kitten doesn’t have to endure several injections at one time. Booster vaccinations are recommended to keep your cat in good health. The core vaccinations protect your kitten against the most dangerous cat viruses and diseases:
- Feline panleucopenia (feline parvo) is not very common anymore, but vaccination is important to protect against sudden outbreaks. The disease can be fatal, especially to young kitten and unvaccinated cats. It is highly contagious.
- Feline herpes virus (FHV-1) and feline calicivirus (FCV) can cause serious upper respiratory tract infections, which can lead to viral pneumonia. They are highly contagious and very common.
- Feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) is highly contagious and quite common and can even be caught by kittens in utero.
Non-core vaccines are available depending on your location and the types of diseases prevalent in your area. Non-core vaccinations:
- Chlamydophila felis causes conjunctivitis and upper respiratory infections.
- Bordetella bronchispetica causes upper respiratory infections and pneumonia in kittens.
- Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is common in cats, especially outdoor cats who like a bit of argy bargy.
Some kittens may suffer from side-effects after vaccination, side-effects are usually mild and most kittens regain their bounce after a day or two. Side-effects include lethargy, loss of appetite and a small lump on the vaccination site which may be painful. Some kittens may also get a slight fever and cough or wheeze, which are minor symptoms of respiratory infections, and still others may have a bout of vomiting and diarrhoea.
Treating parasites to ensure kitten health
Fleas, ticks and worms are common in kittens and, in addition to being an annoyance, can cause severe health problems. Fortunately, they can be treated quickly and painlessly. There a couple of important things to remember when treating your kitten for ticks, fleas and worms:
- Never use dog treatments. Some of the ingredients used for dog treatments are toxic for cats, and even more so for kittens. In fact, if your dog has been treated with a product that uses permethrin, you should keep them separate from your kitten for two days.
- Always use kitten-appropriate treatment. Some treatments have been specially formulated for kittens, otherwise you might have to go with weight-appropriate doses, or consult your vet if you are unsure what is safe and what is not for your kitten.
Many supermarkets sell tick, flea and worm treatments, but it’s best to go to a specialist vet or pet shop so that you get good quality, vet-endorsed products that are much safer and more effective.
Remember that if your kitten has fleas, you will need to treat the environment (bed, blankets, cushions, scratching posts, carpets, their favourite chair to nap in, etc.) to make sure that no fleas or eggs remain.
As with all household pets, sterilisation is highly recommended. Not only does it help control the population of unwanted kittens, but there are also health benefits for your cats and you can save yourself a lot of frustration by not having to deal with randy males wooing your female or with your hormoned-up male spraying everything in sight.
Some vets recommend early sterilisation – around 8 weeks – but other vets prefer to wait until 4 months. Talk to your vet and other cat specialists to get a better idea of the pros and cons of early and later sterilisation so you can make an informed decision.
Health benefits for spaying female kittens include:
- Less risk of ovarian and uterine cancer
- Reduced risk of urinary tract infections and pyometra
- Lower chances of false pregnancies
Health benefits for neutering male kittens include:
- Reduces risk of FIV as neutered cats are less likely to fight
- Increase safety as neutered cats are less likely to roam (and be hit by cars, for example)
- Reduced risk of testicular cancer
Cats are pretty good at grooming themselves, but getting your kitten used to handling early on will help greatly for all vet visits when they may be manhandled in all sorts of ways. If you have a longhaired cat, like a Persian, then you should get the kittens used to being groomed as soon as possible so that future trips to the parlour won’t be traumatic (and then choose your groomer with great care).
Longhaired kittens and cats should be brushed once a day to keep their coats knot-free; shorthaired kittens and cats can be brushed once a week to get rid of dead hair and keep the coat healthy and shiny, as well as reduce the incidence of hairballs. A good grooming routine will also increase the bond between you and your kitten.
You should also get into the habit of clipping your kitten’s nails.
Unlike puppies and dogs, cats don’t often wear collars (and if they do they should be specially designed for cats), so they don’t always have ID tags. This makes microchipping extremely important so that if your kitten goes on a serious walkabout or is injured off property, they can be identified and you can be contacted.
Kittens’ nutritional needs differ from adult cats, so you should ensure that you have the right food for your kitten. You can buy food for specific breeds, so your kitten gets exactly the right food. You can feed your kitten wet or dry food or a combination of both. If you are feeding a combination, remember to calculate the correct amounts so you don’t over feed your kitten. Kittens should be fed 3 – 4 meals per day until they’re 4 months old, after which you can start decreasing the frequency until you’re feeding twice a day.
Food should always be placed far away from litter trays in a place where they can eat unmolested. You may have to do a little experimenting to see where your kitten is most comfortable, especially if you have other pets and young children.
A note on bowls: Cats prefer shallow, wide bowls so that they can keep an eye on their surroundings and so their whiskers don’t tickle the sides of the bowl. Wash the food bowl thoroughly after meals to remove all trace of leftovers. Bowls with fresh, clean water should always be available throughout your house, and there should also be a clean water source outside.
Kittens also need socialization to cope in a big, wide and loud world. Puppies’ socialization period lasts 16 weeks. Kittens have a much shorter period of 8 – 10 weeks. This means that a lot of responsibility lies with the breeder, foster family or shelter. However, owners shouldn’t forget to introduce their kitten to everything they’re likely to encounter in their new home. Novelties include visitors (kids, grandparents, etc.), other animals, appliances, sports equipment, and car trips.
Remember, exposure to these new experiences needs to be positive. If your kitten suddenly finds herself in the middle of the lawn with a looming mower, she may be terrified of all noises and machines for the rest of her life. Gradual exposure, combined with treats is the way to go.
Playing with kittens
Playing with your kitten is a great way to bond, exercise her innate hunting behavior and provide mental stimulation. Most kittens like toys that mimic prey. So any toys with quick and erratic movements great. Ideas include feathers on string, catnip mice, bouncy pimple balls and tinkle balls. Treat dispensers are great for exercising kitty’s brain.
Common kitten health problems and illnesses
While kittens are still very young and haven’t had all of their vaccinations, they may be prone to:
- Upper and lower respiratory tract infections
- Parasites, such as ear mites, worms and fleas
Some health problems require ongoing treatment to prevent or eliminate the problem, such as fleas and worms. Get into a regular deworming routine and keep your kitten’s preventative flea treatment up to date.
Signs of illness in kittens
Some signs of illness in kittens are more obvious than others. It’s important to monitor your kitten closely they’re at least 8 months old to spot any physical or behavioural changes that could be health-related.
Obvious signs of illness include:
- Trouble urinating
- Rapid, significant weight changes
- Swelling (e.g., around the abdomen or on the limbs)
- Bleeding (in stools or urine or from nose or mouth)
- Coughing, wheezing
- White gums
- Skin conditions
- Discharge from eyes or nose
Subtle signs of illness include:
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in water consumption
- Lethargy, restlessness and excessive sleep
- Sensitivity to touch
- Changes in interactions – clingier than usual or more aloof
- Bad breath
- Changes in grooming habits
- Increased or decreased vocalisation
If you suspect that your kitten is not well, take her to the vet immediately. It’s better to over-react about constipation than to leave a problem until treatment is impossible.
Kittens are quite delicate and require a lot of care to keep them healthy and happy. Pet insurance makes sense because it helps you do just that.
You can rest assured that should anything happen to your darling kitten you have a range of healthcare options to choose from, including complementary treatment. You’ll even be covered if your kitten goes lost or is stolen and you need to advertise and offer a reward for her safe return.