By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
There's nothing as endearing as a fluffy kitten (or better still, a pair of kittens!) hopping sideways across the floor or curled into a tiny ball of fluff on your lap. But kitten parenting requires a certain amount of know-how and plenty of preparation before the big day arrives. Getting your new kitten started off on the right foot will insure she grows up healthy, happy and a wonderful companion.
12 Must-Haves for New Kitten Parents
1. Prepare a sanctuary for your new kitten
When you bring a new kitten (or adult cat) into your home, I recommend you separate the new addition in a little bed-and-breakfast setup of her own for at least a week. Kitties are very sensitive to new environments, sounds, tastes, smells, etc., and they are very easily stressed by any change in their lives.
Providing your kitten with a safe haven will help her get acclimated to her new life on her own terms, which is the way cats prefer things. Put her litterbox, bedding, food and toys in her space, and keep noise, confusion and foot traffic to a minimum.
2. Provide warm, snuggly sleeping quarters
Felines, especially tiny ones, like their environment quite a bit warmer than humans do, which is why kitties tend to gravitate to round pet beds they can curl up in to preserve body heat. A nontoxic pet bed can help reduce your kitten's exposure to PBDEs and other types of indoor pollution. Look for bedding that hasn't been treated with flame-retardant chemicals, and is preferably made with organic materials that are naturally flame resistant.
3. Consider crate training
Most cats fight being put into a carrier because it only happens when someone's about to take them somewhere they don't want to go. That's why it's a really good idea to set up a carrier for your kitten on his first day home, and help him learn to enjoy being in it. It will make life a lot easier for both of you when you need to travel with your kitty or take him for veterinary appointments.
Put the carrier in his sanctuary or another favorite spot and leave the door open. Entice him to go into it on his own with food treats, toys and comfy bedding. You can even try feeding him in there to help him view it as a nonthreatening space. There's no need to close the door until you actually need to travel with him.
4. Go slow with family introductions
Introduce other members of the household to the new kitty one at a time. Ideally, introductions happen in a neutral location, say, the living room, and the new kitten has ventured out on his own to investigate. However you arrange these meet-and-greets, they should be done in a calm, quiet, low-stress environment so as not to scare or further stress the new kitten.
5. Offer your tiny carnivore the nutrition she was born to eat
To provide your new kitten with the very best start in life, feed her either a homemade or commercially available nutritionally balanced fresh food diet (preferably raw) designed for cats at all life stages. If you go the homemade route, you must absolutely insure the diet is nutritionally balanced. It doesn't matter whose recipe you follow, but it does matter that it's balanced.
6. Help your kitten learn to love his litterbox
Most kittens at about four weeks can use a litterbox. Just make sure the walls of the box are low enough that he can hop in and out on his own. Occasionally it takes a few tries, but he should catch on quickly and thereafter seek out and use the box on his own.
If he's avoiding the litterbox, there's probably a reason. Is it the location (e.g., a high-traffic area of your home)? Is it the type of litter you're using? Most, but not all cats prefer unscented clay clumping litter with no odor control additives. Is the box being scooped at least once a day and thoroughly cleaned every week to two weeks? Is he sharing the litterbox with other cats? The rule of thumb in multi-cat households is one box per cat, plus one extra.
7. Provide appropriate climbing and scratching surfaces
Climbing and scratching are natural feline behaviors. Cats scratch to mark their territory with scent in their footpads as well as visually. They also scratch as a way to relieve stress, to stretch and to shed the older layers of their nails. Scratching feels good to your kitten, too, which is why it's important to give her access to a variety of scratching surfaces.
Try burlap, cardboard and carpeted scratching surfaces, placed vertically and horizontally, to see which your kitten prefers. Keep the scratchers in areas she hangs out in, and be sure you have enough scratching areas for the number of cats in your home (like litter boxes, it's a good idea to have one more scratcher than you have cats).
8. Train your kitten to use her scratching post
Initially, you can apply catnip or attach a feather toy to make the scratching area especially attractive to your kitten, and praise her when she responds to it. At the same time, discourage her from scratching on inappropriate surfaces by attaching foil, double-sided tape, plastic sheeting, carpet runners (with the bumpy side up) or inflated balloons to furniture or other surfaces you don't want scratched.
9. Offer toys that bring out the hunter in your kitten
Think like a cat and buy or create toys that draw out his hunting instincts. A piece of string wrapped around the end of a stick that you drag on the ground will bring out the stalker in almost any cat. So will ping-pong balls or small balls of paper flicked across the floor. If you like do-it-yourself projects, you can even make your own inexpensive kitty toys.
Also consider investing in a few interactive toys. Again, think in terms of appealing to his natural instincts to stalk and bring down prey. For example, if you have a cat toy like Da Bird, make it land and take off like the real thing. To keep his interest, every so often have the bird land on a tasty treat and let your kitten discover it when he pounces on his prey.
10. Indulge your kitten's love of boxes
When cats in the wild feel threatened, they head for trees, dens or caves to seek safety. Captive kitties don't have that option, so their obsession with hiding in boxes may be an adaptation. And studies show access to hiding boxes reduces feline stress, especially in shelter cats.
Providing your new kitten with hiding boxes may help him acclimate faster to his new home and family. In addition, they provide insulation and help him preserve body heat.
11. Provide your kitten with safe access to the outdoors
Just because your kitten will be indoors only doesn't mean she doesn't need or deserve to spend time outside. Just like dogs, kitties require mental stimulation and the opportunity to explore the world beyond their front door. One way to broaden your kitten's horizons is to train her to walk on a harness and leash. Alternatively, consider building or buying a safe, secure outdoor enclosure (catio) she can hang out in when the weather is good.
12. Consider adopting two kittens at the same time
One of the best ways to avoid many common behavioral problems is to adopt a pair of kittens. Because they crave stimulation and interaction, adopting two means you have instant playmates to occupy each other's time. Two kittens, eating, sleeping, playing and even fighting together teach one another acceptable limits. And on an emotional and social level, kittens raised with one of their littermates (or another similarly aged kitten) tend to be better socialized and happier.