Cat Kitten Care - Getting Your Kitten on the Path to Good Health

What is the most important thing to know about raising a healthy kitten?

The most important thing would be to provide proper nutrition. On top of that, you want to provide a safe environment and then, of course, wellness care, vaccinations, and deworming.

Dr. Nichola Gaither
Animal Hospital of Statesville

What are the right and wrong ways to pick up my kitten?

When you're picking them up, you want to make sure you're supporting their whole body. We've all seen the mom grabbing behind the neck and picking them up. And depending on the size of the kitten, that might be an appropriate way to pick them up, but I would encourage you to support their whole body when you pick them up. That way, they feel more secure, and they're less likely to be scared or try to scratch you.

How can I tell if my kitten is happy and healthy?

A lot of that would be activity. If they're very active, that's a great sign. If their bowel movements are normal, and if they're eating and drinking, those are signs of a healthy kitten in general.

How should I feed my kitten?

We would recommend if they're old enough to eat kitten food, get them good quality kitten food for growth. The kitten is growing, and that will provide the proper nutrition. We recommend feeding kittens two or three times a day, putting that food out and letting them eat, and then picking that up. That will get them on a schedule and allow them to better house and litter box train.

Does kitten food need to be softened?

It depends on the age of the kitten. If it's a very young kitten, you may need to. If it's really young, you may need to add some of the formula in with that—especially if it was a kitten that wasn't weaned from the mom properly. If it's a bit older kitten, you can add water. But most times, they can handle the dry food on their own. Just don't add milk.

What are some products I might need for a kitten?

Just like a small baby, a small kitten needs lots and lots of stuff to make it happy. First, you need to decide if your kitten is going to be indoor or indoor/outdoor. And so that would determine some of these things. But a litter box would, of course, be the number one. It is recommended to have one litter box per cat in the house, plus one. So if you have one kitten, you need two litter boxes.

The other thing would be good quality food and water bowls. Many people don't necessarily think about that, but we can see problems with bowls that aren't cleaned properly or don't allow you to clean them properly. Stainless steel is always a good option. And then you want to have toys. Every kitten loves toys. You want to have toys and things that they can play with so that they're not climbing your curtains. And then maybe one of the most essential things would be time to invest in your kitten.

How soon should I bring my new kitten to see my veterinarian?

We would recommend immediately—the sooner, the better. And there are good reasons for that. We want to make sure they're healthy. We listen to their heart and check them out. There are certain diseases that they can get from their moms or from being around other cats. And then also there are certain things that they could pass to you or your children, and so we want to keep them healthy to keep you healthy.

How can I get the most out of my first kitten visit with my veterinarian?

If you have questions, write them down because as soon as you get here, we give you a lot of information. We're really big on education, so you might forget specific questions that you have. Also, we recommend not feeding them right before the visit so that they come a little hungry, and then that way, we can give them some treats and maybe make the visit a little more pleasant, a little less fearful for them.

What will you look for as a veterinarian with my kitten's first visit?

We would look at your kitten as a whole. We look from the nose to the eyes and ears. We're looking for any problems that they may have, like infections or parasites. We will listen to their heart. We will feel their belly. Some young kittens can have umbilical hernias. We will check for that. We'll make sure anatomically everything is where it needs to be in the right place. We will also check their stool for parasites. That's a big thing. And we will recommend appropriate vaccines for them.

What are some early signs and symptoms of health issues with my kitten?

We will recommend for a kitten to be checked for the viruses that are commonly spread from cat to cat or from the mom to the kitten, and that's feline leukemia and FIV. That's a simple blood test that we can do to check for that.

Are there any signs or symptoms of feline leukemia that people need to look for?

There may not be any signs initially, but other signs or symptoms for other diseases would be respiratory issues—the snotty, sneezy, eye drainage is widespread with our kittens that aren't healthy.

Why is it important to avoid self-diagnosing my cat or my kitten?

The biggest reason would be to misdiagnose. And so we don't want to treat for what the kitten doesn't need to be treated for, and we don't want to miss something that might be present.

When should I start my kitten with vaccinations?

We generally recommend around six to eight weeks old, and so about the time that they're weaned would be the time that we would start vaccines. The whole mindset of that is we want to catch them when their immune system is kicking in and when those maternal antibodies begin to decline.

What do I need to know about kitten behavior?

Every kitten is different, and they have lots of energy. Typical behavior for cats is to scratch. They do kind of shed the outer covering of their claws by scratching. Scratching is appropriate, but of course, if they are an indoor kitty, you may not want them to scratch on certain surfaces, so having appropriate things for them to scratch on, like scratching posts, is vital. Know that scratching is normal, and being active more in the evening and night is typical. If you aren't aware, some of these things can be frustrating and concerning, so being prepared for those ahead of time is good.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (704) 872-3625, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.

Cat Kitten Care - FAQs

Dr. Nichola Gaither
Animal Hospital of Statesville

What is the most important thing to know about raising a kitten?

I think one of the most important things to know is they are high energy. They require a lot of activity and stimulation, and so be prepared. Be ready for that. But they also can give a lot of love and be very affectionate, so just make sure you have the time to invest in them.

What should I consider before I adopt or purchase a kitten?

You want to think about the season of life you're in. Do you have that time to put forward so that it's a pleasant experience and fun experience for both you and your kitten? You need to think about what animals you currently have. Do you have other cats in the household that will welcome this kitten? Do you have older ones? Do you have dogs? Do you have children? You need to think about other family members, furry or non-furry, in the household and how the new kitten will fit into your family.

What should I look for in a kitten?

When you're looking at a kitten, outwardly, you can look for any upper respiratory signs. As far as any problems or concerns, you can check the ears, check the fur to see if there are any bit black things that wouldn't be normal or good. And then you also want to look at behavior. Are they interactive? Are they curious? That's usually a good sign. Or are they petrified and nervous? Do they hiss and spit at you and are scared when you come towards them? Those would be good things to look for.

Is it possible to care for a kitten while working full-time?

Yes, I believe so. And in some ways, some people think that kittens or cats take less time than dogs or puppies. And I would agree with that to some degree. Again, depending on if they're indoor, indoor/outdoor, we don't necessarily walk our cats to use the bathroom. And so there's that house training aspect. It's a bit different. They use the litter box, but you do have to frequently invest in cleaning the litter box because we don't want to develop bad habits for our cats or kittens.

And then just remembering the time. Even though they may have lots of toys in the house and have been there all day, they're probably sleeping most of their day while you're at work. So when you get home, they're ready to play. Just make sure you set aside time, that one-on-one interaction so that you can bond with them and also get out some of that energy before you're ready to go to sleep.

How can I kitten-proof my home?

I don't know if that is possible entirely, but things to think about would be: is there something that you would not want them to be on or potentially scratch? And if so, put it away. Pick your battles. If there's something that's Mom's or Grandma's favorite chair that you've inherited, maybe tuck that away for the kitten season. And then also you want to think about safety, so you want to look around at your house for plants. We think about that. Cats are curious, and they investigate. Some of the things that just come to mind would be plants and any candles. You want to be careful not to have candles that are lit. Cats are curious, and kittens are more curious, and so they can get into those things. You want to think about surfaces that they might be able to get up on and climb and then be more apt to be hurt or injured.

When you decorate, think about it like having a baby. I believe until ours were maybe four, we didn't decorate a lot of things. Or with the Christmas tree, we decorated from here up and not from here down. So, things like that you want to consider. Think about if you were the kitten and how fun those things would look to play with, and they might not be something you would want them to play with.

How do I introduce a kitten to other pets?

Yes, that's very important. And you want to try to do that the least confrontational way. One thing we talk about is: is it possible to do that in a neutral setting? But that might not be possible if you have cats or dogs at your home, and your kittens come into your home. But you might want to think about doing it in an area of the house that's not the other pet's favorite chair, or favorite sleeping area, or around their food. Don't do it around those things that they might be a little more territorial of. And then you want to do it safely by making sure that both of them are not at risk of hurting each other.

You might want to do that with a cat, for instance, in a carrier setting. You can leave the kitten in its carrier. You could even put your other cat in another carrier. Let them see the other one without necessarily being able to touch or interact for the first meeting. And then, of course, gradually increase that distance or decrease the distance. So, you increase the face-to-face time. And then let them touch each other, smell each other. I would keep the dog on a leash. And that way you have some control of the situation if they decide they don't like each other at the first meeting.

If you were to find a kitten, depending on the age, you would want to, of course, look around and see. Is it possible the mother cat could have been scared and ran off and is coming back for the kitten? You may want to avoid touching the kitten initially and just observe the area at a distance. Observe the kitten and the area at a distance. If the kitten's in a safe place that it's not going to get hurt, come back and check on it a few hours later. The other thing I would think about is if the kitten is very vocal and acting very hungry. Then maybe it would be abandoned or orphaned versus if the mom had just left it, it might not be looking like that.

Can I hold a newborn kitten?

If it's with its mom and it's a newborn kitten, I would encourage you not to—at least not to do a lot of handling. Because those first hours and days are a time where they bond. The problem would be that mom could decide that the kitten doesn't smell like her, or she doesn't recognize it if your scent or smell is on it, and so she may reject it. That would be one concern. And the other would be just safe handling. They're like babies. Be careful that you're not rough or mishandling them so that they could be injured or hurt.

How do I keep a newborn kitten warm?

If they're with their mom, again, the mom's going to do most of that, as we talked about with puppy care. Ensure that Mom has a good bed or safe area to be with them secluded, and not having to worry about any other animals coming around and having to be stressed about that. And if the kitten is not with Mom, depending on the time of year, you may want to have them in a little box or give them a blanket or something like that in there where they can be safe and secure.

How do I know if a kitten I've found is healthy?

Signs of a healthy kitten would be a kitten that's interactive, playful, eating and drinking well, and having regular bowel movements. You might not notice those things right off. You want to ensure they have energy, and they're interactive, and you don't see any obvious discharge, runny nose, sneezing, or other things like that.

What is fading kittens syndrome, and how can I prevent it?

Fading kitten syndrome is where a kitten is born and looks healthy and fine, but the kitten starts to decline over the next few weeks. The kitten becomes sick even to the point of death. The best way to prevent that would be to make sure Mom is as healthy as she can be before giving birth to pass that healthy immune system along to her kitten and any antibodies that she might have from appropriate vaccines.

Do I need to take a very young kitten to see the veterinarian?

If the kitten is with Mom, then we wouldn't necessarily recommend that until they're closer to about six to eight weeks—at the age of weaning. If they are abandoned and not with Mom, we would recommend bringing them in right away. That way, we can evaluate them and see what their needs might be since their mom's not providing them.

What should I expect at my kitten's first visit?

When you come here to the Animal Hospital of Statesville, you will get lots of education. We talk about how to care for your kitten. We talk about the first set of vaccines and deworming that there they are going to get. They can carry or have intestinal parasites that can be contagious to you and me, so we educate on that. And your kitten's going to receive a complete physical exam, and we make sure you know how to take care of them at home. We'll ensure you have a proper carrier and have them set up and ready to go in that.

What should I ask my veterinarian at my kitten's first appointment?

Any questions that you have. Of course, bring them. Write them down. We encourage you to write them down so that you'll remember them. We give a lot of education. But if you have questions about their nutrition, about how they interact with your other family members or your other pets, those would be good questions to ask us. If you have questions about just what they're doing at home, how they're acting, then ask us, and we're happy to help.

How often does my kitten need to go to the veterinarian?

We recommend starting around six to eight weeks, and then we recommend that they come back every three weeks for boosters. They're not going to be fully vaccinated until they've completed their full kitten shots. Also, during that time, we are checking to ensure that they are growing and developing properly. They come to see us until they're about four months old.

What other preventive care does my kitten need?

A big one is heartworm and flea and tick prevention. We know that external parasites are a big deal. Internal parasites, things that we can't see, are like heartworms. Even if you have a strictly indoor kitty, we still recommend that because mosquitoes transmit heartworms. We know that mosquitoes can be inside our house.

When should I get my kitten spayed or neutered?

We generally recommend that around five to six months old for our females. Most people want to spay them before they have their heat cycles because that can be somewhat annoying to go through. And then for our males, if they are indoors, they can tend to mark their territory or spray. And so that's a big thing that we want to help prevent that behavior with neutering.

Is it safe to keep my young kitten outside?

Some will have different answers to that question. I believe that they can be safely outside, but of course, there's more risk outside—you can't argue that point. But I believe that if they want to be outside, they can be happy and healthy. And, of course, there are certain preventative measures and vaccines that we can recommend to help keep them healthy.

Some of our kitties that we try to make indoors aren't happy inside. We can see here, especially when we see many behavioral issues that are just as important as medical issues, and behavioral issues turn into medical issues because of that stress on the body. And so if they're happy inside and they have enough environmental enrichment, then perfect. But if they like to be outdoors and have that indoor/outdoor life, I think sometimes it's kind of that happy medium or best life for them.

What are the core vaccine requirements for kittens?

The core vaccines are vaccines that are required for all cats, no matter what their lifestyle is. And so for our kittens, the core vaccines would be what we call our FVRCP, which is initials for the feline upper respiratory or respiratory diseases. Panleukopenia. Calicivirus. And rabies, of course, is another core vaccine.

We recommend that all kittens receive the Leukemia vaccine because kittens are the most susceptible to that virus. It's highly contagious from cat to cat. If they start out as being an indoor kitty, like we just said, some cats aren't happy doing that. You might find that later either your lifestyle changes or their lifestyle changes, and they go outside, so we want to make sure that they are the most protected they can be.

What are non-core vaccines for kittens, and why would my kitten need them?

The non-core vaccines are more what we would call a lifestyle vaccine. Some might say the Leukemia vaccine is a non-core vaccine, but kittens are the most susceptible. If they're going to be strictly indoors and they're never going to see another cat, then that wouldn't be something we would continue to recommend for your kitten as they get older. There are other vaccines that, depending on their risk, we might recommend depending on your situation. Bordetella is a respiratory vaccine that we do consider. We recommend it for all cats because we feel like it keeps them safe and they get fewer respiratory diseases, but it is not a core vaccine.

What is the recommended vaccine schedule?

Every three weeks until they're around four months old.

Are there any risks or side effects with vaccines?

Yes. Great question. I'll just start by saying that when we give a vaccine to a kitten, we ask the kitten's immune system to respond to that vaccine and mount a response so that if they're ever exposed to that disease, they can fight it off. That being said, some are over-reactors, and the immune system may overreact. That would be one of those side effects that are not common but can be seen. And then the lesser side effects would be just injection site soreness or tenderness. They might be a little lethargic. You can think about how you feel if you run a fever. You just don't feel well. You feel a little crummy. Sometimes that can happen for a day or two after their vaccines.

What if my kitten misses a vaccine?

If your kitten misses a vaccine, then let's just catch back up where you are. It is vital to get boosters on a specific timeline and a particular schedule because that's how the vaccines are labeled and recommended to give. But if you do miss that, then we're just going to boost that immune system right where your kitten starts back.

Can my kitten go outside if not all their vaccines have been given yet?

Great question. In an ideal world, your kitten wouldn't be exposed to other cats until they're fully vaccinated, which would be two weeks after their last set of shots here. That would be around four and a half to five months old. Now, can they go outside and be monitored? Sure. But they're going to be at higher risk until they're fully vaccinated.

Why is it important for a veterinarian to vaccinate my kitten?

When we vaccinate your kitten, we are doing a complete physical exam. We're making sure to the best of our ability that that kitten is healthy. And again, vaccines ... we're asking the body to respond to that. And so if you vaccinate a kitten that is not well or that is sick, then their immune system is fighting off that sickness. And so when you give a vaccine, it can't mount a proper immune response. We're checking the kitten's temperature. We are doing a full physical exam to ensure that they're healthy enough to take that vaccine.

How long will it take a kitten to wean from its mother?

That's generally around six to eight weeks old. When you start offering them some softer or gruel-type feeding, they're going to begin to eat that more and then nurse less.

Do all kittens need to be bottle-fed?

Not if they're adequately weaned from the mom, and not if they're at the appropriate age to eat regular kitten food.

If I do have to bottle feed my kitten, how do I do that?

It's going to take a lot of time. Depending on their age, kittens need to be fed very frequently—every two to three hours. Because their stomachs are small, so you can't feed them a lot of volume at one time. Therefore, they have to be fed very frequently.

Can I give my kitten regular milk?

No. Regular milk can cause diarrhea or an upset stomach. If you're bottle-feeding, we would recommend kitten formula.

And when should kittens start solid food?

If you're bottle-feeding and want to introduce it, you should do so around roughly around five to six weeks, depending on the size of the kitten. You might not know the kitten's exact age, but your veterinarian can do their best to estimate it.

Do kittens need to drink water?

Yes. While kittens are nursing, they're going to need less because they're getting their fluid and hydration through nursing or by being bottle-fed. But then, when they're on solid food, they'll need that for sure.

On regular food, how often do kittens need to eat?

If they're younger, then kittens need to be fed more frequently, maybe four times throughout the day. If they're an older kitten—say they're already three, four months old—then three times a day would be appropriate.

How do I know my kitten's getting enough to eat?

The best way would be to monitor their weight. If they're gaining weight in the right places, that would be a good sign that they're eating what they need to be. And there is a body condition score, so your veterinarian can look at your kitten and see if they're underweight or at an appropriate weight.

What kind of food should I feed my kitten?

We would recommend if they're on solids to use good quality kitten food for growth. There are a lot of brands out there that are available. Some of those that we recommend are the IAMS, Purina Kitten Chow, and Royal Canin. There are many great ones out there, and you just want to make sure it's for growth or kittens.

Should my kitten eat dry or canned food or both?

Great question. I think there's a benefit to both. Some people talk a lot about dry food and their teeth. To some degree, I think that plays a role, but that's not the only thing that factors into dental disease. Canned food can provide a lot of moisture. Cats that don't drink a lot or male cats that can be prone to urinary problems can benefit from canned food. The biggest concern and argument for dry, canned, or both is the quantity. You don't want to overfeed, no matter what you're feeding them.

Can my kitten eat table food?

We do not recommend table food.

Is it okay to change my kitten's food?

A couple of things. Humans don't like to eat the same food every day, and then we try to project that on our pets. You don't need to change their food because you can create a picky eater. And a lot of our picky eaters are overweight pets. That's a big issue that we see, which goes against their health and causes some medical problems. But in general, if they're on good quality food, they can eat that same food consistently. And then also in regards to table food, again, we can develop bad habits early if we're starting that. And then they can start to beg for our food that we eat, and most of the time, it is not as well balanced as kitten food. If we're replacing their calories or their daily intake with certain things that we eat, they're not getting the proper nutrition they need.

How much biting and scratching is normal for a kitten?

That's a great question. That's hard to answer. My one answer would be a lot. That is the way they play. That is the way they explore their environment. There's a lot of things going on when they're biting and scratching. Sometimes, that can be a sign that they're overstimulated or scared or fearful if they're doing that. And then other times, it can just be sheer play. If you have ever seen kittens interact, you know that they sort of kick with those back feet, and they're biting around the neck and things like that. And then you will hear one of the kittens tell that other kitten that enough's enough. And so sometimes they do that to us, and we don't give those appropriate signals to say when enough is enough. That communication can be a problem, but providing them with the appropriate areas to scratch and toys they love can help. Toys that are interactive or that you are interactive with them can get them to move and chase. That's that normal predator behavior. Fostering that in an appropriate way versus them doing that on you or surfaces that you don't want can help to make everyone happy. Sometimes they see your feet under the covers. They come by, they see the foot move, and they pounce on it. A lot of that is "normal behavior," but we want to foster it into what we want them to do when they're a 10-pound cat with big teeth.

Why is my kitten going to the bathroom outside the litter box?

That can be many different reasons. Probably one of the most common reasons we see is because the litter box is dirty. They don't like to go in a dirty litter box. And that might mean that you didn't scoop it today, or you didn't scoop it all week. That's probably the number one thing to look for, or that they share a litter box with another cat. And as I mentioned earlier, the correct number of litter boxes is one litter box per cat plus one. So, depending on how many cats you have in the household, that will total how many litter boxes you should have. Sometimes it's the type of litter box. You might have it covered, and then they don't want to go in the cover or under the cover. Or you might have a non-covered, and their rear end is hanging over. There can be many different reasons for that. But I would say, number one, make sure you're scooping that litter box all the time.

My cat cries at night. What should I do about that?

It's a great question. Often, kittens are vocal when they're attention-seeking, and that can be because, hey, they slept all day while you were at work, and they're ready to play. Why are you sleeping? That could be one thing. They could either be hungry or think that they're hungry. Depending on how you respond, you are actually reinforcing certain behaviors. As long as they are safe and not hurt, then probably ignoring that behavior would be the first and best thing. But if you get up, even if you don't think you are, you might be positively reinforcing that by interacting with them, and so they're getting attention. Or if you feed them, then be prepared to do that in the future.

Why is my kitten so aggressive?

I guess I would question: are they aggressive, or are they having normal behavior? Yes, some kittens are aggressive because they're scared. They're fearful. That's that fight or flight behavior, and so they may feel threatened. And that could be one reason they could be aggressive. They may be aggressive because that's their normal play and behavior. Biting and chewing can look like aggression or biting and scratching, but it's normal play that has not been directed in the right ways.

How can I get my kitten to calm down?

Play with them. Play, play, play. Give kittens lots of things to do. Especially if it's an indoor kitty, you have to play with them because they don't have a lot of that natural environmental stimulation. If you think about all the sights, sounds, noises, and smells that an outdoor cat experiences, and then you've placed them inside, their senses aren't fully being stimulated. They can do things and behavior that you don't want. By playing with them a lot, that can give them natural endorphins when they exercise, and it makes them tired because you've played with them a lot.

How can I get my kitten to play appropriately if he's not doing that?

Let's say they are climbing on furniture that you don't want them on. Try a cat tree and play with them on that. Maybe you hide a little bit of their kibble for them to find. You don't want to overfeed them. But you can hide some of that to attract them to that area. Perhaps you have a toy that's their favorite toy that you put at the top, and you have the kitten go chase and find it. There is a product that has them scratch on surfaces that you want and not on surfaces that you don't. It's made by FeliWay called FeliAttract. And so you put that on the appropriate scratching area, and it attracts them to that.

Is it okay to punish my kitten, and how would I do that if I have to punish them?

Punish just gives such a negative connotation, right? We like to say more redirect or appropriate discipline if needed. But if they are doing things that you don't want them to do, we don't want to hurt them or harm them, but we want to get their attention. I think that's our goal, along with placing them in the right place or redirecting. We feel that using a water bottle to squirt them will not hurt them, but it gets their attention. I've had one or two clients say their cats love it, but most of the time, they don't. Say they're on the kitchen table, and you don't want them there; you can squirt them with the water. That will sure get most of them down.

Or you can try making a loud noise—whether it's a rolled-up newspaper that you hit on a surface that makes a loud noise. Something to kind of redirect them from doing that. And then other things that they might be doing, you might need to investigate why they're doing that. Again, this goes back to the question about the litter box. If they're going outside the litter box, do you punish them for that? I don't think so because, one, they likely haven't been trained appropriately. Or two, something's going on that's making them behaviorally act that way. I would want to dig a little deeper and see why that behavior was occurring.

The other part would be: is that normal behavior? Are you punishing normal behavior? Is a cat scratching your couch, and you're punishing that when that's normal behavior for them to scratch and to shed those claws?

How can I make sure he doesn't scratch my furniture or curtains?

The FeliAttract product will help—you put that on the surfaces of things you want. The other thing would be to get different scratching surfaces that are available for cats. Some like that sisal pad, some like the carpeted cat trees. Some like the vertical, and some like the horizontal cat trees. Just make sure you've got a variety to attract them to what their preference might be. And then once you learn that preference, maybe you can foster that more.

How can I bond with my kitten?

Bonding comes through play. That's the best way I like to bond with my kids. Find what they love. Some cats will fetch. Perhaps they like the little laser pointer or a certain toy. Maybe it's just sitting down and petting them and interacting with them like that. You might have to learn what their love language is and foster that. You don't want to love them to death with food. Don't bond only on food, like when you're eating your potato chips or popcorn at night and watching TV, and you're giving them that—now they're going to associate eating with socializing.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (704) 872-3625, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.