Caring for your new kitten

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A kitten with cat insurance plays in a food bowl.

By: Dr. Jane Matheys
Associate Veterinarian
The Cat Doctor Veterinary Hospital
For Pets Best Insurance

Congratulations on making the informed decision to add a new kitten to your family. Cats are wonderful animals, and owning one (or more!) can be a fun and rewarding experience. Aside from ensuring your new kitty has the best food, toys and cat insurance, there are a few other things you might want to know. Here are some guidelines to help your kitten get off on the right start to a long and healthy life:

Introducing a New Kitten to it’s New Environment
Kittens love to investigate and explore new surroundings, but giving them free range may be a bit overwhelming and unmanageable for them at first. Initially, confine the kitten to one room for a few days, and then slowly allow access to other areas of the home.

Introducing New Kittens to other Pets in the Household
Most kittens receive a hostile reception from other household pets, especially from an established cat. In general, cats do not like changes and can become territorial and aggressive. Thisis why introductions need to be made slowly. During the first few days when the kitten is isolated in a room, try switching out items like bedding and toys so the cats will get to know each other by smell. Then carefully allow supervised interaction.

Hissing, spitting and growling are natural and are the ways in which cats will establish the hierarchy among themselves. The use of a synthetic pheromone (a feel-good scent) spray or diffuser can be very helpful in reducing stress among the cats during this introduction phase. Pay extra attention to the established cats to reassure them that they are not being replaced. Provide sanctuary spaces for the established cats with separate food/water and litterboxes so they can escape to a quiet area where they won’t be bothered by the kitten. Of course, you want to make sure that your kitten has seen the veterinarian first before mingling with the other cats. Researching pet health insurance companies is also a good idea.

The introduction period will usually last 1 to 2 weeks and will have one of three possible outcomes.

1. Bonding will occur between the existing cat and the kitten. They will play together, groom each other and sleep together. This is more likely to occur if competition is minimized and if the existing cat is lonely for companionship.

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2. The existing cat will only tolerate the kitten. Hostility will cease, but the existing cat will act as if the kitten is not present. This is more likely if the existing cat is very independent, has been an only cat for several years, or if marked competition occurred during the first few weeks. This relationship is likely to be permanent.

3. The existing cat will remain hostile to the kitten. Fighting may occur occasionally, but very rarely will get serious. You can minimize this by reducing competition for food/water and affection. Offer several feeding areas and different litterbox locations, as well as plenty of perches and resting spots so each cat can have their favorite area.

Slow, supervised interaction between a new kitten and a dog is recommended to prevent injury. Never leave a kitten or new cat unattended with a dog until you are convinced that the dog will not harm them. Pet insurance is also good to have because accidents can occur between pets who interact– even if they’re just playing together.

Introducing a New Kitten to Children
Children can unknowingly injure a kitten by playing too rough or handling them improperly. Additionally, kittens can bite and scratch a well-meaning child unexpectedly. Teach children to be gentle and to handle the kitten properly. Teach them the warning signs that suggest that the kitten is hurting or doesn’t want to interact. These may include hissing, ears flattened to the head, biting, growling, scratching or crying out.

Socialization/Play Behavior in Kittens
The socialization period for kittens is between 2 and 12 weeks of age. During this time, the kitten is very impressionable to social influences.

If it has good experiences with men, women, children, dogs, other cats, etc, it is likely to accept them throughout life. If the experiences are absent or unpleasant, it may become apprehensive or adverse to any of them. Therefore, during the period of socialization, expose your kitten to various types of social influences. Direct exposure to other cats should be kept minimal and done with caution since kittens are more susceptible to disease until fully grown and vaccinated. Some cat insurance companies will help cover the costs of routine care, including vaccincations.

Stimulating play behavior is important for kittens. Stalking and pouncing help with proper muscle development. If given sufficient outlet for these behaviors with toys, your kitten will be less likely to use family members for these activities.

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The best toys are lightweight and movable. These include wads of paper, small balls, feather toys, and laser pointers. Toys that contain catnip are safe for any cat. Kittens should never be allowed to play with string or ribbons in case of accidental ingestion. Any other toy that is small enough to be ingested should be avoided. Never play rough with your hands or allow the kitten to bite and scratch you. This will teach it to be aggressive to people as an adult.

Disciplining a Kitten
Kittens (and cats) do not respond well to physical punishment. Hand clapping, using shaker cans or small horns, or other loud noises can be intimidating enough to inhibit undesirable behavior. However, remote punishment is preferred. Remote punishment consists of using something that appears unconnected to the punisher to stop the problem behavior. Examples include spray bottles, squirt guns, throwing soft objects in the direction of the kitten to startle it, and making loud noises. This way the kitten associates punishment with the undesirable act and not with you.

Household Hazards
“Kitten-proof” your house because kittens will try to get into everything! Some common hazards that can be swallowed include paperclips, coins, marbles, string, ribbon, dental floss, tinsel and Easter grass. Some plants are toxic. The most common are those belonging to the lily family like the Easter lily.

The dryer, washing machine and dishwasher also provide an unexpected and life-threatening hazard for kittens. Be sure you keep the doors to these appliances closed at all times and always check before turning them on.

Always feed a well known name brand kitten food. Stay away from generic or store brands. Price is closely linked to quality, so stay away from the cheapest brands if possible. They can be less nutritious with more fillers, so your kitten will actually need to eat more volume to get the same nutrition that they would from a smaller portion of a higher quality food.

The most nutritious foods are the high protein, grain free foods available at most pet stores. Canned food is recommended in addition to dry. By offering both, you help to ensure your cat won’t be a picky eater. Canned food is also a great way to provide extra moisture to help prevent from dehydration. Always offer some canned food to smaller kittens as their teeth are tiny and it is difficult to chew kibble.

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Cats prefer to eat small meals throughout the day. Free feeding or multiple meals throughout the day are best for a growing kitten. Once they are adults, some cats will do fine with free feeding, but many will eat too much and become obese. Your veterinarian can help guide you as to the best feeding regimen for your adult cat.

Try to stay away from feeding table scraps as much as possible so your cat won’t develop bad habits. Many cats and kittens are lactose intolerant, so don’t get into the habit of giving them dairy products on a regular basis. A very small amount of milk or cheese once in a while as a treat is OK.

The general rule of thumb for the number of boxes you should have is one box per cat plus one additional box to minimize competition and inappropriate urination/defecation. Use the largest size boxes possible so adult cats can comfortably squat and dig around in them. Clear plastic storage boxes with 4-6 inch sides that are sold at many stores are perfect.

Cats typically don’t like hoods or covers on the boxes. They may feel trapped or vulnerable with covered boxes, and the odor trapped inside may be intolerable for your cat. Choose several locations around your house for the boxes that are quiet and non-threatening. Most cats prefer clumping litter because it tends to feel softer. If you choose clay litter, pick one that is dust free and fragrance free so it’s less irritating to your cat’s lungs. Cleanliness is critical for avoiding problems! Scoop boxes at least once or twice daily, and dump the entire box every week or two depending on litter type. Even clean looking litter will eventually absorb odor.

If your cat does start urinating or defecating outside the box, don’t assume it is a behavioral problem. Many medical conditions can cause this behavior, and it is always safer to have your cat checked by your veterinarian rather than just assuming your cat is acting up.

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