Who doesn’t love kittens? From their tiny paws to their endless energy, kittens catch and hold our attention. Welcoming a new furry family member into the household is always exciting. It’s also a lot of work. While they may fit into the palm of your hand, kittens require a lot of preparation, monitoring, and (let’s face it) panic. Don’t worry, though, with this handy guide to kitten care, you’ll soon be equipped with everything you need to know.
Until they reach twelve months, every cat is considered a kitten. However, under that magic age of one year, a lot of changes occur. Each age group requires different kitten care. Deciding which kitten fits your lifestyle best is an important decision.
- 8 Weeks or Under: These babies should stay with their mom. Kittens this young can’t regulate their body temperature, lack crucial vision and coordination, and still need their mother’s milk. Unless you have special training in handling newborns (and A LOT of free time, since they require you every two hours), you should probably skip kittens this young.
- 8-11 Weeks: By now, kittens are weaned from mom and ready to enter new homes. They develop that boundless energy we love, and they start exploring. This is where the most significant elements of kitten care come into play.
- 2-4 Months: Kittens undergo their fastest growth phase during these months. Their energy also TRIPLES during this time (and you thought they were active before!). While you won’t have to worry as much about their size with kitten-proofing, you now need to worry about greater explorations.
- 4-6 Months: Your adorable little kitten is now, effectively, a teenager. That means sexual maturity. It’s a good time to get them spayed or neutered. Not only to prevent unwanted litters or marking behaviors, but to prevent health concerns down the road.
- 6-12 Months: Growth starts to slow down, and your kitten approaches their “final” size. You can ease up on kitten care, transitioning to standard cat care. You also need to back off on feedings and switch over to adult food.
Whether you’ve had kittens in the past or this is your first time bringing a kitten into your home (may the odds be ever in your favor), there are always preparations to make. Kitten care focuses a lot on preventing that little ball of fluff from getting into trouble. Which means the first thing you need to do, BEFORE you bring your new family member home, is kitten-proof the house.
What does this mean? It means removing potential hazards from your kitten’s path:
- Anchor window cords
- Bundle electric cords
- Close toilet lids
- Make sure the washer and dryer stay shut
- Close all cabinets (and consider purchasing child-proof latches)
- Hide any insect/mice/rat baits or traps
- Put away all:
- Paper towels
- Rubber bands
Kittens are small, and it’s easy to forget everywhere they can fit. When I brought our youngest home, I had a panic attack when I watched her disappear under my bookcase. After five years, my brain blanked on all the aspects of proper kitten care. (Luckily, she didn’t find anything exciting under there and came back out a minute later)
Your new fluff ball needs a SMALL room of their own. Ideally, you want somewhere easy to clean, devoid of hazards. And something they can clamber onto and jump/fall off of is a hazard. Kittens don’t get their cat grace until they’re almost adults. Set up the following in that safe space:
- Food and water bowls
- Cat bed with towels or blankets
- Kitten-safe toys
- Scratching post
In addition, you want to have the following on hand for your new kitten:
- Cat carrier
- Grooming brush
- Nail clippers
- Collar or harness with an ID tag
Now that your house is ready for the new arrival, you need to take your kitten to the vet for a thorough check. Kittens are notorious for having intestinal parasites, which get diagnosed through a fecal examination. A full physical exam will also confirm your kitten is healthy and get them started on their vaccine protocol. Even if you plan to keep your kitten indoors, vaccines protect them from horrible diseases. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
Now that your kitten’s home, make sure you have a mental checklist of daily kitten care. This includes monitoring their health, feeding, and even activity. You want to make sure that bundle of energy stays as healthy as possible.
Kitten Care: Feeding
Like puppies, kittens have a high energy demand. As obligate carnivores, they need 30% of their energy to come from protein. This means a high-quality kitten food. While you may not want your adult cats to free-feed (why a lot of people opt for automatic feeders), kittens SHOULD have dry food available at all times. You can then offer canned food twice a day. This ensures your kitten will grow appropriately.
Contrary to popular belief, kittens CANNOT have cow milk! (Actually, cats in general can’t have cow milk) Cow milk upsets their digestive system, resulting in diarrhea. Once they get weaned from their mothers, your kitten does not need milk; stick to that high-quality kitten diet.
If you notice a skipped meal, that’s cause for concern. You want to get your kitten to the vet right away. The younger your ball of fluff, the greater the risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). So watching the food and water bowls needs to be at the top of the kitten care checklist.
Kitten Care: Health
If you can keep your furry energy molecule still for half a second, make sure you do a thorough check from nose to tail each day. Eyes and ears should be clean and free of debris. Tooshies should also be clean. You shouldn’t see specks of dirt or fleas in their coats when you brush them. If you do, it’s time for a gentle bath with a cat shampoo.
If you see any of the following signs, you want to schedule an appointment with the vet ASAP (kittens can go downhill FAST when they’re sick):
- Eye discharge
- Nasal discharge
- Swollen eyes
- Not gaining weight
- Swollen belly
- Not passing stool or urine
- Trouble breathing
- Pale gums
Kitten Care: Introductions
Go slow when introducing your new kitten to the residents of the house. Not every cat or dog welcomes intruders. Your current pets know there’s a new animal in the house (they’ll catch the scent). Keep your kitten in their safe space, and let your dog or cat enter the room. Your dog should stay on their leash for safety, as your kitten’s likely to run, and you don’t want an inadvertent chase. If there’s hissing or growling, end the introduction and give everyone a couple of days to cool down.
If you have children, let them be a part of the kitten care process. Go over not pulling on ears and tails, and show them how to hold the kitten correctly (no dangling legs). You can provide a measured scoop for the dry food, and soft kitten brushes are safe in the hands of kids.
Important Kitten Tips
When the time comes, make sure you discuss having your kitten spayed or neutered. Ideally, you should spay your female BEFORE her first heat cycle. You’ll appreciate avoiding the yowling that comes with being in heat. You can also arrange to have your kitten microchipped during their surgical procedure. Even if your kitten wears an ID tag, a microchip is an essential back-up. (No one wants their kitten to get lost)
Inspect all toys for ribbons or strings. While you see pictures of kittens playing with ribbon, they pose ingestion, choking, and tangling hazards. Stick to trackballs, puzzle toys, or stuffed toys. Crinkle balls (or crumpled paper balls – always a favorite in our house) make for safe kitten favorites every time.
While it’s tempting to snuggle in the bed with your kitten, remember the size difference. Kittens don’t know to wriggle out of the way as your older cats do. Until they get larger (and wiser), its best for kittens to stay in their beds. You can always cuddle with them during the day on the couch. After all, kittens might have boundless energy, but they also crash pretty hard and need time to recuperate.
Bitty Paws, Gigantic Hearts
Welcoming a new kitten into the home is always exciting (and kind of terrifying). There’s so much to remember on the kitten care checklist. As long as you make your preparations, though, and work through your daily notes, you’ll be fine. Your kitten will stay safe, grow up healthy, and integrate into the family.
Good luck with those tiny toes!