Caring for your kitten
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There is no doubt that kittens are full of fun and completely adorable. However there are a few things that need to be considered before making one part of your family...
Bringing your new kitten home
Firstly make sure you check for any potential hazards, make sure that all the windows and doors to the outside are closed, and that any nooks and crannies are blocked off. Kittens are extremely inquisitive and can easily find themselves lost or stuck in the most unlikely places, so it’s important to supervise them as much as possible until they are really familiar with their new home. Kittens are naturally hygienic and will prefer to have their litter away from their food and water bowls. Cats also prefer to drink at a separate location to where they eat, so you might want to consider placing their water bowl away from their food dish. Provide them with a small cosy bed (although don’t be surprised if they make their own minds up about where they would like to sleep!). On the first few nights a warm (not hot) water bottle under a blanket may help compensate for the absence of the kitten’s mother or littermates.
When you’re a tiny little kitten the world can be an enormous place so to help them get familiar with where they feed, drink, sleep and where they go to the loo, it’s a really good idea to start them off in just one room. This will be particularly useful with regards to housetraining as once the habit of using the litter tray is strong, they will seek it out when they have access to the rest of your home.
Introducing your kitten to children and other pets
Take care when introducing your kitten to other family members and existing pets so as to ensure they all get off on the right foot.
It can be very exciting for young children when welcoming a new pet into their home, so the potential for them to overwhelm a new kitten will be high. Explain to them that they are not furry toys that are there to be constantly played with and for those particularly excitable children, it might be best to occupy their attention in other ways so your kitten can gradually acclimatize to their new surroundings and family members. Teach children to wait for the kitten to come to them, and to keep play sessions nice and short. Kittens will naturally play with their teeth and claws, so teaching them to focus this onto appropriate toys as early as possible will really pay off when they eventually grow into adults.
Introducing your kitten to an existing dog or cat needs to be done very carefully in order to ensure that they have the best chance of becoming good friends. We have some great advice explaining how to do this step by step. Please see ‘Introducing cats and dogs’ and ‘Introducing cats’ – we also have YouTube tutorials demonstrating this practically.
Socialising your kitten
Socialisation is essential in order to equip your kitten with the necessary skills with which to grow into a well-rounded and happy individual, enabling them to cope with things they’ll encounter in later life. The first two months of a kittens life is the most important period in which to expose them to all the things that we will expect them to consider normal and safe when they grow up. Anything they don’t encounter within this brief window maybe treated with fear and caution later on, so it is extremely important to take the time to really think about all the things you’ll need to include. This will include all the things they might see, hear and feel.
Touching, stroking and being handled by people are all things that kittens need to learn to enjoy as they aren’t things that they will naturally take to. If introduced properly, kittens will learn to really like close physical contact with their owners, although most adult cats like to enjoy this on their own terms!
Feeding your kitten
Find out what your kitten has been eating and when you first get home feed the same foods. A sudden change of diet combined with the stress of adapting to a new home can cause stomach upsets and diarrhoea. If you want to change the diet, do so over a few days by mixing the new food with the kitten’s usual diet. Kittens have small stomachs and have to be fed little and often. The easiest way to provide a growing kitten with a balanced diet is to feed a premium complete growth diet. These are usually dry, but some companies produce tinned varieties too. These foods have been specially formulated for kittens, which have different nutritional needs to a fully grown cat. Read and follow all feeding instructions carefully.
If you are feeding a dry food, kittens can have unlimited access to it (unless you have other animals that will eat the kitten’s food). Tinned food goes off quickly in the bowl, so needs to be given as separate meals throughout the day. Kittens aged eight to 12 weeks need four meals per day, if between three and six months old they need three meals, and kittens over six months old need two meals per day.
Do not give your kitten milk as it can cause diarrhoea. As with all animals, kittens need fresh drinking water available at all times.
For further information, see Keeping your cat in shape.
Toilet training your kitten
Cats are very hygienic pets and can easily be housetrained with the right encouragement. Kittens usually pick up on how to use litter trays by watching their mothers, but they may also need a helping hand from us.
Your kitten might want to go to the toilet after meals, waking from a sleep, just after sniffing the floor, scratching or beginning to crouch and generally looking as if they are about to go! If your kitten is inclined to mess elsewhere in the house, confine them to one room with a litter tray until they learn to use it regularly.
You will require a plastic litter tray, which can be filled with cat litter available from all pet shops and supermarkets. Earth from the garden should never be used as it may harbour diseases from other cats. The tray should be placed on newspaper to catch any litter pushed over the side during digging, but make sure it is not too deep for your kitten to climb in. If you intend to let your kitten out to use the garden in the future then a simple open tray will suffice for the few weeks. If you intend the cat to continue to use the tray, you may want to purchase one of the covered types which gives the cat more privacy, stops smells from escaping and prevents mess.
Place the tray in a quiet, accessible corner where your kitten will not be disturbed. Make sure it is not next to food and water bowls, as the kitten may be reluctant to use a tray close to their food. The litter tray must be kept clean, however do not empty the whole of the litter tray every day, just take out the soiled litter – this way the kitten will be encouraged to return to the tray as it will smell ‘familiar’. Unless the kitten has diarrhoea or the litter tray is particularly dirty (in which case you’ll have to clean far sooner), complete emptying of the contents should only take place weekly. Some disinfectants which go cloudy in water (such as Dettol) are toxic to cats so use only hot water and a weak detergent when cleaning out the tray.
If your kitten is reluctant to use the tray it could be because:
- it is not clean enough – in which case you’ll need to empty it more often
- it is not big enough – it should be big enough for an adult cat to turn around in and to use more than once without getting dirty
- you have cleaned it out with a chemical that is too strong smelling
- it is too near the kitten’s bed or food bowls
- the kitten does not like the texture of the litter you have chosen – revert to a type previously used or try a different type
When your kitten starts to go outside more often, gradually move the litter tray towards the door. A few handfuls of cat litter from the tray spread onto well dug soil in the garden will encourage your kitten to dig there. Do not remove the litter tray from indoors until your kitten has started using the garden.
When to let your kitten go outside
Keep your kitten safe inside until at least a week after finishing the first course of vaccinations (at 13 to 14 weeks old, depending on the vaccine). Choose a dry day and a quiet time and accompany your kitten outside, allowing them to explore their new environment. Continue to accompany your kitten until they are used to your garden and can find their way back to the house without difficulty. Although your kitten is likely to have been neutered before rehoming, it is best to wait until they are at least five months old before you leave them unattended outside as they are still young and vulnerable.
Cats like to come and go as they please, and a cat flap is the best way to allow them to do this. You can teach your kitten to use a cat flap by propping it open initially and enticing your kitten through with some tasty food. Gradually close it so that the kitten learns to push the flap in order to get through. If you already own a cat which is using the flap, be aware that the kitten may watch and learn to let itself out before you are ready. Kittens learn quickly by watching other cats.
To prevent neighborhood cats from coming into your house, you can buy a cat flap that is operated by magnetic or electronic keys on your cat’s collar and will only open for your cat.
Microchipping and identifying your kitten
When your kitten is over six months old and ready to go out alone more often, you are advised to fit a collar holding some form of identification and perhaps to carry a magnet or key to an electronic cat flap. Collars must be fitted carefully as kittens are active and inquisitive while growing up. Injuries could occur if the collar gets hooked on a tree branch or fence, or the kitten gets its foreleg caught up in the collar. Quick-release collars, which snap open if they become caught on anything, are the safest option for all cats. For a young, rapidly growing cat, remember to check the fit of the collar often (you should be able to get one or two fingers under the collar) and increase its size accordingly.
It is a really good idea to get your kitten microchipped. This is a permanent form of identification using a microchip (about the size of a grain of rice), which is injected under the skin between the shoulder blades. The chip carries a ‘barcode’ read by a scanner. The code number is registered along with your details on a national database so, if your kitten gets lost, you can be reunited quickly. Your vet will be able to advise you about microchipping.
Kittens are inquisitive and will investigate any small, dark places they can crawl into. Should your kitten go missing for any length of time, you should look in cupboards, wardrobes, outdoor sheds etc in case your kitten has accidentally been shut in or got stuck. Keep the washing machine and tumble dryer door closed when not in use and check them before putting any clothes in. Remove any plants that may be poisonous, including
- dieffenbachia (dumb cane)
- lily of the valley
- Christmas cherry
- castor oil plant
- avocado plant
- rubber plant
Most cats will not touch such plants but kittens may be more inquisitive. If you live in a flat above ground level or have a house with several levels, keep the windows closed or invest in screens to ensure that kittens do not fall out.
Keep garden chemicals stored safely and take care if using slug bait or chemicals on the garden itself – some types can be toxic to animals.
For further information see Hidden dangers to cats.
How to play with your kitten
A kitten’s life is all about playing and having fun. To begin with kittens will play with their littermates and mum, and it’s usually at this stage that they learn to inhibit their bite and use of claws so that they can have as much fun as possible without hurting each other. When kittens go to new homes, the focus of this play can be transferred on to us, so it is extremely important that we continue to ensure that they play with us in a safe and appropriate way. Always use appropriate toys, preferably fishing rod toys as this keeps the kitten’s teeth and claws away from your hands. Throw toys away from you, so that they have to chase and pounce on them. Tasty treats can placed inside some toys, and this adds an extra challenge to a kitten, as once he has chased and caught the toy, he then has to work out how he will get to the reward inside. Provide a small soft toy for those kittens that like to grapple and wrestle, and encourage them to play with this instead of you. Never ever encourage a young kitten to play with your fingers, hands or feet. It might seem funny or harmless at the time, but that will soon change when you have a large adult cat that chases, bites and scratches people.
If you have a kitten that seems focus on hands and feet, don’t punish him or tell him off. Simply remain as still and as quite as possible until he stops. Then, refocus his attention on to a suitable toy and praise him enthusiastically. This way he will learn that hands and feet are boring, and that playing with toys is much more exciting and fun.
A scratching post inside the house is helpful in protecting your furniture, even if your kitten is able to go outside. The post should be covered in material that is not found anywhere else in the house (such as string), so that the kitten does not learn to scratch other items, like your carpet. Some scratching posts come in the form of activity towers, which are ideal for kittens as they love to play and hide.
Some particularly excitable kittens may try to play with a family cat or dog, and if they are happy to play in return, always supervise in case things get out of hand. If the kitten is pestering your other pets, get your kittens attention and distract them away by using a favorite toy. Repeat this process consistently until the kitten learns that play with you is much more fun then play with them. You’ll also find that your other pets will be more accepting and tolerant of an enthusiastic kitten if you help them out in this way.
For further information, see Keeping your cat in shape.
Keeping your kitten in good health
Getting your kitten used to being gently groomed when they are young is a great idea, particularly if they are long-haired. Long-haired cats often find it difficult to maintain their coats without our help, so will need daily grooming sessions to prevent tangles developing into painful matts. Regular grooming will also help you to check for any signs of ill health.
There is no reason to routinely bathe your kitten as this will cause distress. Cats spend a great deal of time washing their coats themselves and bathing may actually affect the natural oils in their skin. Occasionally, your vet may recommend a shampoo to treat specific skin conditions. If you need to use a prescription shampoo on your kitten, follow the vet’s advice carefully and use it only as frequently as recommended.
Kittens need a course of two vaccinations to protect them from potentially fatal infections feline infectious enteritis (which can cause severe vomiting and diarrhoea) and feline influenza (a serious form of cat ‘flu’). There is also a vaccination that offers protection from the feline leukaemia virus which can affect the immune system.
The first injection can be given from eight weeks of age, with the second shortly afterwards. Kittens should be kept away from other cats and stay indoors for seven days after the second injection to ensure maximum protection. To maintain the level of protection provided by vaccination, adult cats require regular boosters. Your vet will advise on what is required.
Kittens should be treated for roundworms at four to six weeks of age then regularly every two to three weeks until they are four months old. They should be treated for roundworms and tapeworms every two to six months thereafter, depending on how much they hunt and whether they have fleas. Use a wormer available from your vet and follow the dosing instructions carefully.
Prevention is better than cure where fleas are concerned, and it is important to use a product that will break the flea life cycle in order to prevent re-infestation. Talk to your vet about routine treatment to keep your cat healthy and free from fleas. Many owners find products to apply directly to the skin easier and less stressful to administer than sprays. Shampoos for the treatment of fleas are not effective and should be avoided unless prescribed by your vet.
If your kitten has fleas, you will also need to treat your home to remove flea eggs, thus preventing new fleas hatching. The kitten’s bedding should be thoroughly washed or replaced and the floors and carpets of the house should also be treated. Your vet can provide a spray for use around the house.
Many cats have ear mites. Often there are no symptoms but in some cats they cause irritation, leading to the production of a grey-brown matter in the ear. In severe cases the ear canal becomes blocked and infection follows. Where the mites do not cause a painful reaction, they can still be irritating and be passed to other cats and dogs. If you have a cat which is persistently troubled by ear mites, get your vet to check your cat’s ears too. If your kitten’s ears appear dirty, itchy or full of dark-coloured wax it is worth consulting your vet.
Each year many unwanted cats and kittens are abandoned or euthanised because there are not enough homes to go around. Neutering your cat ensures that you do not contribute to this problem.
A male cat may be castrated once his testicles can be felt, and this can be from four months or younger, as advised by your vet.
Neutering will reduce the likelihood that a male cat will spray indoors to mark his territory. He will also spend less time roaming in search of mates and thus has less likelihood of getting into fights or being hit by a car. Cats bitten and scratched in fights are more likely to be at risk from infectious diseases.
A female kitten needs to be spayed to prevent unwanted litters and there is no need for the cat to have had a litter beforehand. Spaying has no harmful effects. It also eliminates the stress brought on by ’calling’ (this is the loud mewing which female cats make to attract a mate), pregnancy, birth, and the care and rehoming of kittens. A female cat can be neutered from four months or younger, as advised by your vet.
Microchipping is a useful way to permanently identify your cat. Your vet will inject a microchip – about the size of a grain of rice – within the loose skin on your kitten’s neck.
This will digitally carry all your address and contact details to help your kitten be traced back to you should they become lost.