Getting a new kitten is a very special experience with lots of joy, warmth, and laughter. There is a reason why the internet is so full of kitten and cat pictures and videos. Kittens are super fun, loving, and entertaining. Kitten care does involve some amount of hands-on attention from human family members. The focus of kitten care is on acclimating the kitten to his or her new family and providing for the kitten's physical well-being to support healthy development.
Drawing upon a lifetime of love for kittens and many years of clinical experience, our veterinary staff would love to help ensure that you are well informed about your kitten's needs. There are many phases of a kitten's life, and it is important to understand how your cat's needs will change as they grow. We have compiled some essential kitten care information for you here.
Remember that proper kitten care also requires an examination from a cat-friendly veterinarian, kitten vaccinations, deworming, and other forms of care that support development throughout the various phases of kittenhood.
How to take care of a kitten is one of the most common kitten care questions we are asked, but also one of the broadest. Here are some basic tips for how to take care of a kitten during the first six months of his or her life:
Under 4 Weeks of Age: Kittens are considered newborn kittens from 0-4 weeks of age. During this time, newborn kittens are just developing motor skills and coordination. They are also learning how to regulate body temperature. At this time in their life, they count on their mother for warmth. If the mother cat is still with the kittens, there is very little required for human caretakers besides a warm, safe environment, good nutrition, and veterinary care for the mother cat. If for some reason, the mother cat is not able to care for the kittens, then a fair amount of care is required to help the kittens grow and thrive. You should plan an immediate visit to see us with the kittens so we can review the kitten's needs especially relating to feeding and monitoring their progress. This includes bottle feeding kittens every 2-4 hours, keeping their environment warm and safe, and helping the kitten to urinate and defecate. Be sure to keep them warm with blankets, especially if they have been separated from their mother and/or siblings. You can definitely hold the kitten during this time, but please be extra gentle, as their bones are still forming.
5-11 Weeks of Age: By this time, newborn kittens should be weaned off of their mothers or bottle-feeding and feeding on a high protein, energy-dense diet. During this stage, their motor skills and coordination should also be progressing. Beware that when this happens, your kitten will become quite the force to be reckoned with! How to take care of a kitten at this age includes proper supervision in order to ensure that your kitten's newfound sense of adventure and bravado doesn't lead them into dangerous situations.
2-4 Months of Age: This is a period of rapid growth in kitten development. You should expect your kitten to have a lot more energy than an adult cat and be ready to be woken up during the night by a kitten who is ready to play. Taking care of a kitten during this phase includes both a lot of bonding-based playtimes and 3 or 4 high protein meals per day.
4-6 Months of Age: Your kitten is reaching an age of adolescence and, therefore, sexual maturity. This will result in an increase of energy and, at times, behavioral changes similar to an adolescent human child entering puberty. How to take care of a kitten during this phase includes continuing hands-on bonding-based playtime with the addition of behavior modification if necessary. There are many ways to enrich your cat's environment, which is especially important for indoor kittens. During your next appointment, we should discuss ways to build an enriched environment that provides the right amount of stimulation your kitten instinctively desires. At approximately six months is the time to plan for your kittens to be spayed or neutered. Most kittens will go through puberty at approximately 6-8 months, and it is recommended that they are spayed or neutered just before then to avoid unwanted kittens.
As we briefly discussed above, proper kitten nutrition includes modifying the diet to ensure you are feeding kittens what they need during each stage of growth.
The mother cat should be feeding kittens during the first 4 weeks of life, or you should use a special commercial milk-replacer formula every 2-4 hours if the kitten has been separated from his or her mother.
From 3-5 weeks of age, feeding kittens involves offering the milk-replacer formula in a shallow dish to encourage weaning from a bottle. You can also add a moist, easily chewable diet consisting of a mixture of warm milk-replacer and high-quality canned or dried kitten food 4-6 times a day.
By 5-8 weeks of age, your kitten should be able to chew his or her own food, and you should provide a protein-rich and energy-filled diet, with feedings taking place 3-4 times daily. There are many different types of kitten food available, and we would like to discuss these dietary options with you at your next veterinary appointment. Typically we recommend canned food because it will mimic the natural diet both in consistency and formulation. However, a good diet may also consist of a combination of canned and dry cat foods.
After 6 months of age, kittens should be fed 2-3 times per day.
Feeding kittens the right food in the right amounts and at the right times throughout the day is essential for happy, healthy, and growing cats. Our veterinary staff would be happy to discuss the proper feeding schedule for your kitten at your next veterinary appointment.
A huge part of kitten development is socializing your kitten with both human family members, as well as any other animals in your household. The old adage about dogs not getting along with cats is anything but true, however, some dogs have a strong prey instinct and cannot decipher a cat from a rabbit. For this reason, proper interspecies interaction and overall behavior requires hands-on, responsible, and sustained social development, including:
Litter box training
Frequent petting and cuddling
Exploration with boxes, paper bags, etc.
Rewarding good behavior with treats
Time outs for bad behavior
Redirection from biting or scratching
Introduction to new people and animals in a controlled environment
Weekly combing and grooming and handling
Controlled outdoor excursions (only after kitten vaccinations have begun) are acceptable in some areas.
As you can see, kitten development is filled with fun but requires you to be actively involved in the process. It is critically important that you consider the time commitment necessary to do your part and ensure proper kitten development.
Newborn kittens (0-4 weeks) are a lot of work in many regards. One of the most important things to take into account is what can go wrong with newborn kittens. Some warning signs to look for with newborn kittens include:
Not accepting food, especially for younger kittens who have been abandoned by or separated from their mothers.
Motor skills and coordination delays or difficulties
Lethargy, diarrhea, or vomiting
Kittens older than 4 weeks will have moved past the more delicate stages where feeding requirements and body temperature maintenance are of paramount importance. During this next phase, you will still need to be aware of the above warning signs but should begin to be more concerned with behavioral issues such as:
Litter box usage
Signs of aggression and play-biting
Fears and other behaviors that we want to address while they are still impressionable
We realize that human parents of newborn kittens are prone to being over-sensitive and cautious, and this is actually a good thing. In fact, it shows how much you care about your new furry companion. However, if you observe any odd or concerning behaviors during kitten development, don't hesitate to bring your kitten in for a special visit in addition to the veterinary appointments that should be scheduled for preventive purposes and kitten vaccinations.
Preventive care is important in ensuring your kitten is given the best opportunity to live a healthy life. Preventive kitten care begins with finding the right veterinarian and working with them to implement a sound checkup, kitten vaccinations, and preventive maintenance schedule. As experienced veterinarians, we are able to pick up on subtle signs that something may not be quite right with your kitten. Between a thorough discussion with you and a physical exam, our veterinarians will be able to identify health or behavioral issues that your kitten may be experiencing. The following are some helpful tips to begin planning for the long-term health of your kitten and overall positive kitten development.
No matter when you get your kitten, you should schedule a veterinary appointment within the first week. Early and frequent visits will help socialize your kitten with your vet and help the vet establish an informed baseline for your kitten's health and wellness.
All kittens need a regular deworming program that includes medication to kill most intestinal parasites. In addition, we will want to check your kitten's stool for more uncommon but potentially serious parasites. In addition to intestinal parasites/worms, cats can contract heartworms. If cats develop heartworm disease, there is no treatment. Therefore we recommend heartworm prevention for all cat patients.
Of all threats to your kitten, one of the most common and annoying parasitic dangers is fleas. A discussion about your cat's lifestyle and proper flea and tick control is an indispensable component of kitten care. We do not recommend over-the-counter sprays, powders, and collars. They are less effective and more toxic to your kitten. At your next appointment, we would be happy to discuss an effective flea/tick and overall parasite prevention program.
Kitten vaccinations are essential to proper kitten care and should be started soon after you get your kitten. The average age to get a kitten is 6 weeks. This is when we recommend starting the vaccination program. Boosters will follow at one year, and we can help you understand a long-term plan for the rest of the cat's adult life. Kitten vaccinations are given to prevent feline leukemia, rabies, and distemper. These infectious diseases are devastating and completely preventable with simple vaccinations.
By 5-6 months of age, kittens are reaching a point of mature adolescence, or kitty puberty, if you will. Because of this, it becomes essential for you to have your kitten spayed or neutered. Reasons for spaying and neutering include:
Avoiding unpleasant habits like territorial scent spraying
Avoiding unplanned litters
A decrease in the chance of mammary or testicular cancer later in life.
If your kitten is in contact with other kittens or cats of the opposite sex, it is essential that you have them spayed or neutered before or as they reach 5-6 months of age.
Caring for a kitten can certainly be one of the most fun and rewarding experiences you can have as a pet owner. However, if you are under-informed about the needs of your kitten during this time, he or she could be left at a developmental disadvantage.
At La Jolla Veterinary Hospital, kitten care is one of our greatest joys. Our veterinary staff would be delighted to spend some time with you and your kitten to ensure that your relationship will be a healthy, happy, and rewarding one for many years to come.