As someone who is doing their due diligence in kitten care research, you’ve already shown yourself to be a responsible pet owner who wants their cat to have a long and healthy life. It makes sense that you have questions about how to accomplish that, especially if this is your first kitten. At GeniusVets, we firmly believe that petcare information should come from veterinarians and not from “Dr. Google.” That’s why we’ve taken the most common kitten care questions, sent these questions to renowned veterinarians across the U.S., and compiled their replies to get you valuable information that you can trust.
While all of the kitten care information and recommendations below have been sourced directly from leading veterinarians across the country, please make sure to seek out the advice of your own veterinarian or find a trusted veterinarian near you using the GeniusVets Directory.
There are many things to know about raising a healthy kitten, and the biggest of these is comprehending what it means to be a cat. Many people understand how a dog would fit into a family, but there are still many misconceptions about normal cat behavior. Those new to the kitten world might not know the best activities for them, how to interact with them, and how we can best keep them healthy—both mentally and physically.
On top of that, we need to make sure that they get enough physical activity and exercise, which can be more challenging than, say, taking a dog for a walk. You need to find ways to enrich the life of your kitten, especially indoor kitties.
Most veterinarians recommend picking up your kitten from underneath with a hand under their chest, making sure they feel supported. It’s almost like a football hold. Most importantly, don’t pick them up by the scruff. Many people think it’s okay to do that because their mothers do that to them when they are little, but as they get older, this can lead to injuries.
Of course, cats are individuals just like people. Some people are huggers, while others are not. It may take some time and experimentation to find out exactly how your kitten likes to be picked up, held, and snuggled.
In general, you should note any change in these energetic behaviors and other daily habits. Are they eating and drinking? Are they experiencing vomiting or diarrhea? Are they interacting in a way that you feel is normal? Are they one that's always up in your business, climbing through your cereal bowl, or do they tend to kind of observe from afar? Once you've been around your kitten for a little while, you're going to know. Any changes in behavior - whether they become more or less clingy - indicate that something is going on. Changes in appetite, attitude, and activity level all warrant a call to your veterinarian.
Young kittens can get away with free-choice feeding, meaning there's food down all the time, but most adult cats don't do well in that scenario. Most veterinarians recommend free-feeding a mix of dry and canned food. We want wet food to be part of the cat's experience. Remember, cats are carnivores, so canned food resembles the type of food they eat much more than dry food. Dry food is more for budgetary and convenience reasons.
Because cats can get overweight rather quickly, you should transition from free-feeding to structured mealtimes and measured food intake fairly soon. You can discuss this transition with your veterinarian.
Most veterinarians will also tell you that your kitten should have to work for some of their food so they get a little mental stimulation. You can use puzzle feeders or hunter feeder toys in which the cat either has to search around the house to find the food or they have to work through some sort of puzzle or contraption to get the food. These exercises go a long way for enrichment and make the meal more satisfying by using their predatory instincts. Also, always make sure to have water available to your kitten. If you find that your kitten isn’t drinking enough water, you can try a fountain to make it more entertaining for them.
As veterinarians, we like to joke that this depends on how “crazy cat lady” or “crazy cat man” you want to get! As for the basics, you’ll need kitty litter, a litter box, a bed (although kittens make just about anything into a bed), and dry and wet food that you’ve determined with your veterinarian is a good choice for your kitten. And, really, when it comes to kittens, toys are also a necessity to get that kitten energy out. We also highly recommend both horizontal and vertical scratching posts to save your furniture and curtains.
You can get creative with furniture, wall mountings, and other things to give your cats things to do, such as building structures for outdoor cats or “catios” for indoor cats. You can run the gamut. It comes down to what gets you excited, what gets your cat excited, and what makes sense for your living situation.
We recommend that you bring your kitten in right away. We always want to see any new pet within the first few days that you add them to your family so we can help you make sure that they're healthy. We look for any underlying health conditions as well as evidence of parasites or fleas. We check for birth defects like heart murmurs and hernias to address them as soon as possible. We want to start them on vaccinations, deworming, and set them up on a preventative plan. And then we're going to want to get feline leukemia and FIV test if your kitten has not already had that.
We also want to make sure that you fully understand and can manage kitten behavior. We want to set you up for success in handling these lovable yet ultra-high-energy pets. If you have another cat already, we can discuss how to introduce them properly and ensure that your kitten doesn’t have any diseases that they might pass on to your other pets in your home.
For any vet visit, come as prepared as possible; write down your questions. Make sure you know exactly what you're feeding them and what type of litter you’re using, including the brand, the texture (whether it's like a plastic bead or a clumping clay), and any fragrances. Even though these may seem like silly details, all these sorts of things can play into some medical and behavioral issues.
The same goes for any supplements, preventatives, and then any concerns that you have health-wise. Is the kitten acting weird? Do they seem to be limping? Are they not eating well? If you write them down and have a clear understanding of your questions, that can make a huge difference. We’ll discuss all of your concerns along with kitten behavior, feeding, and litter box acclimation.
We always do a complete nose-to-tail exam, so we're looking at every body system, listening to their hearts, looking in their ears, looking at their teeth and gums, feeling the abdomen to assess their organs, and generally trying to get a good overall picture of their health. We might also ask you to bring in a fecal sample to check for intestinal parasites.
Be forewarned—we’re going to spend a lot of time talking! We want to know how your house is set up and what you expect from your relationship with your kitten. Will they be a couch ornament? Are you planning on doing training with your cat? Do you want to walk your cat on a leash? Do you have kids and, if so, have you made sure that they know how to care for the kitten? We want to do whatever we can to help get you the tools you need to have a successful relationship.
A decrease in appetite is a significant symptom to look out for in kittens. If they’re misusing their litter box or stop using the litter box, something could be wrong. Also, kittens get upper respiratory symptoms, so if you notice sneezing or watery eyes and a clogged nose, that's a good reason to call us. Take note of any significant changes. If your kitten has typically been a little rascal, and they're suddenly sleeping the day away, or if you see changes in appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea, let us know. Any reputable veterinarian would rather that you call them every single day with a question than let these things build up or get worse.
Many kittens can get through these issues just fine, but they will often need help and supportive care from the veterinarian to help them through because some of them get severe. They can have high fevers; they can get dehydrated, and they might not want to eat. There are some terrible viruses that kittens can have been exposed to before you've gotten them. Anything out of the norm should warrant a trip to the vet right away for us to have a look.
Again, kittens are tiny, and they can go from feeling okay to being critically ill pretty quickly. Their glucose levels, hydration, and other things like that can change dramatically over a short period. So if you think things are a little bit off, they're probably a little further off than what you realize because cats are good at hiding illness.
As veterinarians, we always advise against “Dr. Google,” especially after the sun goes down. Everything sounds far worse when you're on WebMD or PetMD because it always ends up being something deadly. And don't forget, anyone with a keyboard can write their opinion. If you have concerns, come to us. We’re here to help you figure out what's going on and get your kitten healthy, and we also don’t want you to stress.
We're going to want to start vaccines as soon as you get your kitten, somewhere between six and eight weeks of age. We’ll put them on a series of vaccines. Core vaccines are the ones that all cats should get. There are some other non-core vaccines that you can discuss with your veterinarian based on lifestyle. The core vaccines such as FVRCP (feline distemper combo), feline leukemia, and rabies are an excellent place to start.
We like to booster vaccines every three to four weeks until about 14 to 16 weeks of age to ensure the kitten has good immunity. We want to see your kitten at least twice during that early period to look at their health, but more so to make sure that your relationship is developing the way that you want. We also want to ensure we're not having major behavioral issues, that the litter training is going well, and help you form a good foundation.
There’s a wide range of kitten behavior because all cats are different. And to put it quite frankly, kittens can be very challenging. They are tiny predators, but they are also somewhat of a prey species as well. Because they are both predator and prey, their behaviors can be confusing. Of course, it’s painful when they climb up your leg when you're walking down the hallway! Still, most behaviors that we as pet owners find super annoying are normal kitten behaviors.
Know that kittens can be wild, and they like to be their most wild at night while you're trying to sleep. Try to engage them in play before bedtime to try to tire them out. And don't allow them to nip at you and claw you. Redirect them to appropriate toys and reinforce the behaviors that you want to see. If you’re hitting a wall in terms of getting the behaviors that you want, call your veterinarian. That's what we're here for, and the earlier we intervene and change that trajectory, the more successful we're going to be.
Again, if you have any further questions about kitten care, ask your veterinarian. If you don't have one yet, we can help you find a local veterinarian!