Be prepared, and set them up for success
So you’re thinking about adopting a kitten. Congratulations! These fluffy little cuties can be such a fun addition to your family. Of course, like all babies, kittens need help from their new families to set them up for a successful, happy life.
Start Your Kitten in a Safe Room
Kittens are curious and active! They will sometimes play so long that they forget about things like how to find the litter box and taking time to eat. When you first get home, start your kitten in a room that is small enough for them to see the essential items — food, water, bedding, toys, and the litter box. This “safe room” is a place for them to get comfortable with you without getting lost or overwhelmed.
You should kitten-proof this room by removing anything your kitten does not need. Knickknacks will get knocked down, and like any toddler, a kitten will put anything in its mouth. Make sure sharp objects and things like hair ties, paperclips, pen caps, ribbons, etc. are removed from the room. It’s best to use a bathroom or a room where no one sleeps as the safe room. Kittens will be up before you, racing around, wanting you to play with them at 4 am.
Make Playtime Fun
Kittens play to have fun, and also to learn. When it comes to toys and activities, add variety so your kitten doesn’t decide that your blinds are more fun! It is also important to not use your hands or feet as toys. While it can be cute for a kitten to pounce and nibble your fingers, it is not a good idea to encourage those behaviors. A bite or scratch from an adult cat isn’t cute at all, and this behavior is a big reason cats are taken or returned to shelters later in life.
Teach Good Eating and Litter Box Habits
Kittens are active and should eat frequent meals to get them through their day. It’s a good idea to offer three small canned food meals, as well as offering dry food in a bowl. Always use cat food — not people food or milk — and measure the portions so you can track how much your kitten eats. Food and water dishes should be in a place that is easy to find and far away from the litter box.
Speaking of litter boxes, kittens need a shallow litter box so they can climb in easily and safely. Unscented litter and uncovered litter boxes often work best. Kittens and cats have sensitive noses, and you don’t want to do anything to make them not want to use the box. The general rule is to have one litter box per cat, plus one. You should also have at least one box on each floor of your house, especially while kittens are young. As your kitten gets bigger, you can graduate them to a regular-size litter box.
Keep the Peace with Other Pets
If you have other furry friends in the household, you will want to do slow introductions. This is your best route to fight-free greetings and lasting friendships.
Before you try face-to-face introductions, use “scent swapping.” Take a bed from your resident pet and put it in your kitten’s safe room. Then, move a bed your kitten has used to a room with your resident pet. Let them sniff each other’s bedding, lay on it, lick it, whatever they want to do. This gives them a chance to explore the new scent and helps you gauge how the first meeting might go. Another option is to start feeding the pets on opposite sides of the door so they can smell each other under the door at mealtime. This supports bonding by helping the pets associate positive things (like eating) with each other’s scent.
Once your pets seem ready, you can begin meetings. Put your kitten in the carrier and take them into the family room. Let the resident pet approach the carrier and sniff. If this greeting goes well, you can open the carrier and let them meet. If ever you are concerned, return the kitten to the safe room and keep working with scent swapping and door feedings. Don’t rush this process. It often takes time for animals to get used to each other, and they are less likely to get along if the friendship is forced.
Prep for the Vet
Visits to the veterinarian and in-home healthcare will go best if your kitten is used to handling.
- Play with their paws daily. Softly squish their toes so the claw comes out. This way, when it is time to trim their nails, they won’t mind a bit.
- Keep the carrier out for your kitten to use as a hiding place and soft bed. If cats are used to the carrier, they’ll be more relaxed in it when going to the vet.
- Look in your kitten’s ears monthly to make sure they are clean and clear of any debris. This helps you see any concerns and gets your kitten used to this touch should they ever need ear treatment.
- Gently open your kitten’s mouth and look inside. Again, a monthly check will help you see if something isn’t right, and gets your kitten used it, making it easier if s/he ever needs oral medication.
Most kittens adopted from shelters are microchipped. If not, your veterinarian should offer this service. Even if your kitten has a microchip, a collar and tag with your contact information is smart. A kitten used to a collar and tag will continue to wear it comfortably through adulthood.
If you decide to take your kitten outdoors for a walk, wait until they are fully vaccinated (typically around 4 months of age). At that time, you can try harness and leash training. It is a good idea to take them out through a door that they normally do not see open and close (such as a bedroom sliding glass door or the garage door). You don’t want your kitten thinking it can just leave through an open door at any time.
Fostering Saves Lives!
Not sure if you and your family are ready for a kitten? Fostering helps shelters save more animals by giving them a loving home where they can grow and prepare for adoption outside the shelter.
Foster volunteers help young kittens get the care they need, giving them a great start to life. Fosters often meet the people who want to adopt their foster kittens, and get to tell them all about the kittens. Fostering can take as little as a week or up to two months, depending on the pet. At CAT, the kitten foster program includes training, assistance from a mentor, preventive kitten care, and more. All you need is a spare bathroom or bedroom and the desire to help. Learn more at catadoptionteam.org.
Kristi Brooks is the director of operations at the Cat Adoption Team (CAT) and lead trainer for the Fostering 4 Rock Stars program. She is regularly invited to speak at national animal welfare conferences about successful community collaboration and best practices for kitten fostering. Kristi lives in Tualatin, Oregon with her husband, daughter, and Kate the cat.