What is more adorable than a tiny kitten pedaling soft paws on your chest and purring up a storm? Enjoy your kitten, but never forget to make the most of this special time to ensure you’ll end up with a wonderful cat.
Kittens begin to learn life’s lessons at an early age — 3 weeks is the start of a critical period in their lives as companion animals. From the time their eyes open until the fluffy babies are about 10 weeks old, kittens are developing impressions of the world that will stay with them for life.
These early experiences shape an adult cat’s personality and attitudes about strange people, pets and places, wearing collars or harnesses, getting baths or nail trims, being examined, or riding in a car or carrier. Within this period — about 5 to 8 weeks of age — is a wonderful and important time for teaching a kitten to use the litter box and scratching post, and to play with toys instead of fingers and toes.
But most kitten owners are completely unaware of this small window of teachable moments. Instead of actively and deliberately creating experiences to shape their kittens’ perceptions and household behaviors, they let their kittens grow up mostly on their own.
When the owners aren’t watching, kittens form bad habits by trying out stretches and nail-sharpening on the furniture, or finding a bath mat or shag carpeting that seems as good a place as any to potty. On their own, they learn to jump on counters and explore tables, and to chew on houseplants and their owners’ food. And when no cat trees are to be found, kittens may climb curtains for fun or to perch up high — both are normal feline behaviors.
And it’s not all fun and games: Curious kittens may swallow small objects or fall out of windows if screens are not secured.
All these missed opportunities and potential hazards underscore the need for getting involved in training your kitten. Here are some basic tips to help make the most of this special time in any cat’s life:
- Place your new kitten in a small room or bathroom for at least a week (make sure to visit often to get your kitten used to your voice and presence) with the litter box on one side of the room, food and water on the opposite side, and a tall cat-scratching post and climber somewhere in the middle. If you limit the options, your kitten will make better choices. Place your kitten in the litter box often and praise them. Use cat toys to encourage your kitten to use scratching posts and cat trees. Praise all behaviors you want to continue.
- Give your kitten places to hide, to reduce the stress on your youngster. Look for a cat tree with a cubby hole, and provide a carrier both as a hiding place and as transport for visiting friends or the veterinary hospital. Feed your kitten in the carrier and make it a place for surprise treats. Get your kitten used to short car rides with treats, toys and positive attention.
- Look for every opportunity to shape your kitten into a relaxed, confident, friendly, affectionate and well-behaved member of your family. Hand-feed your kitten before and in between meals. When your kitten is already relaxed, use special treats to introduce new experiences such as gentle handling, wearing collars, harnesses or getting one nail trimmed. Think of teeny-tiny baby steps and of creating a positive first impression. Provide your kitten’s favorite treats and finger-scratch your kitten in favorite places to help offset small amounts of stress. Help your kitten recover and relax by going slowly without using any force.
Pick a healthy kitten
Kittens are all adorable, and every shelter and rescue group has plenty at this certain times of the year — colors, coat lengths and markings galore. But how do you know you’re picking a healthy baby?
General impressions are important. You should get a sense of good health and vitality from the kitten you’re considering adopting. The baby should feel good in your arms: neither too thin nor too fat, well put-together, sleek and solid. If the ribs are showing or if they have a potbelly, the kitten may be suffering from malnutrition or worms. Both are fixable, but signs of neglect may indicate deeper problems with socialization or general health.
With soothing words and gentle caresses, go over each kitten you’re considering from nose to tail, paying special attention to the following areas:
- Fur and skin. Skin should be clean and unbroken, covered thickly with a glossy coat of hair. Part the hairs and look for signs of fleas: The parasites themselves may be too small and fast for you to spot, but their droppings remain behind. You shouldn’t count a cat out because of a few fleas, but a severe infestation could mean an anemic kitten.
- Ears. These should be clean inside or, perhaps, have a little bit of wax. Filthy ears and head-shaking are signs of ear mites, which can require a prolonged period of consistent medication to eradicate.
- Eyes. Eyes should look clear and bright. Runny eyes or other discharge may be a sign of illness. The third eyelid, a semitransparent protective sheath that folds away into the corners of the eyes nearest the nose (also called a “haw”), should not be visible.
- Nose. Again, no discharge. The nose should be clean and slightly moist. A kitten who is breathing with difficulty or is coughing or sneezing may be seriously ill.
- Mouth. Gums should be rosy pink, not pale, and with no signs of inflammation at the base of the teeth. The teeth should be white and clear of tartar buildup.
- Tail area. Clean and dry. Dampness or the presence of fecal matter may suggest illness. Of course, even a healthy kitten will need your veterinarian’s help to stay that way. Schedule a new-kitten exam and preventive-care consultation as soon as you get your new family member adopted.–Dr. Marty Becker