When you have a new kitten in your home, it can be an exciting time, but you might not be sure how to take care of a kitten. Kittens are naturally curious and playful little beings. However, learning how to care for them can be stressful for first-time owners. Before adopting a kitten, it helps to have all of your accessories ready and ensure that any dangerous parts of your home have been kitten-proofed. It is also helpful to know what to look for when kittens are sick and when to get your kitten scheduled for an appointment with a veterinarian. Here are a few of the most important things to know and do to properly care for a kitten.
Caring for Newborn Kittens
Sometimes, a pregnant cat will give birth to kittens at home. This is an ideal scenario because the mother cat will tend to all of her kitten’s needs in those first few weeks of life. She is able to nurse them round the clock, keep them clean, and help them urinate and defecate. She also uses her own body heat to help keep the kittens warm, something they cannot do themselves until they are several weeks old.1
If you have an orphaned kitten who is younger than eight weeks of age, he or she will need round the clock care from you or a foster parent. Kittens younger than two weeks will need to be fed kitten formula every two to three hours. Right after feeding, their genitals need to be stimulated so that they will urinate and defecate. Newborn kittens also need to be kept warm because they cannot regulate their own body temperature.2
Once kittens are older than two weeks, their eyes open and they may start to walk.3 They will still need kitten formula feedings and assistance with the bathroom but the frequency decreases to every four to six hours.4 Special kitten diets are available that are labeled for use in kittens who are three weeks of age or older. Some can also start litterbox training at this age.5
Nutrition for Older Kittens
All cats are carnivores, which means that the largest portion of their essential nutrients comes from meat sources.6 Commercial kitten diets are formulated with high protein contents yet are optimized for growth and development. They also contain a higher calorie content since kittens need lots of energy for playing and growing. It is possible to start certain kitten diets like Royal Canin’s Babycat diet once a kitten is three to four weeks old. You can mix it with kitten formula, but once a kitten is eight weeks old, he or she will no longer need formula.7
It is best to avoid grain-free diet and raw food diets. Research suggests that there is an increased risk for certain types of heart disease when grain-free diets are fed, and there is still an ongoing FDA investigation regarding this link.8 There is currently no scientific evidence of any benefit in feeding a raw diet over a commercial diet, and a study from the University of Liverpool demonstrated that raw diets increase the risk of contact with harmful bacteria like Salmonella and Campylobacter species.9
Litter Box Training
More most owners, all you need to do is place your kitten in front of a litter box and he or she will start using it within the first few minutes. Some kittens need a little more time because new items can be a little scary or confusing to start with. If your kitten insists on playing with the litter in his or her box, consider moving the litter box to a different area. When they do use the box appropriately, it helps to reward the kitten with a treat afterward.
Keep in mind that most cats like privacy when they go to the bathroom. A hooded box may help to prevent shyness when using the box. It is also best not to hover around them when they are using their litter box. Different types of litter may be preferred over others, and smaller litter boxes may prevent kittens from playing in them. It’s also helpful to keep the litter box clean, as some cats can be picky about using a litter box that doesn’t meet their cleanliness standards. If you find it difficult to keep up with regular scooping, an automated or self-cleaning litter box can make it easier to provide your kitten with a clean place to do their business.
How to Clean Your Kitten’s Litter Box
- Scoop your kitten’s litter box twice per day. Every morning and evening, use a cat litter scoop to scoop out any solid waste. If you are using a clumping kitty litter, you can scoop out the balls that the urine makes, too.
- Change the litter fully once per week. Dump out the dirty kitty litter into the garbage, spray out the litter box with hot water and a bit of dish liquid or vinegar, rinse very well, and allow it to dry fully before refilling the box with fresh litter. It is helpful to have two litter boxes to switch out so that your kitten is not left with no litter box while you are waiting for the dirty one to be washed and dried.
- Sweep around the litter box regularly. Your kitten probably tracks litter out of the box, so you will need to sweep the area every day or two. You can also wipe it down with a lightly soapy rag. Don’t use any detergents on the floor near the litter box that are unsafe for your kitten.
Preventive Care for Kittens
Kittens should begin receiving vaccinations at eight weeks of age, but orphaned kittens should receive them a little sooner because they don’t have the benefit of protection from their mother’s milk.10 Vaccinations will protect against lifelong or debilitating illnesses such as feline herpesvirus and calicivirus.11 In most states, they need to receive their rabies vaccine by the time they are 12 to 16 weeks old. Veterinarians will also check a kitten’s fecal sample to see if they are carrying intestinal parasites, some of which can be shared with other pets or with people.12
Regular check-ups are important for kittens because early detection of problems can lead to faster treatment. If a kitten is not gaining weight appropriately, the vet can recommend diagnostics to determine if there is an illness present. Kittens can also have health problems such as fleas and ear mites as well as clinical signs like vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, and sneezing.
Supervision and Training
It is very important to focus on kitten-proofing your home as soon as possible. Kittens love to climb up to high places or get into small, tight spaces. Falling from great heights can be dangerous, and some kittens can get stuck or injured in small spaces. They will play with or chew on virtually anything, but playing with certain houseplants or electrical cords can cause severe illness and injury.13 Make sure to keep all medications, pesticides, and house cleaning equipment out of reach of kittens. Pet gates can help to keep them out of rooms with kitten hazards, or you could consider keeping your kitten confined to one room of your home until he or she is old enough to safely explore it.
Raising a kitten is a fun and incredibly rewarding experience. Properly caring for your kitten from the start will help to ensure that she grows into a healthy cat who will lead a long and happy life as your companion.
How to Set Up for Your Kitten
- Create a safe area for her. Although your kitten will not need to stay in a cage (unless you are transporting her or need to keep her in a cage or cat carrier temporarily to keep her safe), it is a good idea to create a safe space for her. This space should be out of the reach of other pets and small children. You might designate an unused bedroom to be her safe space; you will need to outfit it with several supplies.
- Set up a kitty litter box. Your kitten will need to learn to eliminate in a cat litter box when she is in the house. (Don’t worry! It is easier than you might think to train a kitten to use the box!) Purchase one that is not too large to start; you can always upgrade later. Also, buy kitty litter. It is best to check with the shelter or the person who is currently caring for her to see what brand litter they use. That will make it more familiar and more likely that your kitten will use it.
- Set up a food and water dish. Your kitten will need access to fresh water at all times, so look for cat dishes that she won’t be able to tip over. Something that is heavy on the bottom and not too tall will allow her to drink easily while she is still small and will resist tipping if she decides to put her paws on the edge or into the bowl itself.
- Add a place for her to scratch. Kittens have the urge to scratch with their claws, and you will prefer to supply a scratching post of some sort rather than forcing her to resort to scratching your carpet, furniture, or walls. Some kittens prefer the type that stands up and others like the kind that lays flat on the floor. Buying one that has vertical and horizontal surfaces allows you to see which part she uses most frequently and will give her some options.
- Provide somewhere for her to climb. Your kitten will sometimes want to climb up. She might use the furniture, the shelves, or even the curtains for this purpose. You can extend the life of your household items by giving her a place to climb that is safe, like a cat tower. Set it up near a window, and she will use it to climb up and watch birds, squirrels, flying leaves, and whatever else is happening outside.
How to Feed Your Kitten
- Make sure your kitten has water all the time. Some kittens are a bit picky and won’t want to drink water that is kept right next to the food dish, and many kittens won’t drink dirty water. Try moving the water dish around the room if your kitten isn’t drinking from it, and change the water frequently to keep it clean. Consider getting a cat water fountain to promote interest and to keep him hydrated.
- Consider free-feeding your kitten dry cat food. If you choose to use dry cat food, you might choose to keep it available to your kitten at all times. Cats, as a general rule, will not overeat. There are exceptions to this rule, however. If your kitten begins to put on too much weight, talk to your veterinarian about your choice to free-feed dry food. Try not to put more in the bowl than your kitten will eat in a day, because you should throw away the food once every 24 hours and refill with fresh food to prevent staleness.
- Feed canned food two to four times per day. Canned food is good for kittens because it adds some liquid to their diets, which can keep them from getting constipated. Give your kitten only as much canned food as he will eat at one time, then remove it and put more down later. If you are feeding your kitten dry food as well, two servings of canned food is plenty. If you are not using dry food, however, you will need to feed your kitten canned food three or four times per day.
How to Pick Up Your Kitten
- Don’t startle your kitten. Many cats and kittens don’t enjoy being picked up, but it is important that you know how to do so safely to keep your kitten from getting hurt and also to prevent your kitten from biting or scratching you. Startling your kitten by grabbing her from behind will likely result in a bite or a scratch and your new pet might get hurt by flailing to get away from you.
- Wait until your kitten is willingly near you. When you are petting or playing with your new little furball, this is a great time to gently pick her up.
- Place one hand under her chest and another under her rear end. Always use two hands when picking up your kitten, even if she is very small.
- Pull her close to your body. As soon as you pick her up snuggle her body against yours so she feels secure and supported.
How to Clean Your Kitten
- Watch your kitten to see if he grooms himself well. Most kittens will learn from their mothers how to keep themselves clean. If your new pet was taken from his mother very early, however, he might not have learned these skills. Watch to see if he cleans his own face after eating or if he self-grooms to keep his fur clean. If he does, you will not need to do much to clean him. If he doesn’t, more extensive cleaning might be necessary.
- Wipe your kitten gently with a slightly damp cloth. After eating or if your kitten looks dirty or dusty, simply take a slightly damp soft cloth and wipe him down. Be quick about it because he probably won’t like it very much. Just one or two swipes should be sufficient.
- Help a very small kitten eliminate. If your kitten is very small, you will need to rub his abdomen and under his tail to encourage him to eliminate. Use a moistened cotton ball. You will need to do this after each feeding. This is really only necessary for very tiny kittens who are just a few weeks old or younger.
- Check your kitten’s bottom each day. Young kittens can’t always reach to clean under their tails, so you will need to do this. Use a wet cotton ball or a wet soft cloth. This will keep your kitten clean and odor-free until he learns to clean his own bottom.
- Rarely bathe your kitten. If your kitten gets into something very dirty or gets fleas, you might need to bathe him. Otherwise, bathing a kitten or a cat is unnecessary unless he has a skin condition and your veterinarian recommends it. Use just a few inches of warm water in a tub or sink and a reliable kitten shampoo. For fleas, you can use Dawn dish liquid (the kind you would use for handwashing dishes), since young kittens often cannot tolerate even gentle flea shampoos. Be sure to dry your kitten well with a towel and keep him warm until he is fully dry.
- Brush your kitten daily. Use a soft pet brush to gently brush his fur. This will help remove excess hair and will keep him cleaner. If he doesn’t like it, just try to get in a few swipes per day. If he has long fur, you will need to be a bit more persistent; try brushing him for a minute or so several times per day.
How to Tell If Your Kitten Is Healthy and Happy
- Check your kitten’s eyes, ears, and nose. Her eyes should be bright and clear, and her nose shouldn’t have any discharge. Her ears should look clean inside. If you see discharge from the eyes or nose, especially if it isn’t clear, or if the eyes look cloudy or the ears look dirty or raw, make an appointment with your veterinarian.
- Check your kitten’s fur. Her fur should be soft and full. It should not be patchy or have bald spots. Cats do shed every day, but you shouldn’t see large chunks of fur falling out. If you do, a veterinarian visit is warranted.
- Make sure your kitten is eating and drinking each day. She might not eat the same amount each day, but if your kitten skips more than one meal, she should be evaluated for illness.
- Make sure your kitten is eliminating each day. There should be stool and urine in the kitty litter box each time you check it. The stools should be solid. If your kitten has diarrhea or isn’t urinating or defecating each day, she needs a checkup.
- Make note of how your kitten usually acts. Kittens can be fickle creatures. One day, they might run around the house and the next day, they might sleep all day. One minute they want to be pet and the next, they swat at you and hide under the bed. These are all normal variations and you will likely see these behaviors on a daily basis or every few days. If your kitten has stopped wanting to play with her toys, however, or if all she does is sleep and never wants to get up and run around or be pet, that is an indication that there is something going on.
Owning a kitten is a wonderful experience for most people, and very soon, your kitten will grow into a beautiful and dignified cat. Taking the steps to keep your kitten happy and healthy will pay off when you have a furry friend for many years to come.
- Animal Humane Society. Caring for young kittens and their moms. Animalhumanesociety.org. Accessed March 27, 2021.
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- Alley Cat Rescue. Stages of Kitten Development. Saveacat.org. Accessed March 27, 2021.
- Community Concern for Cats. Bottle Babies. Communityconcernforcats.org. Accessed March 27, 2021.
- University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, Shelter Medicine. Guide to Raising Underage Kittens. Uwsheltermedicine.com. Accessed March 27, 2021.
- MacDonald ML, Rogers QR, Morris JG. Nutrition of the domestic cat, a mammalian carnivore. Annu Rev Nutr. 1984;4:521-562. doi:10.1146/annurev.nu.04.070184.002513
- Ask the Cat Doctor. Weaning Kittens. Askthecatdoctor.com. Accessed March 27, 2021.
- Freeman LM. A broken heart: Risk of heart disease in boutique or grain-free diets and exotic ingredients. Vetnutrition.tufts.edu. Published June 4, 2018. Accessed March 27, 2021.
- Schmidt VM, Williams NJ. Do raw meat diets pose health risk for our pets and us? Liverpool.ac.uk. Accessed March 27, 2021.
- Restine L, Buzhardt L, Ward E. Recommendations for New Kitten Owners. Vcahospitals.com. Accessed March 27, 2021.
- Cornell Feline Health Center. Feline Vaccines: Benefits and Risks. Vet.cornell.edu. Updated January 2018. Accessed March 27, 2021.
- Cornell Feline Health Center. Zoonotic Disease: What Can I Catch from My Cat? Vet.cornell.edu. Updated March 2017. Accessed March 27, 2021.
- Boicelli C. Common Household Plants Toxic to Cats. Preventivevet.com. Published July 13, 2020. Accessed March 27, 2021.