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.
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.
- Animal Humane Society. Caring for young kittens and their moms. Animalhumanesociety.org. Accessed March 27, 2021.
- Williams K, Ward E. Raising Kittens. Vcahospitals.com. Accessed March 27, 2021.
- 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.