How To Raise a Kitten : Our Complete Guide to Bringing Home a New Kitten
There is nothing in the world cuter than a kitten!
Cat ownership has skyrocketed in the last 10 years, and it may surprise you to learn that there are more than 95 million pet cats in the US alone in 2023. While dogs are still more popular companions, it is clear that cats have joined the party as full fledged members of our households.
Traditionally, new owners wondering how to raise a kitten were told it was easy compared to raising a puppy. To many of our grandparents, a cat was an outdoor mouser who lived on the porch or in a barn. They were independent, aloof and not terribly interested in trying to interact with their human owners. Only weird people treated cats as though they were genuine pets.
Happily this view has changed, and cats have proven themselves to be loving and devoted companions. Cats still lag behind dogs in a few key ways, however.
Cats tend to get less regular veterinary care, for instance. While most of us would not allow our dogs to roam the neighborhood unleashed, outdoor cats freely wander about. There is still a myth floating around that cats don’t need as much human interaction as dogs to develop properly.
It is time to bust these myths! Raising a kitten is similar to raising a puppy in many ways, and is completely different in others. How you raise your kitten will set up their relationship with you for life. Contrary to the myths, cats can be just as attached to and affectionate with their owners as dogs are- IF you do the work to build this bond.
In this guide, we will cover EVERYTHING you need to know to choose and raise a happy, healthy kitten! While this guide is written with kittens in mind, most of the advice here works for newly adopted adult cats as well.
Basics of Cat Society
Before we launch into the details of how to raise a happy kitten, we have to explain a little bit about how cats have evolved socially with humans. Understanding how your kitten evolved from a wild cat to a lap cat will help you learn how to make every interaction with your kitty a positive experience!
Short History of Dog-Human Evolution
It is well documented that dogs have lived and co-evolved with humans for at least 20,000 years. The descendants of ancient wolves, dogs have been extensively bred and domesticated by humans to meet a variety of standards. We have bred dogs to hunt with us, to herd for us and to protect us from dangers, as well as for companionship.
Dogs naturally form hierarchical packs in the wild, and humans exploit this inbred behavior by teaching puppies that humans are the leaders of the pack. Not only is it normal for a dog to accept a lower spot in the pack hierarchy, dogs get very uncomfortable when they don’t know their place, and can act out accordingly.
Cats Evolved Differently
Cats, on the other hand, have been hanging around on the periphery of human activities for at least 8,000 years. Unlike dogs, cats were not deliberately bred for specific physical traits until the 19th century, and many of the more popular breeds of cats have only been around for about 75 years.
Scientists now believe that cats essentially self-domesticated themselves through generations of hanging out by our grain silos and feasting on the resident rodent populations. Unlike dog breeds, cat breeds differ only in small physical characteristics, and all cat breeds have the same range of behaviors and personalities.
Cats Are Not Pack Animals- But They Can Be Social!
Unlike dogs, cats do not form packs and do not have a social structure based on a set hierarchy. This doesn’t mean that cats are not social animals, however! The old myth says that cats are loners…and while it is based on some solid facts it also ignores the bigger picture.
When hunting, cats are solitary predators that maintain and defend a territory from other cats. However, when left to their own devices, feral cats often form loose colonies based around maternal lineages. It is not uncommon to find a colony of closely-related feral cats all clustered around a food source.
When there is no pressure from competition over food, cats can live together peacefully, as long as they respect each other’s space. They may play together, groom each other and even nurse each other’s kittens. The older they get, however, the less accepting most cats will be towards a strange cat joining their family.
Cats do not form a hierarchy, however. One cat may defer to another because that cat is stronger and they want to avoid a fight, and a cat will often defer to their mother if they are raised together into adulthood. But a cat never defers to another animal just because of their social rank, unlike puppies and dogs.
What This Means For Raising a Kitten
While raising a kitten has some similarities to raising a puppy, it is a great mistake to treat a kitten the same way you would a puppy. Doing so can damage your relationship with your cat.
Your kitten does not naturally look to you to be the leader of their pack, nor are they bred to be subservient to your wishes. While a dog wants to please you, a cat will usually do what it wants and will act in ways that lead to the best result…for the cat.
While you can train a dog using a carrot-and-stick approach, doing so with a cat can actually teach them that humans are scary and untrustworthy. Negative corrections, like using squirt bottles to hit them with water or yelling at them can be traumatic to kittens, and could damage their bond with you.
Instead, it is best to positively reinforce good behaviors. When your cat does something they shouldn’t, a gentle correction and redirection towards the right behavior, or simply ignoring them, are much more effective than using a negative correction. We will go into this in more detail in the training section.
While your kitten will not accept you as their master, they can learn to trust you, to rely on you, and to be a friend and companion you enjoy sharing a home with!
Choosing a kitten
How do you pick out the best kitten or cat for your family? There is no right answer to this question. Many people choose a kitten based on their coat color or other physical traits. There is nothing wrong with preferring an orange tabby or calico if that’s what you’ve been dreaming about.
One Kitten, or Two?
If you are planning to get a kitten, why not consider getting two? The best time to teach a cat about living in a multiple cat household is when they are young. Getting two cats together is a great way to give them a feline companion and playmate, and will make it easier for you to introduce a new cat to the household in the years to come. If you opt to get a single kitten, be aware that they may not accept living with another cat when they grow up.
The obvious downside to getting two kittens together is the financial cost. You will have twice the vet bills, food budget and kitty litter costs. Two kittens at the same time is more work and more training, but can be very rewarding all the same. Yes, you can bond closely with two kittens, so don’t worry that having a feline sibling will make your kittens less affectionate with you!
Unlike choosing a puppy, people rarely say they picked out their kitten because they liked their personality! Some people would even say that kittens don’t have unique personalities, so just pick the one that is the prettiest in your eyes.
I don’t agree with this at all. Kittens are babies, and obviously they will change some as they mature and experience life. But kittens definitely have unique personalities!
An extremely shy kitten will likely be a shy adult cat. A kitten who loves to snuggle in your lap will probably continue to be a snuggler. An aloof, independent kitten may never be a super-affectionate cat. And a (non-feral) kitten that climbs your leg and rips your hand to shreds upon first-meeting will likely be an aggressive adult!
Take as much time picking out a kitten as you can. I recommend spending at least an hour interacting with a kitten before deciding to adopt them. Play with them, gently pick them up to gauge their reaction to being handled, and see how they react when you talk to them. Do they ignore you? Do they look at you? Do they run away and hide? These are clues into your kitten’s personality.
The more socialization a kitten has had before they are adopted, the more likely that they will be trusting of you right off the bat. If you have children or other pets, a kitten born or fostered in a similar household may be easier for you to raise than one who wasn’t.
Still, kittens are also flexible. They can learn to live with children, dogs and other cats even if they were not born into such a household.
Depending on where you get your kitten from, you may know a lot about their background, or you may know nothing. So spend time getting to know them, and pick out a kitten that feels like a good fit for your family.
What is the Best Age for Adopting a Kitten?
While kittens may be advertised for adoption at pretty much any age, you should not adopt a kitten until it is at least 8 weeks old. Some people start placing their kittens as soon as they are weaned, around 5 weeks of age, but this is too young and means these kittens have missed some important milestones with their natal families.
Kittens under 8 weeks in age are still developing social skills from their mothers and littermates. They are learning how to use, and not use, their teeth and claws when playing. They are also learning how to groom themselves and use a litter box. Adopting a kitten younger than 8 weeks could stymie their development and lead to problems as they mature.
Also, unless you are an experienced cat owner, you may want to be wary of kittens raised by hand instead of with their mother. “Bottle babies,” or kittens that have been bottle fed by humans, do not develop the same as cats raised by other cats. They often have behavior issues that can make them more challenging pets.
Where do you go to adopt a kitten?
Pet stores have gone the way of the Dodo bird, meaning that most of them no longer sell kittens or puppies. These days, the majority of us get our kittens from humane societies and rescues, or from individuals who have had an “oops” litter.
You’ll notice that I don’t mention cat breeders in this list. That’s because less than 3% of cats come from professional breeders. Unless you are looking for something especially exotic or plan to show your cat, you will probably not get a kitten from a breeder. Specially bred or purebred cats are expensive, and depending upon the breed may have a greater likelihood of genetically-based health problems.
So, should you aim to get a kitten from a shelter or go for a private adoption? There are advantages and disadvantages to both kinds of adoptions.
Humane Societies and Rescues
Close to half of all kittens adopted in the US currently come from Humane Societies or rescue organizations. Shelters may have a large population of kittens of various ages to choose from, especially during the spring “kitten season.”
The main advantage to getting a kitten from an organization like these is that they will usually have had some vaccinations, and will likely have been spayed or neutered for you. Some organizations also place a microchip, and give you a coupon for a free veterinary exam.
In terms of cost, a shelter kitten will usually be more expensive than adopting an adult cat or doing a private adoption. Kittens are highly desirable, and it is not unusual to see a shelter kitten priced at three or four times what the shelter charges for an adult cat.
The downsides to adopting a kitten from a shelter deserve some consideration as well. Shelters are often packed, and with humans moving between the different animals kittens frequently pick up infections while housed there.
Kittens have delicate immune systems, and are very sensitive to stress. It is very common for shelter kittens to develop upper respiratory infections, even if they seem perfectly healthy at the time of adoption. Sometimes it may take several weeks or longer before your shelter kitten is fully healthy. If you have other cats, a sick kitten could pass the infection on to them.
Another disadvantage to adopting a shelter kitten is that spaying or neutering baby cats is less than ideal for their long term health. Shelters do it to prevent pet overpopulation, but most veterinarians believe that cats should mature to at least 6 months of age before being altered surgically. Some vets think that the increasing incidents of urinary blockage in male cats is due to this early neutering.
Advantages of Adopting from a Shelter:
- Variety of kittens to choose from, and many different ages available.
- Kittens will come with some vaccinations; older kittens may have completed all of their vaccines.
- Kittens are almost always spayed/neutered, and most will have a microchip.
- Kittens will have been dewormed and given flea prevention.
- You may get a free vet visit or even a months worth of pet insurance, depending on the shelter.
- You know that your money will help other pets in need of forever homes.
Disadvantages of Adopting from a Shelter:
- Initial cost is higher than adopting privately.
- Kittens are exposed to more germs, and are more likely to come home with an infection that could be passed on to other cats.
- You won’t know very much about your kitten’s history.
- You don’t have the option of allowing your kitten to grow up before having them surgically altered.
- You have to qualify to adopt from a shelter; they control the adoption process.
Getting a kitten straight from the birth home is another common way to adopt. Around 31% of cat owners get their kitten from a family member, friend or acquaintance who had an accidental litter. You can find advertisements for kittens in your local newspapers, and online on sites like Craigslist.org.
The main advantages of a private adoption are that you can meet the momma cat, called a queen, and view the rest of the litter in action. You can see how the kittens have been housed and socialized. You can ask questions about their background and what they have been exposed to, such as children or dogs. Also, because the kittens are in their original home, they are more likely to be healthy and show you the full range of their personalities, rather than acting scared or stressed from being in a shelter.
There are no rules with private adoptions. The kittens may have had a vet visit, or a round of vaccinations, or they may have had none of it. They may have been dewormed and/or had flea treatment, but it’s just as common that they haven’t. It is unlikely that the kittens will have been microchipped or surgically altered. The original owners may be picky about who they adopt to, or they may be so desperate that they hand the kitten over to you for a few dollars.
The disadvantages of private adoption are many. The cost will vary depending on the whims of the advertiser. They may charge more for the kittens because they have especially cute markings and look Siamese, for instance, and not base the price on veterinary care or vaccinations. It is a lot more work to find the perfect kitten when you go for a private adoption, and you may have to visit multiple litters before you find your kitten.
While adopting privately is almost always less expensive than adopting from a shelter, the downside is that more of the veterinary costs will fall onto you. You will have to pay for veterinary visits, vaccinations, surgical alteration and microchipping yourself. If you have financial concerns, a shelter kitten may be a better option since many of the expensive things have already been taken care of.
Advantages of Private Adoption:
- Initial expense is usually much less than adopting from a shelter.
- You get to decide when you will have your kitten spayed or neutered, and if they get a microchip implanted or not.
- They are less likely to have picked up an upper respiratory infection than a shelter kitten.
- You will know your kittens background and meet the queen and littermates.
- Kittens are likely to be well socialized.
- Private adoptions usually require the adopter to meet fewer qualifications. If you can pay their price, the kitten is yours.
Disadvantages of Private Adoptions:
- More of the veterinary costs will need to be paid out of your pocket.
- Kittens may have worms and fleas, leading to an outbreak in your home.
- Cost of the kitten is entirely up to the owner, and could be based on cuteness or perceived breed characteristics instead of their actual veterinary expenses.
- Your money may be subsidizing pet overpopulation by rewarding people for not spaying their cat.
How To Raise a Kitten : Introducing a Kitten to a New Home
Congratulations! You have just walked in the door with your new kitten. Now what should you do?
While it is tempting to let them run free the moment you get them home, it is usually a good idea to allow a new kitten or cat a few days to adjust before throwing them into the household. Plan to confine your kitten to a smaller space that keeps them safe and allows them to start bonding with you for a day at least. This is especially true if you have children or other pets.
This also gives you time to kitten-proof the house and secure electrical cables, dangling cords from blinds and other kitten hazards. You may want to install pet safety locks on the cabinets in your kitchen and bathrooms as well, if you don’t already have them. Cats love to chew on phone charging cables, and will often eat plastic bags and rubber bands/hair ties, so be sure those are out of the way!
Plan on taking your new kitten or cat to your veterinarian for a new pet check-up once they have acclimated to their new home, or sooner if they fall ill. This way, you can plan out the rest of their vaccinations and any other services (like surgical alteration or having a microchip placed).
Even if your kitten is fully vaccinated, have them checked out anyway. This way, if you need a prescription for flea control or a sedative for a holiday your vet will be able to get it for you.
Initial Confinement and the First 24-48 Hours
You can use a spare room, a bathroom or a laundry room to confine your new kitten. Using your bedroom is also an option, although it is not ideal if you have other pets who share the room with you at night.
You want to choose a space that is quiet and that has no hideaways where a kitten could disappear into. You don’t want your kitten to end up under the bed where you can’t reach them, for instance, or have them get stuck in a storage closet.
Be sure that any power cords in this area are secure away from your kittens reach. If you are using a bathroom or laundry area, make sure the cabinets have pet locks on them (or use twist ties to keep them closed) and that any cleaners or laundry pods are stored where a kitten can’t get to them!
Provide your kitten with an appropriate sized litter box with a couple of inches of fresh kitty litter. The first thing you should do is place the kitten in this litter box! That way, they know right from the start where they should go to the bathroom.
Give them a bowl of water, and food depending on your feeding regime. If you plan to have mealtimes, stick to the feeding schedule from the first day. If you have some of the food the kitten is use to eating (or know the brand and can buy it), then provide that and plan on transitioning them to their new diet slowly. If you don’t have their usual diet, be aware that they may have an upset tummy for a while as they adjust (another reason for an initial confinement).
There are a few other things you should provide your kitten with while they are being confined. If you can, give them a box or use their carrier to make a nice, comfy spot where they can hide safely. It is natural for cats to like hiding in boxes, and if you add in a piece of fabric, like an old towel or scrap of polar fleece from the craft store, you will probably find your kitten napping happily in there.
You can offer them a few toys, such as stuffed mice or small balls, but leave the feathers and action toys for later. The first night home, your kitten may be exhausted and just want to sleep, so hang out in the room with them and offer your lap! On the other hand, some kittens are not phased by a new home at all. In which case, start bonding by interacting with them.
Your kitten should always be able to retreat if things become too much for them. A kitten should never be scared and unable to get away from the scary thing. If you have children, you may have to limit how much time they spend with the kitten until they have adjusted to their new home. Let the kitten be your guide, especially in the first 24 hours.
Don’t force them to interact with you. If they seem shy or scared, don’t pick them up. Talk to them in a low, gentle voice. Move slowly around them. Just sit there and talk to them, and offer the occasional pet if they like it. Often a shy kitten will warm up to this gentle treatment, especially if they enjoy having their chin scratched!
When to End the Confinement?
This initial confinement should last as long as is necessary to settle your kitten or cat into the household. For some kittens it may be a brief period, and for others it may take several days for them to relax.
If your kitten is doing well then you might start letting them explore more of the house after 24 hours, if you don’t have other pets. Read below for advice about introducing a kitten to another cat or dog. But if the kitten is your only pet and they are eating, drinking and using the litter box and seem to be adjusting, then it may be time to broaden their horizons.
It is easier to let the kitten explore the home on their own four paws. Start by closing doors to other rooms, to limit the options they have, and then leave the door to the confinement room open. You might even hang out and watch them explore.
Many times, a kitten will ignore you as they explore. This is normal. Until they feel comfortable and understand their environment they will be in alert mode. A loud noise or sudden movement could send the scurrying back into their safe room.
Once the kitten has explored the house and settled into the family, you can move their litter box, food and water dishes to their permanent locations. Be sure to show the kitten where the litter box gets moved too!
Initial Confinement Summary:
- Settle the kitten in a quiet, secluded spot for the first 12-24 hours after bringing them home.
- Give them a litter box, food and water, and a box with a blanket to hide in.
- Offer safe toy or two, like a stuffed mouse or ball.
- Spend time with them, talk to them and pet them! Let the kitten tell you when it’s time to start exploring the house.
Introducing a Cat Sibling
Once your kitten or new cat has had their initial adjustment period, it is time to introduce them to the rest of the family. If you have another cat, this is likely to entail a bit of hissing and posturing on their part. Your kitten may react this way as well, but most kittens get passed this stage quickly.
Adult cats take longer to warm up to a new family member. Keep in mind, cats hate change! Any change can throw a cat off balance. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to make the path smoother.
First, get a Feliway diffuser and set it up near the confinement area. These diffusers last for 30 days, and pump out a pheromone that helps cats relax. You can get refills for the diffuser, so it’s not a bad thing to invest in. It’s a great way to reduce tension in cats when you are changing things up in the household. Also, pick up a few individual Feliway wipes, or better yet, buy a small bottle of the Feliway spray. This product has so many uses! I highly recommend keeping a bottle on hand for the times you need it.
You will also need a baby gate, or a piece of cardboard big enough to block the entrance to the confinement room door. If using the cardboard, you will need to cut some small holes in it.
For the first introduction of the kitten to your cat, the goal is to let the felines see and smell each other but not allow them to directly interact. Keep this first meeting short. You will want to do this several times, a couple of hours apart, each time letting them interact for a longer period of time.
Cats identify each other primarily by smell. While your kitten and cat may be very upset at first, as they get use to each other’s smell things will get easier.
How to Set Up the First Meeting
Place the baby gate in the doorway to the confinement room, but leave the door closed for the moment.
Open a Feliway wipe, or spray a couple of pumps of the Feliway onto a washcloth. Gently wipe your adult cat down with this cloth. Then take the same cloth, spray a little more Feliway on it and gently wipe down the kitten. This does two things: it will help the cats relax a little, from breathing in the the pheromones, and it will make both cats smell similar to each other.
Now you can open the door and allow the cats to see and smell each other through the baby gate or cardboard barrier. Stay there. If either of the cats gets really upset, you can close the door and try again in a little while. If things go well, you can let them chat at each other for a few minutes. Then close the door and give them a break.
Each time you start a session, wipe them both down with a Feliway cloth. Do this barrier greeting at least 3 times over the course of a morning or afternoon. If things seem to be going well, you can try removing the gate and letting them meet face to face. Just be ready to step in if things escalate!
Once they have met successfully without the barrier in place, remove your adult cat from the area and let the kitten explore on their own. Once your kitten is comfortable, you can wipe them both down with Feliway one more time and let them meet in the house.
This initial introduction period could take a couple of days in some cases, although it may also only take a few sessions, depending on your cats. The goal isn’t to have them become best friends, not yet! You just want to allow your adult cat to get use to the whole idea and the smell of the kitten, and accept it without trying to attack the new one.
It’s ok if they are still hissing at each other a bit, as long as they are not trying to fight. If they do, separate them and take them back to the first steps of the introduction.
Once they are tolerating each other without fighting, you can release the kitten from confinement. Leave the kitten’s litter box in that room for a few days, and then gradually relocate it to its normal home. Move the Feliway diffuser to the litter box room as well.
Until you are sure that the cats have accepted each other, don’t put the litter boxes too close together. You don’t want either cat to avoid using it, so make sure they have some space to feel safe while eliminating.
That’s it! Follow these instructions and you should be off to a great start as a multiple cat family!
Kitten-Cat Introduction Summary:
- Use Feliway or other pheromone products to reduce tensions and make the cats smell similar to each other.
- Use a baby gate or other divider for the first few meetings, so they can see and smell each other but can’t directly interact.
- Let them meet several times over the course of several hours before trying a face-to-face meeting.
- Once they are meeting each other and not trying to fight, you can let the kitten out of confinement and introduce them to the full household.
Introducing a Dog Sibling
The good news is that introducing you kitten to a dog is a lot easier than doing the cat introductions! For this article, I am starting with the assumption that your dog has lived with cats before.
If not, you will likely have to do some training with your dog, and use baby gates to help you enforce the kitten’s private space. You can still use these introduction steps, but I recommend having your dog leashed and that you have another person there to help you.
Once your kitten has had their initial confinement period, remove the dog(s) from the house and let the kitten explore, as I describe above. Once they have gotten their bearings in the house, set up the baby gate in the confinement room doorway, wipe the kitten down with Feliway (you can wipe your dog’s face as well, just so the dog smells familiar to the kitten. It won’t have any effect on your dog, however). Place the kitten back in the confinement room and then bring your dog to the doorway. Let the kitten see and smell the dog through the barrier.
If the kitten is really scared, keep this first one short and then close the door and allow the kitten to relax. Just as with the cat introductions, try it again in a couple of hours. Do this barrier greeting as many times as necessary until they are meeting without too much drama. How you take things from here will depend on your household.
Some people keep using baby gates to give their cats a dog-free space in the house to call their own. You can opt to leave the gate up on the confinement area and leave the door open, so the kitten can come and go as they please over the gate. You could place the gate up in your living room temporarily, just to allow the kitten to explore the rest of the house without running into your dog.
Some cats take a lot of time to get comfortable around dogs, so it’s ok if your kitten isn’t terribly thrilled to meet your dog even after these introductions. The main point of all this work was to show the kitten that the dog is part of the family and that it won’t hurt them. Friendship can take as much time as it takes. Your cat and dog will likely sort this out on their own in the weeks and months ahead.
Your kitten should always be able to get away from the dog, however. I recommend using a baby gate for a few weeks at least to give them an area they feel totally safe and secure in, and to keep the dog away from their litter box. But if that isn’t possible for your household, don’t worry. Your kitten and dog will learn to live with each other.
Kitten-Dog Introduction Summary:
- Use Feliway or other feline pheromone product to reduce your kitten’s stress and ease the introduction.
- Use a baby gate or other divider for the first several meetings, so they can see and smell each other but can’t directly interact.
- Continue to allow them to meet through the baby gate until your kitten is no longer frightened by seeing the dog. It’s ok if the kitten is hissing a little, but if the kitten is terrified, give them more time to adjust.
- When you end the confinement will depend on how you decide to keep using the baby gate, or not. The kitten can come out as long as they have a safe spot away from the dog to retreat to.
How to feed your kitten
If you brought home some food with your kitten, it is best to keep them on this diet for a week or so before changing things up. Changing their food too quickly could cause the kitten to refuse to eat, or upset their stomach. It is best to make this kind of change slowly after your kitten has settled into their new home.
If you have to make a change in diet, plan for it to take 5 to 7 days to transition your kitten over to the new food. Start by giving them mostly their usual food with a bit of the new food in it. Each day, give them a little more of the new food and a little less of the old, until they are eating the new diet exclusively.
If you make an abrupt change in diet, expect your kitten to have some diarrhea. Keep an eye on this and if it continues for more than a few days take the kitten to the vet for an exam.
If your kitten refuses to eat for longer than a day, please take them to the vet ASAP. It is very dangerous for a cat to refuse to eat, and it could be a sign that they are sick.
The first thing you will have to decide is whether you are going to feed your kitten a few meals a day, or just leave food down all the time. Free feeding, where you always keep a bowl of food out, is a popular way to feed cats. It’s easy. All you have to do is keep the bowl full.
The problem with free feeding is that while it is easy, it is less than ideal for your cat’s health. Many vets advise against free feeding. Free feeding makes it hard to monitor how much your cat is eating. If your cat stops eating, you may not notice right away. If you use a feeder, the food in the feeder can become stale or ridden with storage mites, and your cat may refuse to eat the remaining kibble.
If you have more than one cat, free feeding often leads to one of the cats eating more than the other. It is normal for cats to guard their food resources, so even when two cats get along it is common for one of them to be a bit of a food bully.
Also, free feeding is a frequent contributor to feline obesity. It is very hard to get a free fed cat to lose weight! It is much easier to prevent your cat from becoming overweight than it is to get them to lose weight, no matter how they are fed.
I recommend against free feeding. Once your cat is use to the never-ending bowl of food being present at all times, it can be hard to change them over to meal times. If your cat ever develops a health problem that requires special food (such as urinary or kidney problems), you may have no choice but to switch them to meal times later in life. Also, if you ever need to give your cat medicine, it is much easier to give it in food than to give it to them directly by mouth.
There is another reason why I’m not a fan of free feeding cats. Feeding your cat is a great way to cement their bond with you. Being the twice-a-day provider of food gives your cat a reason to pay attention to you!
Is this a little manipulative? Yes, but it is no more manipulative than using your dog’s inborn pack mentality to train them to listen to you. Feeding your kitten is a great way to bond with them and to teach them that good things come from human association!
If your kitten in under 6 month in age, you should be using a diet especially formulated for kittens. Once they are older than 6 months, an adult cat or all-life-stages diet is perfect. Feeding a kitten diet for too long could lead to them becoming overweight.
For meal times, start by feeding your kitten two to three meals a day (for kittens under 16 weeks). The amount of food you feed will depend on the diet; read the instructions on the package and follow their guidelines. Most cats do very well being fed two meals a day. It is amazing how they always know when it is time for breakfast and dinner!
Wet, Dry or Both?
What is better, canned wet food or dry kibble?
This is one of those contentious questions, and there is no “right” answer that veterinarians agree on. Some vets avoid this question entirely and say to feed whatever is easier for your family, or whatever the cat prefers.
Most cat specialists now believe that wet food is better for cats than dry kibble. Many years ago it was believed that wet food was bad for cats, especially for their teeth, but research has shown otherwise. Cats don’t chew their kibble anyway (at most they break it up a little and swallow the bits), so eating kibble doesn’t lead to better dental health.
Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning that they must eat a diet primarily of meat. Cats can’t survive on a diet that doesn’t have enough meat in it, and should never be fed a vegetarian diet (yes, these exist). While cats can handle having some carbohydrates in their food, they don’t require carbohydrates in their diet.
Kibble, by its very nature, is packed with carbohydrates that cats don’t need. While feeding kibble is the easiest way to feed a cat from the human perspective (and allows free feeding), it is probably not the healthiest choice for your cat. Obesity, urinary issues and diabetes are commonly seen medical problems in kibble-fed cats.
Another problem with feeding kibble is the issue of hydration. Cats are desert animals and have a low thirst drive, which means that they don’t seek out water to drink until they are partially dehydrated. Their kidneys are designed to reduce water loss, so cats produce a much more concentrated urine than dogs or humans. In the wild, cats get almost all of their water needs met directly through their diet, and only rarely bother to drink it.
Cats have evolved as predators, and it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the perfect food for a kitten, nutritionally, is the mouse. While wet food doesn’t have the exact same nutritional profile as mice, it is a lot closer to their ideal than kibble is.
Wet food is higher in protein and lower in carbs than kibble, and the moisture content is better suited to the cat’s needs. Wet food is also more filling, so your cat feels satisfied after eating it and is less likely to overeat.
Some cat specialists believe that a lifetime of chronic dehydration is one reason so many senior cats develop kidney disease. Even though a kibble-eating cat will drink water, they rarely drink enough because of their low thirst drive. You can use an electronic water fountain to encourage your kitten to drink more, but it is still better if they can get most of their water needs met through their diet.
Unfortunately, many cats prefer kibble, just as many teenagers prefer chips and soda to brussel sprouts. If your kitten is one of these, you can use kibble as a treat and can keep trying to get them to eat wet food. Eventually, if they are not given the option of filling up on kibble, most cats will learn to accept wet food even if it isn’t their preference. Often putting a little kibble on a scoop of wet food will get them started.
Indoor or Outdoor Cat – Which Will You Choose?
Of all of the issues that come with having a kitten, none is more fraught than the question of whether they will be an indoor or an outdoor cat. Granted, these days most cats that go outside still spend quite a bit of time inside with their families. Most of us don’t have cats that only live outside, unless they are barn cats or are feral.
Still, whether you allow your kitten to go outside or not is a significant decision. There are benefits to allowing your cat to explore the neighborhood. Outdoor cats get more exercise than indoor cats, and many cats really enjoy being outside once they are familiar with their territory. Some people believe that outdoor cats have a richer life, since they can hunt and explore to their heart’s content.
Without question, however, being on their own outside also leads to problems for cats. Outdoor cats disappear. They get hit by cars. They get attacked and even eaten by other animals. They can be mistaken for strays and adopted by families that don’t know they have a home. Sometimes they are even hurt or killed by other people. Being an outdoor cat is dangerous.
An outdoor cat will likely have higher veterinary bills. They are more likely to pick up parasites and diseases from other animals. They often come home with injuries from fights with other cats. Outdoor cats can be poisoned by eating things like toxic rodent bait or antifreeze.
Outdoor cats also take a terrible toll on wildlife. While no one minds if a cat hunts some mice, outdoor cats are also avid hunters of small songbirds. They are implicated in the extinction of 33 species of birds, and have a direct impact on the populations of wild birds all over the world. If you consider yourself an environmentalist, then having an indoor-only cat will fit this philosophy.
If you opt to allow your kitten to go outside, be sure to get pet insurance and keep them up-to-date on all of their vaccines and parasite preventives. Don’t start letting your kitten explore outside until they are fully vaccinated, and have been surgically altered! Then accept that something might happen them. One day your outdoor cat may not come home.
Your kitten can have a rich and full life living indoors, if you spend time with them and provide them with an interesting environment. Cat trees and widow perches, a rotating selection of toys and lots of human attention will provide your kitten with everything they need for a happy life! There are also ways your cat can safely spend time outside, if you believe they need it.
Walking on a Harness
While we tend to think of dogs when we think of taking walks with a pet, you can train your cat to walk outside using a harness! Some cats pick this up easily, using a food reward and some patience. You can allow your cat to wander in the bushes or backyard safely if you use a harness and leash and hang out with them. I’ve even seen cats who enjoy hiking with their owners!
Catios, or enclosed cat patios, are very trendy these days. They are secure and safe outdoor enclosures that allow your kitty to be outside but prevents them from getting into trouble. Some catios are attached directly to the house, so the cat can come and go as they please. You can buy one, or even build one especially for your kitten!
A cat that has access to a catio should still be treated like an outdoor cat for vaccines and parasite prevention, since they can still be exposed to other animals through the sides of the enclosure. But the catio will prevent your cat from being hit by a car or from getting into a fight with a neighbor cat. This is a great compromise if you want your cat to enjoy the outdoors but worry about keeping them safe!
How To Train a Kitten
Cats are unique creatures. As mentioned above, cats don’t acknowledge social hierarchy and do not have any inbred motivation to please their human companions. The kind of training tricks that work wonders for dogs don’t usually work on cats, and even when they work in the short term it doesn’t usually last very long.
I’ve already mentioned that the carrot-and-stick approach to training we often use with dogs is a very bad idea with cats. You want to avoid using harsh or very negative corrections on your kitten. While they might work in the moment, you are shooting yourself in the foot when you use them.
Here is the reason why using squirt bottles to spray your cat with water (or yelling) when they misbehave is counter-productive:
When you break out the water bottle and squirt your kitten the first time they jump on the kitchen counter, they will probably jump down and run away. Why? You startled them by doing something unexpected. They ran away because they were scared. The next time they see the water bottle they will run again- not because they understand that they shouldn’t be on the counter, but because they are frightened.
You are teaching your kitten that humans do unexpected, scary things to them. You are teaching your kitten to fear you and mistrust you! This hurts the bond you are forming with your kitten. Worse, it doesn’t even teach them to not go on the counter! At most, it teaches your cat to avoid being on the counter in your presence, when you have a water bottle handy.
So, how do you get your cat to do what you want, and how do you prevent them from doing the things you don’t?
First, your cat is never going to do things just because that’s how you want it done. They are not going to stop a behavior that brings them a reward, no matter how you respond. If you leave food on the counter, they are going to get on the counter and eat it. The behavior itself is rewarding them.
Reframe the question. Ask “How can I convince my cat to do what I want/not do what I don’t want” instead. This might seem like the same question, but the subtle difference is also the difference between training a dog vs training a cat!
The best way to train your cat is to convince them that doing what you want is rewarding. The best way to stop your cat from doing things you don’t like is to gently correct them and redirect them towards a rewarding behavior. This is what living happily with a cat is all about. If you can find the balance, you can have a mostly well behaved cat that loves and trusts you.
Absolutely use your voice! Your cat can learn that a stern “No” means to stop an activity. However, if you don’t then redirect them to the appropriate behavior, they will learn to ignore this command. And if you yell at them or make the correction too sharp, they are likely to learn to run away in fear instead of learning what they should be doing.
We tend to associate crate or carrier training with dogs, but it is an overlooked part of training in cats that can make a world of difference! The number one reason that many cats do not get their regular veterinary exams is because people dread having to get their cat in a carrier.
If the only time your cat ever sees the carrier is for their yearly vet visit, then it’s not very surprising that they learn to hide when the carrier comes out.
Instead, make the carrier or crate part of their daily life. If you use a hard carrier, take the door off, line it with a nice piece of fleece and put it in a spot your kitten spends a lot of time around. Toss in toys or treats every now and then. You can even feed your cat in the carrier. A few times a month, you can put them in, close the door and walk around the house for a few minutes and then let them out. The point is to make it a normal, not scary part of their lives. If nothing scary happens over and over, pretty soon being in the carrier is no big deal.
If you use the same words, like “get in,” while you toss in a toy or treats, over time your cat will learn to associate the words with the behavior. You might eventually be able to just say “get in” and they will, even if there is no toy or treat handy.
Make your cat’s carrier part of their everyday life, and you won’t have problems with getting them in it for veterinary visits. Also, if there is an emergency and you need to grab the cat and run, it will be much easier to manage if you have done this training!
Cats like to scratch things with their claws. It is part of their normal behavior. Cats scratch things to mark their territory, to exercise their retractable claws (like we flex our fingers), and they do it to stretch their muscles. They do it because it’s fun! Your cat will scratch things, and if you don’t provide things they are allowed to scratch they will use your furniture.
The mistake that many people make with cats is in not providing enough things for them to practice their scratching on. If you have a single cat tree in your house, located in an out-of-the-way spot, then your cat may very well test out their claws on your couch.
So how do you fix this? Start by NOT buying a cat tree for a new kitten. Instead, get a bunch of those cheap cardboard cat scratchers. Put one in every room your kitten spends time in. Get at least one that is upright (some cats prefer to scratch on upright surfaces, so give them that option too!). You can show your kitten that this is where they should scratch by scratching it yourself. Chances are, your kitten will join you in the game!
The next time your kitten starts to scratch your furniture (or carpet etc), tell them “No” in a stern voice. Use this command in a stern voice any time you want them to stop doing something, and they will learn to pause and look at you. Get up and go to your kitten, and gently remove their claws from your furniture. Take them to the nearest cardboard scratcher, and gently put them down on it. Scratch the cardboard scratcher with your fingernails until they join you! Then praise them, and give them a few moments of attention.
Be patient. You will probably have to redirect the kitten many times, in many rooms, until they reliably use the cardboard scratchers instead of your furniture. Once you have a good sense of the kinds of things your kitten prefers to scratch, you can get a cat tree or other cat furniture that meets their preferences.
Replace the worn cardboard scratchers as needed, and chances are your kitten will keep using them over your furniture or carpets.
We’ve already covered what not to do, so how do you teach your kitten to stay off the kitchen counters? This is a tough one. The answer is that most cats learn not to get on the counters when humans are around…but all bets are off when you are away. I thought my cats were well trained, until I set up a remote camera and caught two of them up there exploring when I was out!
First, convince your cat to stay off the counter by making it boring. The best thing you can do is make it a point of not leaving rewards out for your cat to find. If they get nothing out of exploring the counter, eventually they won’t do it very often.
So avoid leaving food out, and don’t leave dirty dishes where your kitten can lick them clean. Keep the counter clear, keep the cabinets closed (or use pet locks so they can’t be opened by a cat), and wipe it down to remove the smell of food.
When you see your kitten jump up on the counter, tell them “No” and gently pick them up and put them on the floor. Grab a treat or a toy and toss it on the floor near them.
You can also try and train them to get down on command by tossing a toy or treat on the floor and telling them to “Get off the counter” as you point at the toy/treat. Hopefully they jump down on their own to investigate.
Do this consistently, and between keeping the counter clean (and unrewarding) and teaching them to get off the counter on command you should have the situation under control!
Luckily, even very young kittens naturally use a litter box without much effort by humans to train them. Sometimes you do have to show them how to cover their messes, but they usually pick this up as they mature. Most cats are very good about using their litter boxes unless they have a medical issue. If your cat suddenly stops using the box, get them checked out by a vet!
There are still a few things you can do to encourage your kitten to use the litter box and avoid having a future issues. While they are still young (under 16 weeks), make sure that they are always close to their litter box. If you have a multiple story house, give them a box on each level to use. That way there is less chance of them needing it and being too far away. This is helpful for older, senior cats as well.
Scoop the box at least once a day, and become familiar with their eliminations. Gross, but knowing how much they usually urinate and defecate will make it easy to spot sudden changes (like they are producing a lot more urine than normal).
Avoid covered litter boxes unless you are very diligent about scooping! Many cats dislike using a covered litter box, because it traps the smells and can be uncomfortable to use as the kitten grows larger. Covered boxes are easy to ignore, and if you forget to scoop it for a few days your cat may just decide to use a corner in your laundry area instead of stepping in their own mess in the box!
Multiple Cat Households
How many litter boxes do you need? If you have multiple cats, then the general rule of thumb is to provide one litter box per cat, plus one. So, for a three cat household, ideally you should have 4 litter boxes. If you can’t fit that many in, then provide as many as you can and be diligent in keeping them scooped. Some cats do not like to share boxes, so keeping them clean is half the battle.
Don’t put all of the litter boxes in the same area, if you don’t have to. Cats feel vulnerable when they are eliminating, and you don’t want a dominant cat to block the litter boxes or bother a shyer cat when they are going to the bathroom. Ideally, you should have the boxes in two different locations to prevent this kind of problem.
Grooming and Nail Trims
You should start teaching your kitten about grooming and nail trims right after they settle into their new home. If you have never done nail trims before, get your veterinarian to demonstrate the technique for you!
Since kittens have very sharp little claws, you will want to take off the tips about once a week for the first few months. The goal isn’t to get the nails short, it is just to remove the sharp tips. This is a quick nail trim and you shouldn’t be at risk of accidentally cutting them too short (they may bleed if you hit the living center of the nail, called the quick).
Doing a kitten nail trim can be a challenge! I usually try when the kitten is sleepy. Just slip up to them, gently push the claw out and snip the tip. If your kitten wakes up and wants to play (or fight), then stop the nail trim and hit the next nail another time. It’s ok if you can only do one or two at a time at first. Over time, it will get easier. Don’t make it a battle. Always end the nail trim with a fun activity, to reinforce the positive with your kitten.
For grooming, get a brush that is soft and doesn’t have any sharp points. The traditional cat slicker isn’t ideal for kittens because those sharp metal spikes can hurt their delicate kitten skin. Hold out the brush and let your kitten smell it. They may start to rub their face on it, and that’s good! Now try brushing them.
They may start to play; that’s ok! Brush as you can and let them play a little. If they get too into playing (or try and fight the brush) then stop brushing and grab a toy to play with. Over time, they will learn that the brush feels good, and they will stop trying to play with it. If you don’t force the issue and just keep showing them that brushing feels nice, they will learn to enjoy being groomed without fighting you.
While your kitten probably learned about bite inhibition from their mother and littermates, you will still have to teach your kitten that human skin is even more delicate than kitten skin!
Cats often bite when they are playing, and sometimes kittens take this to a new level. If your kitten is in wild-mode, keep your hands clear! Grab a toy and let them whale on that instead of your arm. Avoid playing directly with your kitten when they are in this kind of mood, and use a toy instead. That way you avoid the likelihood of them hurting you by accident when they are just acting like a crazy kitten.
If you are playing with your kitten and they suddenly bite you hard, say “Ouch” in a stern voice and then say “Gentle.” If they try to bite hard again, say “Ouch, No” in a stern voice, remove your hand and walk away.
That’s it! Avoid putting your kitten on the spot by keeping your flesh free of their teeth and claws when they feel like having a full battle, and then warn and walk away from them if they bite too hard while playing. Your kitten will learn that they have to play gently with you, or you won’t play with them. Your kitten can still be crazy and have fun kitten battles! They will learn to use toys for this instead of your hand.v
Training a Kitten Summary:
- Use your voice to gently correct your kitten when they do something they shouldn’t. A stern “No” followed by a redirection and positive reward goes a long way.
- Use positive methods like treats, toys and attention to encourage and reward correct behaviors.
- Avoid using negative corrections like yelling, squirt bottles or physical punishment- these will teach your kitten to fear you.
- Teach your kitten that a carrier is a nice place to relax in. Make it a part of their normal daily life.
- Keep the kitchen counters clean and unrewarding, so your kitten won’t want to get up and investigate them.
- Give your kitten many options for exercising their claws, throughout your home and not just in a single room.
- Don’t set your kitten up for failure- If they are in a wild mood, keep your flesh clear and use a toy instead.
- If your kitten bites too hard and doesn’t listen to the stern correction, tell them “No” and walk away.
I hope this article has given you all the information you need to choose and raise a kitten with confidence! Kittens are a tremendous amount of fun, and taking the time to interact and bond with them will bring a lifetime of joy to your family. If you treat your kitten with respect and give them room to act like a cat, you will develop a solid relationship with them based on trust and mutual affection. Avoid using harsh or physical corrections and instead use positive reinforcement to encourage your kitten to behave in a manner that suits your household. If you do this, you will likely have a loving companion for years to come!