Cat Kitten Care - What you need to know about properly caring for a kitten

What is the most important thing to know about raising a healthy kitten?

That's a very broad question to answer. It's hard to pick just one. In other words, it's like raising a child. What's the most important thing to raising a child? How in the world can you give just one answer? But let's be honest. I mean, the bare essentials is what we're talking about. Good, well balanced nutrition, water, warmth or shelter, those are the basic essentials that I would begin to narrow down as far as importance goes, and we will cover some of the other things here in just a second.

Dr. Broussard
The Waggin' Train Veterinary Clinic

What are the right and wrong ways to pick up a kitten?

When I hear that question immediately my mind goes out to the reference of, can you scruff them like the mother does? Can you pick them up behind the neck? You can. Their mother does carry that way. I would not say that's the ideal way. When I pick them up, I cradle them much like if I were carrying a football. I just support their back. That's my biggest thing. I'm not a big fan of when people pick up an animal by the front legs because it allows all their body weight to just be dangling by the back. I don't like that. I suggest picking them up and supporting their entire body with your warm way.

How can I tell if my kitten is happy and healthy?

You can tell if a kitten is happy and healthy by their basic interaction. You can tell a lot about body language. Are they playful? Are their ears perked up? Is their tail flagging and excited to see you when you walk into a room? That's good body language. That's what I look for in an exam room. I don't always get it, but that's what I look for in an exam room. And so, if the opposite is true, if you're not seeing those kinds of friendly, healthy interactions and if their body language is just frumpy and depressed, that's a sign that they are trying to tell you something.

How should I feed my kitten?

With a bowl would be the first thing. But I would feed them several times in a day. Depending on the age of the kitten, we do take whatever food you're going to feed—dry or canned (it's your choice)—and break that total daily ration into multiple feedings throughout the day. Again, that depends on the age. With really young kittens, such as six, seven, eight weeks old, I would probably feed at least three times a day. Put the food down, let them eat their fill, and when they walk away, pick it up. And we'll see them again in another few hours to try it again. That is the way I recommend feeding. I am typically a fan of dry food because, overall, it's better for their teeth and I just feel their weight control and all that is a little easier to maintain. So that's how I feed my own and recommend it most of the time here.

What are some products I might need for my kitten?

My aforementioned bowl would be very helpful. A bed is not mandatory because they will find one, but if you want to get a spot where you can encourage to hang out in a place of your choosing. Good luck, you can try. I'm a big fan of cat trees, if you will. Cats like to be up high and they love to be by a window. Is it mandatory? Of course, it's not, no. But I'm trying to give them places that I want them to go and spend time. So I like the cat trees and I can put it by a nice sun-filled window, and that's where they like to spend their time. Again, it's not mandatory, but if you don't, they will probably choose the back of your sofa or things like that.

One of the pieces of equipment that I really, really like for an indoor cat is a scratching post. For the same reason as the beds, they're going to potentially scratch wherever they want to, but please try to give them a healthy outlet where they can do it there and everybody wins and is happy. Because if you don't, and they choose to scratch on your new leather sofa, that's not a good situation. So, as far as equipment, those are probably the three or four things that I think would be a must.

How soon should I bring my new kitten to see a veterinarian?

So most times kittens are obtained in the six to eight-week range. I think it's pretty important to get them checked out right in that window when you do first acquire them. If you went with a breeder, they will often offer health guarantees of 48 to 72 hours. But even without that guarantee and regardless of where you get the kitten, I think it's a wise idea to get them checked and do a full physical exam, check a stool sample for worms, and if they're old enough to maybe even look into vaccinations and heartworm preventatives.

What will a veterinarian look for during an initial kitten care visit?

We're looking for anything that's out of the ordinary, so it'll be a good, thorough physical exam. I specifically look for things like ear mites because they're very common in kittens. I look for intestinal worms, which are very common in kittens. I look for fleas, which are very common in kittens. Those are the three big ones but, again, it's hard to say those are the only three things because that's not true. We look for anything that's out of the ordinary, from the nose to the tail.

What are some early signs and symptoms of health issues in your kitten?

Depending on what system could be affected or what findings or abnormalities they may have, I would say some of the most common things are going to be diarrhea, lethargy, minimal appetite, poor hair coat, scratching excessively, and vomiting. Those kinds of things are some of the first signs. Discharge from the eyes is another big one that we see young kittens, along with respiratory infections, sneezing, and nasal discharge. You see them on cats of any age, but most commonly in kittens that have a very immature immune system.

Why is it important to avoid self diagnosing possible kitten health problems?

Let me not tiptoe around this one, so that you don't treat improperly. Because the internet is not a veterinarian, hence, you have no way to know who posted what and what their background is and what their level of knowledge is. It's very easy to put in a search term and find oodles of information, more than you could possibly want, about anything you put in. We all know that. It just gets dangerous.

The first example that comes to my mind is Tylenol. So many people say, "Oh, my cat's run a fever, I might give him Tylenol." If you do that, you likely will not have a cat anymore. It's that serious. Very few people know that, but it is quite literally that life and death serious. You wouldn't know that unless you've been properly trained. So, yeah, please don't turn to the internet. Just call your veterinarian. Even if it's a simple phone call with questions, start there please. At least go from a reputable source and see what recommendation they give you.

When should my kitten get vaccinations?

If you're going to do the first visit at my previous recommendation of six to eight weeks, that's when I start. Assuming the kitten has not had anything prior to that, that's when I'll begin. You don't know what kind of antibody protection they got from their mother when they were nursing, if they got any at all. You don't have a way to know that. So I typically start them pretty early at the first visit and then we will boost our vaccinations about every three to four weeks after that.

What do you need to know about kitten behavior?

It's just body language. We've all seen a kitten. You know what a healthy, fun, happy kitten looks like. They're bouncing all over the place, they're playing with anything that moves in front of them. The tail is flagging up. Their ears are perked up. Their eyes are wide and bright. Those are all signs of a very frisky, happy, healthy kitten. The opposite of all those things can be a red flag. So if you see any of those, including poor, sulky body language, droopy ears hanging low, eyes barely open, discharge from the eyes, discharge from the ear sometimes, tail hanging low, or any of those things, get them looked at, as it's better safe than sorry.

Kitten Care - FAQ

Dr. Broussard
The Waggin' Train Veterinary Clinic

What are the core vaccine requirements for kittens?

Core vaccines are the essential, don't-pass-on-these vaccines. And they include things such as rhinotracheitis, which is a herpes virus. There's calicivirus, feline leukemia is actually now considered a core vaccine, and rabies. So those are the big ones that, regardless of your cat's lifestyle such as whether they live indoors or outdoors.

What are non-core vaccines for kittens and why does my kitten need them?

Non-core vaccines are the opposite of what I just described. There are vaccines that may not be necessary in every cat and your cat may not need them if that's the case. So, first off, if you have an indoor cat, is he going to need things like FIV, feline immunodeficiency? Yeah, probably not. He has to get that through the bite wound of an infected cat. How's that going to happen if he lives indoors 24/7? So, that's a non-core vaccine.

Might it fit the lifestyle of a barn cat living out in the country who's with 20 other barn cats and likely to be getting into fights? Absolutely, it would be recommended there. So it depends on the cat's lifestyle. Other non-core vaccines are things like feline bordetella, calici, and chlamydia. Those are about the only three I can think of right now, but those are non-cores.

How soon should my kitten be vaccinated?

Typically at their first visit, depending on when that visit is. I typically recommend the first visit be at 6-8 weeks, which is usually right after the time of acquisition of the kitten. And then those vaccines are boostered approximately every 3-4 weeks after that until about 4 months of age.

Why does my cat need vaccines if they're only going to stay indoors?

Some are public health concerns. Rabies. I know that your cat is only going to get rabies by being exposed to a rabid animal. It's probably not going to happen indoors, but what happens if your window pops open, or your window is open and the screen pops out and your cat wants to take off? You can't afford to risk those types of things. A disease like rabies, for example, is a human threat. If, by some chance, your cat gets out, gets bitten by a rabid animal, and comes back home, they will likely act fine for quite a while. But then on about day 9 or 10, your cat is not acting quite so fine. You see where I'm going with that? There's no point in allowing that to even be a possibility.

So for certain public health concerns, there's that. And again, even other viruses that I didn't mention in that scenario could involve the same exact thing happening. Say your cat's indoors and you think to yourself, "Oh, I don't want to do feline leukemia." What happens if he gets out? What happens if it's a pretty fall day and there's another cat that comes nose to nose with him at the screen. They didn't even come into direct contact, but can it be transmitted that way? You bet it can. So that's the reason why it's still important.

Are there any risks or side effects associated with kitten vaccines?

There are always risks with vaccinations, let's be honest. I mean, you're putting a foreign substance into the body, whether it's human, dog, cat, any of those things. There can be allergic reactions to those ingredients. So yes, there always is that possibility. The way I look at things like this is, does the potential benefit outweigh the potential risk? And I'm a big vaccine guy, so I don't even have to think about it. I think that the benefit of those vaccines far, far, far outweighs the risk of a potential reaction or a side effect from those vaccines.

What if my kitten misses a vaccination?

It kind of depends on the age of the kitten, number one, as well as how long of a gap there is. So first off, what do I mean by the age of the kitten? I like all animals, dog or cat, to have at least 2 sets of vaccines after they are 10 weeks of age. I also said earlier that I like to vaccinate every 3-4 weeks. So what happens if one time you're late and you can't come in for six weeks? Not a problem. Get them in when you can. It just can't be any closer together than three weeks, as you won't get the right immunologic response.

Can my kitten go outside if not all vaccinations have been given yet?

It depends on where the cat lives and what vaccines they've had prior to that, and the age they are. So let's say your cat got vaccinated at 10 weeks and again at 14 weeks, and maybe your veterinarian wants to do one more at 18 weeks. You're close. Can that cat go outside? I'll answer it this way. I usually err on the side of caution, so I would rather that your cat not be exposed until I can be more certain and you can be certain that they are protected.

If in my previously mentioned scenario, would I expected them to contract something that they were vaccinated for? No, I would not expect, but vaccines are not 100% foolproof. So when in doubt, keep them indoors until they are fully vaccinated.

Why is it important to get my kitten vaccinated by a veterinarian?

The most truthful answer is people that don't handle vaccines for a living don't always know how you're supposed to handle a vaccine. The biggest example of this are feed stores—that's what we run into here. They deal with feed, with all due respect. They have a very important role, but their job is not to vaccinate animals. So when they get a shipment in, they don't know to look to see if that thing was stored below X degrees. The vaccines have to be refrigerated. They have to be stored under refrigeration without fail. Sometimes those things are not there when the vaccines are not from a veterinarian.

On the veterinary side, we are ordering from veterinary specific vendors that ship and package them properly. They arrive refrigerated and at the proper temperature, we immediately know how to handle those things. And if ever there's a situation where that shipping process was not satisfactory, we send it back and we get the right shipment to us. So there's no way to get around that. I would never imply that the vaccines from a feed store are ineffective. It's just, I personally want the reassurance and peace of mind to know that they were handled by animal healthcare professionals.

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