Kitten care

Getting a kitten is a huge responsibility. A kitten relies on you for everything from food to parasite control and creating a happy environment. Most kittens won't be rehomed until they're around nine to 12 weeks of age. Read the advice below to find out at what age your kitten will need to be neutered, vaccinated etc.

At four to six weeks kittens are usually wormed as they can become infected with roundworms from their mother, through her milk. A liquid wormer safe for kittens should be used. It’s only necessary to treat for other parasites such as fleas and lice if any evidence of these is visible, such as black specks of flea dirt on the coat and bedding, or nits (lice egg cases) stuck to the hairs. Vet advice should be sought about any products that are used at this stage.

Many non-pedigree kittens will be settling into their new homes at around nine weeks of age and it’s time for a visit to the vet for a thorough health check. The vet will examine the skin, ears, mouth and anus, as well as listen to your kitten’s heart and lungs with a stethoscope. Make a note of any questions you may have as this is a great chance to get advice about the health and welfare of your new bundle of fluff.

Kittens are vulnerable to disease at this age as their immune systems have not yet matured and they are no longer protected from infection by antibodies from mum’s milk. It is usual for kittens to be vaccinated against feline enteritis, two forms of cat flu (calicivirus and herpesvirus), and feline leukaemia, but this may vary depending on local disease risks, type of vaccine, and lifestyle. It is advised that indoor cats should receive at least the initial course. Cats that are allowed outside will need annual booster injections. Vaccinations against other ‘agents’, such as Chlamydia (a cause of conjunctivitis) and Bordetella (that causes an infectious cough), are also available, but are not core vaccinations. 

Pedigree kittens will have usually completed a course of vaccinations before they leave their breeder, but it would still be a good idea for them to have a health check.

Although at 12 weeks, kittens are physically pretty much like ‘little adults’ they do have very special health needs. You’ll need to go back to the vets for the second part of the initial course of vaccinations. It’s also a good chance to deal with any non-urgent health issues that may have arisen since the previous visit.

Ask your vet how long you should keep your kitten indoors afterwards as it varies from one to two weeks depending on the vaccine used. (Mark a date in your diary now for the annual health check and booster vaccination in a year’s time!) 

If you plan to let your kitten out into your garden or outdoor run, he’s likely to be ready to head out at around 14 weeks (although it is advisable to wait until your kitten is neutered). Start a programme of regular flea control now. The most modern products combine effective flea control and worming in easy to use spot-ons from your vet. If you decide to buy over-the-counter products make sure they are suitable for kittens as some are too strong to use on kittens under six months of age. If your kitten arrived with ‘pests’ and they have already made themselves at home, you will also need to use a household insecticidal spray on carpets and furnishings.

Neutering, which can be carried out from 20 weeks, will prevent unwanted pregnancies and reduce antisocial behaviour. Womb infections and breast cancer are often seen in unneutered female cats. Males that roam over large distances to seek out females and to protect their territory, can be prone to recurrent abscesses from fight wounds, and picking up diseases. Neutered cats are proven to have a significantly longer life expectancy.

If you plan to travel with your pet in the future he will need to be microchipped and be given the rabies vaccine, which can also be done at this age. He’ll also need a blood test before a Pet Passport can be issued.

Feeding your kitten

When you first take a kitten home feed, feed him on the same food he's had at his previous home or rescue centre. A sudden change in diet, combined with the stress of settling into a new home, can cause stomach upsets.

Like babies, kittens need to be fed little and often (following the manufacturers' instructions). Choose a complete food that it made for kittens as it will have all the nutrients a growing kitten needs. Also, try to buy the best and most expensive food you can afford.

Kittens aged between eight to 12 weeks need to be fed four meals a day, three meals a day between three to six months and two meals a day from six months onwards. Once your cat reaches adulthood (around 12 months), it is then ok to gradually change to an adult food. Try and feed the adult version of the kitten food, as this will prevent stomach upsets often caused when a new food is introduced.

If you feed wet food, you may also want to feed dry food ad lib, but this of course depends on your kitten's preferences and your own lifestyle. Always make sure there is fresh drinking water available. Do not give your kitten cow's milk as this can cause stomach upsets - special kitten milks are available but kittens do not need this in their diet and won't miss it if they never have it!

Answers to some of the most common kitten dilemmas.

Q) My kitten refuses to toilet outside

Young cats often feel insecure if they have to toilet outside, particularly if there are a lot of other cats in the neighbourhood. All cats should have a litter tray indoors for times when it is very wet, very cold or when they are unwell. Otherwise there is a risk of them peeing in their choice of location in the house. A litter tray is a small price to pay for a clean home! Cats that feel secure in their neighbourhood will usually start toileting outside when they are fully grown — at around a year or 18 months old.

Cats that dislike other cats are usually frightened and may never feel safe peeing outside, particularly if the neighbourhood is swarming with aggressive cats. Do not leave your kitten outside all day if he is frightened of the neighbours’ cats. He will have nowhere to go to feel safe. Sometimes there are local despot cats that attack other cats. Installing a cat flap will mean he can come and go while you are at work. A microchip cat flap will ensure that no outside cats can get into your home. If, for some reason, you can’t have a cat flap, think about getting a cat kennel as your little cat needs somewhere safe and dry to shelter if you leave him out all day.

Q) My indoor kitten constantly claws and sucks my clothes

It could be to do with your kitten’s background, for example this is quite common among hand-reared kittens. Try to reduce your kitten’s need to indulge his habit by giving him lots of attention and mental stimulation in other ways. As he’s a young cat he’s likely to have a very high requirement for physical exercise. This can be a problem in indoor pets, so do ensure that you provide ample climbing frames, shelves at different heights, a stimulating range of toys that regularly change to prevent boredom, and plenty of interesting things to watch like mobiles, glitter balls or bird feeders.

Make sure you do not react to his habit because any response may well reward him, even if you mean it to be negative. Instead, give him attention by throwing toys, dangling fishing rod-style style toys or whirling a pen torch so that he can chase after the light. Encourage him to seek out treats or small handfuls of dry food in puzzle feeders, or scatter it about the house for him to find. 

Q) My kitten gets tummy upsets. Why? 

This is something that should be discussed with a vet, as it will depend on the underlying cause of the diarrhoea. Diarrhoea is common in kittens and most often it is a result of infectious agents or is diet related. The first thing your vet may wish to do after examining him (to ensure there is nothing else to be concerned about) is to collect a faecal sample for bacterial culture and to look for parasites. 

He or she may also recommend a particular worming treatment to exclude the possibility of gut parasites, and may suggest a trial therapy with a prescription diet formulated for intestinal disease. The likelihood is that it won’t be anything serious and will improve with time and dietary management, however it is important to have him checked by your vet and to follow his or her advice. 

Q) How can I make sure my kitten has the best diet? 

There are many choices to be made, taking into account the diet your kitten is currently on, his age, your plans for the future (will he or she be neutered, for example), your kitten’s health history and immune status, and whether he is in good or poor condition. Then there are your personal preferences to consider: do you want to feed wet or dry food, or a mixture of both? Do you want to feed a ‘natural’ type diet or a more scientific one, and do you want to feed twice daily, ad-lib or use some other routine?

Bear in mind it is sometimes worth experimenting to see what suits your kitten best — although it is advisable to introduce new foods gradually. You should feed kitten food until he’s around a year old, then switch to adult. If money is no object then feed a super-premium dry food — and if you want to add wet, consider the single-serve pouches as they are both convenient and tasty to cats. Try and match your wet and dry brands, as mixing can otherwise dilute the nutritional benefits of one food.

Q) What can I give my teething kitten? 

Stuff a leg from an old pair of tights with catnip to make a small pillow for your kittens to throw about, bite and practice their natural predatory skills. 

Q) Why does my kitten need vaccines and boosters?

Vaccines stimulate the production of antibodies and so protect against viral infection. Annual boosters are required to remind the body of its ability to respond in this way. The standard vaccinations are those against cat ‘flu and feline enteritis. The feline leukaemia (FeLV) vaccine is also recommended. 

Q) How can I stop my two kittens defecating on the carpet? 

You always need at least two, preferably three, litter trays when two cats are using them all the time (one each, plus one spare). They should be placed in private areas, which are not overlooked, so the kittens are not deterred from using them by people walking by. If your kittens are ready to go outside, why not encourage them to use the garden by providing a dedicated latrine area that’s sheltered against weather and hidden from other cats?