You’ve brought home a new kitten, and you want it to grow into a loving, happy member of your family. But how do you ensure that happens? We asked Rolan Tripp, an affiliate professor of applied animal behavior at Colorado State University Veterinary School and the University of Wisconsin Veterinary Schools. Tripp and his wife, Susan Tripp, co-author a syndicated weekly column on pet behavior and maintain animalbehavior.net, a web site that provides pet behavior education and services.
Q: How old should a kitten be before it is handled regularly?
A: My rule of thumb is handling should be minimum during the first three days of life to allow the kitten to survive. After that, then handling the kitten on a daily basis is a good idea. Having the kittens bonding to human scent and human handling is very important, especially during weeks 3 through 7.
You’ve got this window for socialization. Up until 7 weeks is prime time. The secondary period is until 12 weeks and the tertiary period is until 6 months. During the first, second, or third choices, we should be doing everything we’re going to do with this cat in its lifetime. So if the cat will be going on trips, get it used to car rides from the time it’s a tiny kitten. If there will be lots of people coming and going, then expose the kitten to that during these periods. The same with anything you want your cat to be comfortable with later in life. This is your window of opportunity.
Q: Even though kittens need to be handled, can they be handled too much, especially by children? How can I tell if that has happened?
A: Yes, they can be dropped; they can be injured. Gentleness is the key. It’s not the duration of handling, it’s how they are handled. If children are not supervised, they may tend to be rougher than necessary.
So when looking at kittens, if one is huddled in the corner, you know that’s a problem. What we want is a cat that is not showing fear and is not hyperactive. We want a kitten that is seeking human companionship. An indicator of a well-socialized kitten is, pick it up and see how long it takes before the kitten starts purring, and how long it will purr before it wants to get down again and play. Any kitten that will take a break and purr for a while is a winner.
Q: What’s the best age to bring a kitten home?
A: The average age for people to get kittens is eight weeks. That age has its pros and cons. If the breeder knows what they are doing and the kittens are socialized correctly, that’s fine. But if the kittens don’t get that critical socialization by seven weeks of age, the brain starts shutting down. The kittens can still be socialized, but it will never be as good. So ask how much the kitten was handled before you got it.
Q: If I get two kittens, will they become too attached to each other and ignore me?
A: I recommend getting two kittens. Yes, they may be more focused on each other than on you, but they also can take their energy out - biting, scratching, fighting - on each other. Kittens have so much energy. If you don’t give them something to do, they’re going to find something to do.
But if you get two kittens, separate them for periods of time each day so they get used to it, especially for feeding and play sessions with you.
Q: Should I keep my kitten in a low-key, quiet environment for a while, or thrust them into our everyday life?
A: Initially it’s good to bring a new kitten into one room. Put their food in there, a scratching post, their bed and let them get used to that.
Then start introducing them to all the things that will be a part of their life. But you have to learn to read the cat. If you introduce your kitten to something and they are acting fearful - moving away from you and twitching, with tense muscle tone and hyper-alert, step back and take it slower. But if they are acting friendly and relaxed, you can keep going.
Q: Should I keep my kitten away from people, or let everyone who comes in handle them?
A: It’s good for a variety of people to handle a kitten, but it’s also important that all the interactions are gentle and positive during this formative time.
Q: At what age should I start introducing the kitten to my other pets, and how should I do that?
A: The best time is between 3-7 weeks. But if it’s later than that, it can still be done. One of the biggest mistakes people make is letting the dog meet the new kitten at the front door. That’s a horrible thing to do to the cat and the dog. The front door is the main spot where the dog defends their property. Instead, wait until both are relaxed, then, with the dog on a leash, rub the body of the kitten on the dog. What we want here is scent transfer. While you do this, give the dog treats. You want the dog to think good things happen when the kitten is around.
And do not let the dog chase the cat. That’s another big mistake people make. If the dog chases the cat, interrupt it every time. That’s very stressful to the cat and quickly establishes a bad pattern with the dog.
Introducing a new cat to the resident cat can be a bit harder. I recommend starting with feeding the cats on either side of a door. Make sure your cat is hungry, and throw some good treats in with the food. Again, we want the animal to think that good things happen when the kitten is around.
If there is hissing and growling, back the bowls up until it stops and then slowly move them closer each time you feed them. But if everyone is relaxed, you can proceed with introductions.
When you do finally get them together, have little pieces of turkey, chicken, hotdogs, or whatever they like and keep feeding them that.
Q: My kitten is biting and scratching! What can I do to make them stop?
A: Rough hand boxing with a cat is a recipe for an aggressive cat that will bite and scratch you and everyone else. Instead, train your kitten not to bite hard or scratch. There’s a concept called bite pressure inhibition training. The way it works is, when the kitten playfully grabs your hand and bites down on it, you yelp, cry, and stop playing. What I tell people is, think of the most pressure you’d want your cat to use on a 1-year-old baby and use that as your point of reference. So it’s not how hard you’ll let them bite you, but how hard would you let them bite a 1-year-old?
If every time your kitten bites down too hard you cry out and stop playing, they’ll quickly realize that continuing to play is the reward for controlling their biting and scratching.
Q: At what age should I take my kitten to the vet, and how can I make them like vet visits?
A: Kittens need to start their shots at about eight weeks. And it’s also good at this point to start getting them used to riding in the car. So take your cat to different places, and give it little treats just for getting in the carrier, for taking a short ride to the mailbox, for taking a little longer ride. Make it a pleasant experience. We want several trips that are positive before and after the one to the veterinarian’s office.
Q: Is play important in socializing my kitten?
A: Play is very important to socializing your kitten. You also want to do object play. The five games cats should be taught to play are mouse, bird, lizard, rabbit, and bug. Buy something that looks like a bird and pretend it’s a bird. Get a laser pointer and pretend it’s a bug. The mistake most people make is they buy these toys for play, but they don’t mimic the animal’s actions when playing.
And let the cat win sometimes. Take a treat and put it under the toy and let them pounce on it and eat it. It’s no fun to lose all the time.