By Kate Hughes
One of the greatest days in a person’s life is the day they bring a tiny, adorable ball of kitteny fluff into their homes. While cats are a relatively easy pet to care for, it is imperative that owners have everything that Mittens needs to grow and thrive before bringing her through the front door.
If you’re new to cat ownership, you might not be sure where to start when preparing your home and life for a furry friend. Here’s a crash course.
When you introduce a kitten to his or her new home, it’s important to start small. “Find a space that’s somewhat out of the way and small enough to not be overwhelming,” says Dr. Carol Margolis, medical genetics resident at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia. “It could even be a small bathroom. All that matters is that it’s a room the kitten can consider her headquarters.”
Margolis adds that this space should be an out-of-the-way area that people aren’t frequenting. “If you end up bringing home a shy cat, you don’t want to be forcing interactions early on that could cause anxiety and make it hard for the cat to adjust to her new home.”
However, a new kitten doesn’t necessarily have to be confined to this space all day, every day. “You should be letting the kitten out of the room to explore the kitchen, living room, or other spaces in the new house,” says Dr. Ryane E. Englar, assistant professor and clinical education coordinator at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. “You just always want them to come back to that home base.”
This space will also be where you keep the kitten’s food, water, and litter box (more on those later). Ideally, this will be those items’ permanent home, but if you have to move them, just know your kitten will need lots of reminding that these items are no longer where they once were. “If you move your kitten’s litter box, you need to constantly—every 15 minutes to half hour—bring your kitten to the box’s new location to remind them where it is,” Englar explains. “Kittens are like little kids; they get excited and just want to keep wandering.”
Well, actually, it’s more like a warm and cozy place to sleep, as experienced cat owners know that most cats will ignore actual beds in favor of a blanket, towel, or even an empty cardboard box. “They decide what they want, not you,” Englar says, laughing. If you’re going with a blanket, Englar notes that cats prefer warmer sleeping environments than people, so pick something that retains heat well. “Also, you want a blanket that can be easily washed so you can stay on top of fur buildup,” she says.
If you choose the bed route, Englar explains that kittens tend to like round beds that they can curl up in or prop themselves up on the side. “You don’t need anything fancy,” she adds.
Both Englar and Margolis note that kittens should be fed kitten food, not food for full-grown adult cats. They also encourage owners to let their pets try a variety of foods when they’re small, which ensures the kitten understands that food comes in different forms. This might help later in the cat’s life if you have to switch their diet for health reasons. “If a cat only is ever fed one type of kibble in one size, it’s really hard to get them to try new foods later on,” Englar says. “Variety is a good thing.”
Also, allowing your kitten to try different foods will help you figure out which is his favorite. “Some cats prefer wet food, some prefer dry,” Margolis says. “If it’s wet food, they may prefer the pate or they may really like the kinds that more resemble actual meat. You won’t know unless you try.”
Most kittens will come to your home already litter trained, so ensuring they use their box is as simple as making one available. However, kittens may be too small to use the litter boxes you find in pet stores for adult cats. “You may have to start out using a cake pan, or trimming down the sides of a plastic box so that the kitten can easily get in and out,” Englar says.
You also want to be sure that you have enough litter boxes available if you have more than one cat. “I recommend having one litter box per cat, plus one spare,” Margolis says. “So if you have three cats, you’re going to want to have four litter boxes in your house. They don’t all have to be in the same place. In fact, having them around the house relieves some of the anxiety cats may have about hiding when doing their business, which is just part of their nature.”
Scratching is one of kittens’ basic instincts. They’re going to do it; you just want to be sure they’re doing it somewhere they’re supposed to. There may be some trial and error when finding Fluffy’s preferred scratching post material—some cats like twine, others like cardboard, and still others like carpet fabrics—but it’s definitely worth trying to find the right fit. “Just don’t get a scratching post with a similar fabric to your couch,” Englar says. “That will confuse them.”
Beyond simple soft stuffed toys, catnip mice, and the like, Margolis highly recommends having puzzle toys available for cats. These are toys that can be filled with treats or kibble and have to be batted around to make food come out. “Cats love to do two things: hide and hunt,” Margolis says. “Puzzle feeders help recreate the hunting they would be doing if they were living in the wild, where they had to work for their food.”
Puzzle toys can be bought in most pet stores, but Margolis says you can also make one yourself with an old butter tub or chip can. “Some of the ones from the store can dump food a little too quickly, so you can make ones that are more challenging at home.”
Both Englar and Margolis stress that new pet owners should avoid playing with kittens with just their bare hands. “Do not use your fingers as toys,” Englar cautions. “If they bite you as a kitten, it’s cute. But as they get older, they can really hurt you and become confused as to why you don’t play with them anymore.”
Margolis recommends using a stuffed animal if you want to rub your kitten’s belly and rile him up. “You can certainly play that way, but you want to do it with a toy that you are comfortable with them continuing to attack as they get older.”
Margolis recommends that new kitten owners do two things at the vet. First, get the kitten microchipped in case she ever escapes, and second, sign up for pet insurance. “In terms of microchipping, cats find ways to get outside. You should always chip your pets and be sure to fill out the paperwork so that when they’re found, the people know how to contact you.”
As for insurance, pet owners get the cheapest rates when they sign their cats up as kittens. “80 percent of our animals are healthy, but sometimes there are just unforeseen issues,” Margolis says. “Having insurance can really pay off in the long run.”