You've just brought home an adorable fluff ball! Welcome to the exciting world of kneading, meowing wake-up calls and cat videos. But before you get too cozy with your new kitten, make sure you've got the care basics--like food, litter training and vaccines--in order.
Food and Water
There are no hard-and-fast rules for feeding kittens; it's up to you and your vet to decide the right routine for your kitten. But any food you feed your kitten--wet or dry--should have a label with an AAFCO statement and be formulated for kittens, says Dr. Artem Cheprasov, an Illinois-based veterinarian. Kittens should eat more protein than carbohydrates and should avoid raw diets. Give your kitten access to plenty of clean, lukewarm water. And milk is a no-no; many cats develop digestive problems with milk after weaning.
Kittens do not respond well to punishment after they've done something wrong; they'll just associate those negative feelings with you. Instead, catch your kitten in the act to stop unsatisfactory behavior. Try using a spray bottle filled with water or a can filled with coins. When he jumps on the counter top or starts to nibble on your fingers, spray the water or shake the can. He will learn to associate the behavior with an unpleasant sensation and it should subside.
When getting litter boxes, Dr. Cheprasov recommends buying one for every cat in the house, plus one more. Opt for a larger litter box with a low entryway or ramp for kittens, placed in a quiet but accessible area of the house. Clean litter boxes at least once a day; cats don't like dirty areas, and would rather urinate on a clean carpet than in a messy litter box.
Playing is great exercise for kittens, so set aside 10 minutes twice a day to pounce around with yours. In the realm of toys, tried-and-true favorites include small balls with bells inside; lasers; cat nip mice; and anything with long, dangling feathers. You can also save money by looking around your house for sources of entertainment, such as cardboard boxes and ribbon. Carefully supervise a kitten who plays with any sort of string; swallowed string can cause serious health problems. If your kitten swallows string, never try to pull it out--head to the vet instead.
Just as you might have a sweet tooth, your kitten will certainly have a weakness for treats--but be mindful of how often you reward him with food. "Some kittens may avoid their own food in preference for treats and then you're in really big trouble," warns Dr. Cheprasov. Limit treat-giving to a few times a week, using treats as a reward for something special, like after playing a game or trimming your kitten's nails.
The longer your kitten's hair, the more grooming he'll need. Use a metal comb at least once a week, brushing in the direction his hair grows. Be patient; it may take a few short sessions before he gets used to grooming. To trim your kitten's nails, use a special nail trimmer for cats. Gently press the pad of the paw to extend the nail, then snip the point, avoiding the pink blood supply, called the quick. Reward your kitten with cuddles and a treat, and be aware that you might only be able to do a few nails per sitting.
Don't be alarmed if your kitten seems to sleep all day; cats are crepuscular creatures, which means that they are most active at dawn and dusk. Let your kitten set his own schedule when it comes to sleeping, but offer him comforts such as a soft pillow or--if you're really nice--your own bed.
Microchips and Tags
Take a walk around your neighborhood and chances are you'll see at least one "Lost Pet" flyer. Avoid the heartbreak of losing your kitten by making sure he is, at the minimum, sporting a collar and identification tag with at least one contact phone number and address. To further ensure your kitten will be returned to you should he escape, talk to your vet about a microchip. When a microchip is scanned, it provides contact information for an animal's owner. Since a microchip is placed underneath the skin, a particularly feisty kitten won't be able to remove it.
Trips to the Vet
Most kittens begin their core vaccines, such as for herpes, around 8 weeks of age. A common myth is that cats aren't susceptible to heartworms; this isn't the case. Talk to your vet about a prevention treatment for heartworm and fleas for your kitten. Healthy cats should receive routine vet checkups at least once a year, recommends Dr. Cheprasov. If your kitten shows signs of persistent vomiting or diarrhea, lethargy, constipation, or if he hasn't eaten or drank for more than 24 hours or urinated for more than 12 hours, don't hesitate to visit the vet.
A healthy kitten who is about two to three pounds can be spayed or neutered as early as 2-3 months, and the procedure should definitely take place no later than 6 months. Your vet will make the ultimate decision about when spaying/neutering should occur. If your kitten attacks his sutures after surgery, purchase a plastic cone (also called an Elizabethan collar) to prevent him from tearing them out.
Rachel Joy Horn is an associate product manager for Demand Media and a graduate of the University of Southern California.