Your Kitten’s First Year

Photo by Visivasnc

Photo by Visivasnc.

‘Tis the time of year for families, celebrations and (maybe) a new kitten. Maybe it’s your first time with a new kitten, or maybe it’s been a decade (or several) since you’ve had a kitten. What do we expect for a kitten’s first year-growth, behavior, diet, vaccines, spay and neuter? Indoor or outdoor? What about flea control, litter boxes and all of that?

If you’ve never had a cat before, welcome to a decade or more of companionship with what may turn out to be the perfect pet. Cats are generally low maintenance, hardy, affectionate and (surprisingly) trainable. Getting off on the right foot from the beginning helps everyone.


Photo by Bryan Baughman.

The New Kitten’s Environment

We want to do our best to make a new kitten feel safe and secure, so confinement to one room at first is a good idea. Even better, provide a cat carrier that he or she will be using long-term, and this can become the “safe and happy place.”

The new kitten needs to be alone in the room—no other animals at first unless you adopted two of them together—with a blanket over the carrier to make it quieter and more secure. As the kitten becomes accustomed to the surroundings, make a gradual introduction to other pets over the next two or three weeks, but keep the covered carrier available for him or her to hide inside as the need arises.

If the incumbent cats really resent the new kitty, close him or her inside the carrier and bring it out to sit quietly in a living room for a few hours at a time each day. The adult cats can interact all they want, with the kitten safe in the security carrier. There will undoubtedly be some trading of insults, but this should decrease over time. As your kitten increases in confidence, it is important to expose him or her to other animals and people outside of his immediate environment.

Indoor or outdoor? Indoor is certainly much safer and usually easier to manage than indoor/outdoor. If the kitten is to be an indoor cat, it’s best that he or she is never allowed outside. As veterinarians, we know from experience the serious diseases and trauma that occur in outdoor cats. Once cats discover that there’s a big, wide world out there, it’s very difficult to keep them in. With environmental enrichment indoors, it’s quite possible to provide a good lifestyle for indoor cats, and minimize the chance of them picking up a disease or getting traumatized and even killed.

Do make sure kittens are microchipped for permanent identification and are fully vaccinated, whether they’re indoor or outdoor—even an indoor cat can accidentally get out and become lost. Also, bats and other stray animals sometimes get into houses, and they harbor serious diseases like rabies.

litter box

Photo by Sergey Khamidulin.

Equipment for the New Kitten

A cat carrier is essential, as well as a litter box. High-sided litter boxes with hoods or covers help minimize the cat litter that gets tracked out onto the floor. There are a number of automated litter boxes that drastically reduce the amount of work involved in keeping it clean—there’s even one that dumps waste into the toilet. (Note that a California Fish and Game Ordinance strongly discourages flushing solid cat waste down toilets.) Whichever kind of litter box you decide to use, it should be kept near the new kitten and cleaned daily.

After litter boxes, easily cleaned food and water dishes are just about all you’ll need. Kittens are quite happy with toys such as wads of paper and paper grocery bags, but certainly do provide fun playthings from pet-supply stores! Avoid fine strings or threads that can be chewed and swallowed. They can cause serious intestinal disease that requires emergency surgery and removal of damaged intestines.

kittens eating

Photo by Marie Sacha.

What to Feed a New Kitten

The higher-quality pet foods sold at pet stores and veterinary hospitals may cost a little more than the grocery-store brands, but the better-quality protein, vitamins, minerals and amino acids—including taurine—are important for growing kittens. Not only are the proper ingredients present but they are also present in the proper proportions.

Get your cat used to drinking water out of the bowl by changing the water several times per day to keep it fresh. Automatic water bowls are a good idea. A combination of dry and wet cat food works well, but if your cat is not a good drinker, the wet food would be better. There is even an effective food for the teeth called T/D to help minimize tartar buildup. You can find an in-depth discussion of nutrition in the Nutrition Advice section on our website.

Providing a bowl of dry kitten food for free feeding as they grow helps keep their blood sugar steady (especially with very young kittens.) Supplement this with several meals of canned food daily. This is very helpful for training kittens to come when called if you repeat the same call every time they’re fed.

What about alternative diets—vegetarian or raw? Vegetarian diets don’t work for cats since they’re obligate carnivores, meaning that they must eat meat to survive. They cannot make their own essential amino acids and must get them from animal-protein sources. Raw diets can be very tricky to balance appropriately, so doing it with the guidance of a veterinary nutritionist is recommended. Sources of bacterial contamination in raw diets can create salmonella carriers, a serious concern for households with young children or anyone with a compromised immune system.


Photo by Wavebreak Media Micro.

Health Care

A visit to your vet should be a priority within the first few days to have your new kitten looked over thoroughly and checked for any signs of disease. It’s not uncommon for young kittens to have parasitic, bacterial or viral infections, some of which may not be very apparent.

If not already performed, we recommend a feline leukemia/FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) test, to see if the kitten is carrying one of these serious feline viruses. A fecal test is recommended to check for worms. Your kitten will need to be dewormed one to three times and will need a set of three to four vaccines in a series, which will take place over several weeks.

This is the time to discuss when to spay (female) or neuter (male), usually between 4 and 6 months of age. At the Long Beach Animal Hospital, we perform our neuters with the laser, which means your cat is substantially more comfortable and pain free after the surgery. You can learn much more about these surgeries from the detailed information we have on our web site. Check here for spaying and here for neutering.

Ask your vet how to keep kitty’s ears clean, how to trim the claws and how to get him or her accustomed to having the feet, head and mouth handled.

Raise a bowl of catnip tea for a healthy, happy year for your new kitty, and for many years after!

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Kate Karp is the Pets Columnist for the Long Beach Post covering the world of animal activism, pet adoptions and lots of cute cats. She’s called Long Beach home since 1994 and has written for the Post for about 10 years. Kate’s day job is as a copyeditor, which she discovered a love for during her 30-year tenure as a teacher. She describes the job as “like taking the rough edges off a beautiful sculpture.”