Dear Ms. Kitty,
We want to adopt a kitten, or a pair of kittens. We haven’t had a kitten in our family and I want to make sure we understand how to care for one before we make this decision. Can you give me some rules for raising a kitten to be a friendly, happy cat?
Ready for purrs
Thank you for taking this decision to adopt seriously! As their substitute cat mom, you will be teaching your kittens how to fit happily into the world of humans.
There are a lot of kitten myths that can be very harmful to your new baby. Fortunately, they’re easily busted so you can raise your lovable, playful kitten into your best feline friend.
Kittens: Myth vs. Truth
MYTH: Get kittens as young as possible so they’ll bond with you.
TRUTH: Kittens learn from their mom and littermates. If adopted before 2-3 months old, they miss very important lessons on how to “cat.” Also, kittens by themselves will be very lonely during the workday, which can lead to illness or unwanted behavior. Kittens grow up more confident, have better play skills and entertain themselves better if adopted in pairs.
MYTH: New kittens can go right into the middle of a household, even if it’s active and noisy.
TRUTH: A kitten who’s overwhelmed by a new environment may become fearful, shut down or defensive. A single loud noise can do a lot of damage, as kitten hearing is even more sensitive than puppies’. Create adaptable, confident kittens by introducing new sounds, sights, smells and other animals very gradually.
MYTH: If kittens do something wrong, they’re being spiteful and must be punished.
TRUTH: Kittens are very sensitive little beings with simple emotions. Even a harsh word can make some very afraid of people. Instead, use positive training and redirection to set them up for success. All cats love to be told when they do things right with a simple, “Good Kitty!”
MYTH: Kittens love to play with hands.
TRUTH: This one is true! However, this teaches kittens that hands (and possibly feet) are for attacking. That may be cute when they’re tiny but teach them to be aggressive adults later. Using cat toys will keep playtime fresh every day, teach them to be gentle…and save your fingers!
MYTH: Kittens are like stuffed animals you can do anything with.
TRUTH: If you repeatedly make your kittens cower, run, duck or stop playing, they may end up shut down or always hiding: the classic scaredy-cat. Pet gently and let them tell you they’re happy by leaning into your hand and rewarding you with a purr.
MYTH: Kittens can entertain themselves so you don’t have to.
TRUTH: Kittens not handled regularly may grow into cats who dislike petting or laptime. Kittens who are never played with become cats who don’t know how to play. The more you handle and play with your kittens–in ways the kittens enjoy–the more likely they’ll grow into affectionate, playful cats.
MYTH: Kittens know what’s good or bad for them.
TRUTH: Since insects are one of a cat’s primary foods, kittens are masters at finding small, dangerous things to chew on, like cords, plastic, rubber bands, toys and toxic plants. Think like a kitten to find and hide things that could harm them.
MYTH: Annoying behaviors will probably just go away.
TRUTH: Jumping on the counter, scratching the furniture or going outside the box can quickly become habits. Punishment can quickly ruin your kittens and make them afraid of you. Rewarding them with something they love—like treats or playtime—for what they do right teaches them good behaviors and redirects from behaviors you dislike.
MYTH: Cats hate having their nails trimmed or their coats brushed.
TRUTH: If you hurt your kittens with bad brushing or nail trimming techniques, you will teach them to be afraid of that. Good grooming and handling starts when they’re babies. Use positive reinforcement techniques to make this something your kittens (and cats) look forward to.
MYTH: All cats hate to go to the veterinarian.
TRUTH: For many cats, all it takes is one bad experience at the vet to be fearful for the rest of their lives. Feed treats in the carrier so it becomes a comforting place to be at home before you travel. Choose a vet who offers a quiet place to wait away from other animals and knows low-stress feline handling techniques to not frighten your kitten.
MYTH: It’s normal for kittens to sleep all day and play all night.
TRUTH: This is true too, but can set them up for you to be upset when those nocturnal feline rhythms kick in. Set up regular playtime during the day and right before bed to wear them out so they sleep when you do.
MYTH: Cats can’t learn their names or come when called, so don’t bother.
TRUTH: Kittens don’t learn their names if you don’t use them. All cats can be taught to come to their names by using the word consistently while petting, playing or giving treats. Cats who come when called are more likely to survive an emergency situation, like accidentally getting outside.
Sara Ferguson and Melissa Shandley are founders of Happy Cats Haven. Ask Ms Kitty is a free helpline offered by Happy Cats Haven and managed by Colorado CATS Boarding.
Thanks also to to Life After 50 for publishing our monthly Ask Ms Kitty column.