Best Care For a New Kitten

There are different, important components to the best care for your new pet. Here's how to build a healthy foundation.

It is well known that few can resist the winsome charm of the teeny, tiny kitten. He is loving, playful, downright adorable and a wonderful companion. I remember, as a child, bringing home two beautiful kittens. They were brother and sister, and I was ecstatic that our paths had crossed … after all, I had plenty of love for both of them!


My dad, however, took a more realistic approach to the situation: “Twice the food, twice the litter, twice the vet bills,” was what he was thinking. Fortunately, he is a patient man and understood my need to bestow mammoth amounts of love on those two little kittens. He knew that bringing home a new pet required a balance of love and responsibility.

While the love part is a no-brainer, the responsibility can sometimes come as a surprise. In addition to choosing high-quality food, litter and toys, a new owner must take a proactive role in the kittens health. That is, in the first year, a veterinarian will examine the kitten a number of times in order to identify and treat or prevent any potential health or behavioral problems. According to Susan Farmer, DVM, a Cornell graduate and owner of the Bath Veterinary Hospital in Bath, New York, “The first year of kitten ownership, from a veterinary standpoint, is a busy one.” Dr. Farmer adds that it is helpful to bring any record of prior vaccinations or parasite treatments to the first visit. There is not a set list of medications and vaccines that every kitten should receive; each kitten is different, so owners should consult with their personal veterinarian before deciding what is appropriate and what may not be. But keeping your kitten healthy isnt just about vaccines and medicine.

Its Never Too Early to Start

According to James Richards, DVM, director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, an effective feline wellness program for cats of all ages consists of six components: infectious disease control, diagnostic testing, behavioral counseling, nutritional counseling, oral health management and training for at-home care. “Each kitten visit may be slightly different, but all of these components should be considered every time,” notes Dr. Richards.

The first visit is very important: “Generally, we like to schedule the first kitten visit very soon after the owner purchases or obtains the animal usually at six to eight weeks of age to do a thorough physical exam and make sure that there arent any health problems,” says Dr. Farmer. And, adds Dr. Richards, “I advise that a new kitty be kept separate from any other cats in the household until the veterinarian gives it a clean bill of health. We certainly dont want to introduce any diseases the kitten might be carrying to the rest of the cats.”

The infectious disease control component includes treatment for internal and external parasites, and vaccination. According to Dr. Farmer, the first treatment for parasites should be administered at this time, regardless of the results of the fecal test: “Not all intestinal parasite infections will show up in the typical fecal flotations that are run in veterinary hospitals.” The physical examination will also reveal the presence of fleas and earmites, which can then be treated. Perhaps one of the most important aspects to be addressed in the first visit is which vaccines should be administered and how often. While a whole host of vaccines is available for cats (currently there exist vaccines for ten different infections), it is essential to create a well thought-out vaccine regimen to optimize the benefits of vaccination while minimizing the risks. According to the 2006 American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) Feline Vaccine Advisory Panel Report (viewable on the AAFP Web site at, vaccines can be separated into three groups: core vaccines, non-core vaccines and not generally recommended vaccines. Listed as “core” vaccines are those that protect against feline panleukopenia (also known as feline distemper, an often fatal disease that causes diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration); disease caused by feline herpesvirus (a highly contagious virus that causes sneezing, discharge from the eyes and nose, and corneal ulcers); disease caused by feline calicivirus (which causes signs similar to feline herpesvirus); and rabies (a viral disease that causes temperament changes, inability to swallow, convulsions and death; rabies is transmittable to other animals including humans). Vaccines for the six other infections are listed as “non-core,” meaning that they may be recommended for cats at high risk of infection, or “not generally recommended.”

The diagnostic testing component of the kitten wellness program includes fecal examination, testing for feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) infection and, depending on the kittens background, screening for ringworm, a contagious fungal infection of the skin. “The goal is to detect infection and disease as early as we can, so that, if present, we can deal with it quickly,” says Richards.

The behavioral counseling component is one of the most important. Inappropriate behaviors, like urinating outside the litterbox or destructive scratching, are the most common reasons that people abandon their cats or surrender them to shelters. If inappropriate behavior can be dealt with as soon as it appears or better yet prevented from happening in the first place, a lifelong friendship can be fostered.

The goals of kitten nutritional counseling are to make sure that the proper diet is provided and to prevent obesity the most common nutritional disorder of cats today. According to Dr. Richards, “Obesity is a huge concern because its so common and creates real health risks. I like to start recording a kittens weight at that first visit, and I check it at every visit, regardless of age. That way, we can tell if the cat is tending toward obesity. We also like to discuss various methods of feeding and diet types, and make recommendations based on the individual cat and its home situation.”

Oral health management is geared to prevent or treat oral diseases like gingivitis and periodontal disease. Twice-yearly exams throughout a cats life will help pick up oral disease in the early stages, but the importance of regular tooth brushing cannot be overemphasized. Training your cat to accept toothbrushing is best started when its young. For additional instruction, see the Cornell Feline Health Center video on tooth brushing, viewable at

Training for at-home health care helps cat lovers prevent or discover disease. In addition to toothbrushing and nail trimming, owners can be trained to do “mini-physical exams” without the cat even knowing it. “During normal making nice to a cat, an owner can do a pretty thorough examination of the eyes, ears, skin and gums without the cat even knowing it,” says Dr. Richards. The goal is early detection of anything amiss.

Most veterinarians recommend that the kitten be spayed or neutered sometime between four and six months of age. According to the Humane Society of the United States, an estimated three-to-four million cats and dogs are euthanized in shelters yearly. Obviously, spaying or neutering is an important part of the owners responsibility. Dr. Farmer explains that it is prudent to have a healthy physical exam and run pre-anesthetic blood work before going ahead with spaying or neutering: “Its a good idea [to run pre-anesthetic blood work] even in kittens, because you can identify any potential concerns, and it is better to find out about them before an anesthetic episode.”

Once the initial flurry of visits is over, a healthy kitten should still visit the veterinarian twice a year, provided that there are no unexpected illnesses in the meantime. By taking these early preventative measures and paying close heed to the wellness program suggested by the veterinarian, owners can help ensure a long, happy life for their cats. v