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Tips From a Vet: How to Keep Your New Kitten Healthy

A little cat is a big responsibility, so follow these steps for a good start on a long life.

 |  Sep 24th 2013  |   4 Contributions


Few things are cuter than kittens. And although cats and kittens have a reputation among some people (people who don't understand cats and kittens) as being "low maintenance pets," cats and kittens in fact have significant needs. Adopting a kitten is a big step, and owning a cat or a kitten is a significant responsibility if it is done correctly.

People with newly adopted kittens often ask me what they need to do to make sure their new pet starts off on the right foot. This article is designed to address that question.

Do your homework

Although most adopted kittens are not purebred, every kitten still has a history. The person adopting the kitten needs to know as much as possible about that history. Has the kitten been tested for leukemia and FIV/feline AIDS? What vaccines have been administered, when were they administered, and by whom? Has he or she been microchipped?

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

If you are adopting from an individual or a shelter you may be able to obtain significant information. That information will be useful to your vet. In other cases no information may be available -- in these cases vets usually recommend a specific protocol of treatments and testing.

If you are purchasing a purebred kitten, be sure to investigate the breeder. Check their references, and ask them what steps they are taking to ensure the health of their lines. Good breeders will be happy to participate in these steps -- they have nothing to hide.

Form a relationship with the vet sooner rather than later

Even if your kitten isn't immediately due for any shots or treatments, I recommend that he or she receive a check-up at your earliest convenience. This will allow you to establish a relationship with the vet, and it will allow your vet to confirm that an appropriate vaccination and deworming schedule has been set. You can also discuss microchipping your kitten as a means to help return him to you if he becomes lost. Finally, the vet can answer any additional questions you have about raising your new pet.

Vaccinate your kitten

It's easy if your cat is a kitten, but how do you tell her age when she's grown? Kitten gets a vaccination by Shutterstock.

Just last week I wrote an article discussing one of the risks of vaccination in cats: injection site sarcomas. Although injection site sarcomas are horrible things, it is important to keep perspective. Kittens are at significant risk of infectious disease; in particular, panelukopenia (also known as feline distemper or feline parvovirus) is a catastrophic disease, which is common in unvaccinated kittens and has an astronomical fatality rate. Panleukopenia is easily preventable with a vaccine -- the so-called FVRCP. It is important for kittens to receive this vaccine; the risk of panleukopenia is far graver than the risk of injection site sarcomas in young individuals.

Other vaccines can be considered optional in many circumstances. Leukemia vaccines are recommended only for kittens who will be going outside, or who have a high chance of escaping into the outdoors in the future. Rabies vaccines are required by law in some jurisdictions; in others, they are administered at the discretion of the owner.

Treat your kitten for internal parasites

Most kittens are born of stray mothers. Stray cats have high rates of worm infestation. Roundworms can be passed from mother to kittens through the milk. Therefore, most kittens will have worms at the time they are adopted. Roundworms can cause diarrhea and stunt growth. They also can spread from cats to people -- children and people with compromised immune systems are at greatest risk, and they can suffer from serious illness if infected. New kittens should be routinely dewormed to protect both pet and family.

Other intestinal parasites, such as coccidia, also are common in kittens. Your vet will likely recommend stool testing to assess for them.

Heartworm disease is an increasingly prevalent problem in cats. The American Heartworm Society recommends starting at-risk cats on a a heartworm preventative at eight weeks of age. Talk to your vet about your cat's heartworm risk.

Spay or neuter your kitten

Although the subject has become slightly controversial in cats (it is quite controversial in dogs), the overwhelming majority of cat owners elect to spay or neuter their pets. Unspayed female cats are amazingly good at getting pregnant. Intact males are generally fond of spraying urine in the house. As a result, most people don't find intact cats to be good pets.

Vet examines a kitten by Shutterstock.

The optimum time for the surgery can be debated; most vets recommend spaying females before their first heat (heats are insufferable for many owners, and allowing a heat to occur also leads to significant chance of pregnancy). There is some evidence that it may be beneficial to allow male cats to reach puberty before neutering them; however, the evidence is not conclusive. A good vet will be happy to discuss the pros and cons of the surgeries, and to discuss the best timing for your pet. You can also investigate the matter on your own; my recent article on the subject is a good place to start.

Determine when and whether to test for FIV and FeLV

Newly adopted kittens may have been exposed to feline leukemia (FeLV) and FIV/feline AIDs by their mothers before adoption. Unless you are adopting from a reputable breeder, there's a very good chance that your kitten's mother was a stray. The sort of stray cat who gets pregnant is also the sort of cat who is at increased risk of FeLV and FIV. Talk to your vet about testing for these viruses, especially if there are other cats in the house that could be exposed by the kitten.

Train your kitten

What's that you say? Kittens don't need to be trained? Hogwash. Kittens benefit from training, and so do their owners. Kittens that have been trained have better relationships with their owners and with other cats in the house.

Examples of kitten training include habituation to nail trimming and medication administration, appropriate direction of aggressive play and behavior, and behavioral modification to prevent undesired scratching of furniture. Don't forget that kittens are extremely food motivated, and that food can be used to encourage desired behaviors.

Enjoy your kitten

This is the most important thing of all. Your new kitten is waiting to make you happy. Be sure to enjoy him or her.

Read more about kittens:

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)

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