Catster Tips
Share this image

You Gotta Be Kitten Me: A Guide to Kitten Love and Care

These tiny cats have their own needs and attributes; here are 22 basics to help you.

Susan Logan McCracken  |  Sep 30th 2016


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.

They make us smile and laugh. They make us say “Aww!” But these babies have distinct needs and attributes. We’ll guide you through 22 of them.

1. They’re fragile

Newborn kittens are completely helpless and totally dependent on their mothers for nourishment, warmth, and elimination. If they’re orphaned, they need 24/7 care from a kind human. (If you find an orphaned kitten less than 5 weeks old, feed a kitten milk replacement formula.) They need to stay warm and eat every couple of hours around the clock.

tiny-kitten-bottle-fed.jpg

They even need help pottying. From birth to about 5 weeks old, kittens rely on their mothers to stimulate their genitalia so they can urinate and defecate. A foster parent can help with that by taking a warm, wet cotton ball and gently rubbing the kitten’s genitalia. Without this help, they could die.

2. They’re impressionable

During kittens’ first 12 weeks, they learn who’s safe and trustworthy, what’s good to eat, and where the bathroom is. To become socialized and friendly toward people, this is the time for loving humand hands to hold them, pet them, feed them, and, once they start playing, have fun with them.

3. They need their feline family

catster-kitten rescue-19

For about the first 12 weeks, kittens also become socialized toward other cats. They learn appropriate respect toward adult cats from their mothers and how to get along with their peers from their littermates. They learn things like where they stand in a hierarchy, to respect other cats’ territory, and how to fight fair.

4. They’re born with blue eyes

Curious brown tabby kitten

Kittens’ eyes start out blue because their melanin-producing cells haven’t started working yet. Curious kitten by Shutterstock

Their eyes open with a bluish hue at about 2 weeks of age, and some breeds — such as Siamese, Tonkinese, and Ragdoll — keep their blue eye color. You might see a range of colors during a kitten’s first year before her eyes change into their permanent color.

5. Their sense of smell is far superior to ours

Cats are equipped with an extra organ involved in their sense of smell. Located at the roof of their mouths, the vomeronasal organ enables cats to heighten the power of their sense of smell. By 4 weeks of age, this organ is fully developed. Kittens rely on their smelling acuity to find Mom because their sense of sight and hearing are not yet fully developed.

6. Their sense of hearing is one of the best on the planet

Little kitten with big ears snoozing on a radiator

Little kitten with big ears snoozing on a radiator. Photo: Shutterstock

Except for bats and moths, cats have the best hearing of all land animals. They are born deaf, but when their amazing sense of hearing is fully developed by 4 weeks of age, they can hear 65,000 cycles per second (or hertz), whereas we can only hear 20,000.

7. They see things differently

Kittens are born blind and don’t even open their eyes for their first week or two after birth. While their eyesight is undeveloped, they are adept at using their whiskers and sense of smell to get around. Fully developed by 5 weeks of age, their eyesight is different from ours. As nocturnal hunters, cats are designed to distinguish movement and perceive depth better than we can and see in light six times dimmer than we can. Yet they lack the ability to see the full spectrum of colors we see.

8. They need a growth diet

600px-american-curl-kitten-eating-canned-food.jpg

Photo by Shutterstock

Once the weaning process begins at about 5 weeks of age, kittens can eat wet or dry food. They might need to transition during this time with a mix of kitten formula and solid food. Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they get their nutrients from meat. Choose a kitten food that is a growth formula for about the first year.

9. They’re kneady

Kittens knead when they nurse to stimulate milk flow, but they still knead into adulthood. When a cat kneads you, she’s seeking comfort and chose you as a mother figure to provide it.

10. They’re not finicky — yet

This is the time to give them a variety of kitten foods so they don’t become picky eaters. If you ever have to switch their diets for health reasons, you want them to have an adaptable palate.

11. They’re easy to potty train

Your cat is telling you something with urine. (Photo by Gina Cioli/i-5 Studio.)

Photo by Gina Cioli / Lumina Media

Just plop them into a litter box, and they’re trained. It’s instinctual for cats to bury their waste in sand-like substrate. Many kittens will learn to use the litter box just by watching their mothers use it.

12. They need a clean bathroom

Clean the litter box at least once a day. If your kitten isn’t using it, experiment with litters until you find one she likes. Kittens usually prefer something soft and sand-like. If she eats the litter, use edible formula like corn or wheat.

13. They need a smaller litter box

Small gray kitten in plastic litter cat on floor by ShutterstockSmall gray kitten in plastic litter cat on floor by Shutterstock

Provide one with low sides so they can get in and out of it on their own. As they grow, they will need a litter box that is one-and-a-half times their length.

14. They’re easy to groom at this age

Cats have 26 baby teeth and 30 adult teeth. Photo CC-BY-SA Danielle Kellogg

Cats have 26 baby teeth and 30 adult teeth. Photo CC-BY-SA Danielle Kellogg

Handle their paws, and open their mouths to look at their teeth, because this will make nail trimming, pilling, and tooth brushing when they are adults easier.

15. Fleas are especially dangerous

Fleas can cause tapeworm and a host of diseases. In kittens, these parasites can cause anemia, which can be fatal. Improper use of flea-control products is also dangerous and sometimes fatal. Follow packaging directions on any topical treatments. Use a flea comb, bathe your kitten, and wash bedding. Vacuum around the house to battle an infestation. Involve your veterinarian for guidance.

16. They need to be saved from themselves

Curious kittens will explore anything they can get into. Look around your house for anything that can cause harm.

17. They need to scratch

Photo CC-BY Lindsey TurnerPhoto CC-BY Lindsey Turner

Get them acclimated to proper scratching surfaces like sisal and corrugated cardboard. It feels good and will make them less inclined to scratch your furniture.

18. They need to play politely

Kitten being played with using hands

Photo by Shutterstock

Redirect aggressive play with your hands or feet toward a toy, so they don’t get into the habit of biting and scratching people.

19. They need a safe room

Before bringing your kitten home, prepare a safe, enclosed space equipped with food and water dishes, litter box, scratching post, and bed. Let her stay in this room before opening up the rest of the house to her. A big, unexplored house can be overwhelming, and she’ll feel more comfortable getting to know a small space first.

20. They need to visit the vet

kitten-at-the-vet-183051761

Photo by Shutterstock

Take your kitten to the vet for vaccinations, deworming, and a health check. Talk to your vet about any issues, such as any coldlike symptoms and the best age
to spay/neuter. Your kitten’s first wellness check is essential.

21. They can become parents

Kittens can be spayed as early as 8 weeks, and they can go into heat and become pregnant by 5 months, so don’t procrastinate. Spaying/neutering will prevent unpleasant behaviors associated with a heat cycle, like urine marking and howling.

22. They mature rapidly

Kittens grow through infancy, childhood, adolescence, and into young adulthood in the first two years. By the age of 2, their eye color, coat color, pattern and length, and personality will be well-established.

About the author: Susan Logan-McCracken and her husband are brushing their two cats, Sophie and Maddie, more regularly now that they have found a brush that their kitties love. Their Southern California home has less cat hair floating around in it now.