The addition of a kitten to the family can be a wonderful thing. They are certainly cute and cuddly, fun and rambunctious. However, adopting or rescuing a kitten brings with it a big responsibility to help ensure its health and well-being.
The first few weeks of a kitten’s life are very vulnerable ones. The mother protects and cares for just about all of his needs. The social interaction between littermates and their mothers is vital to their development. Because of this, removing a kitten too early from its mother (other than for health or safety issues) is not advised. Eight weeks is an acceptable time for kittens to leave the care of their mother.
All kittens should be tested for Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV). This can be done as early as six to eight weeks. Although FIV can be transmitted from mother to kitten, this is rare. Feline Leukemia Virus, on the other hand, can easily be spread from the mother’s saliva or even be transmitted in utero. Even though these viruses do pose a potential threat to your kitten/cat’s health, many cats can live long and healthy lives despite being infected. Care should also be taken when introducing these kitties into a home with other cats.
Intestinal parasites are extraordinarily common in kittens. Usurping nutrients, these invaders can stunt growth and cause illness. Roundworms and hookworm are most commonly passed to kittens from the mother during nursing. You most likely will not see these parasites in the feces unless an adult worm dies. Specific microscopic tests are needed to identify the eggs shed by these parasites. These parasites do pose a human health risk. Testing, deworming, and frequent (daily) litter box cleaning is key to eliminating risks for kittens and their human companions. Tapeworms (transferred through ingestion of fleas) and coccidia (protozoa parasite) can also be seen in young kittens.
It is important for kittens to receive immunizations. Like small children, young felines are particularly susceptible to a variety of infectious diseases. Vaccine protocols can vary from one animal hospital to another, but most kittens can be started on their inoculations as early as six weeks of age. Rabies, Feline Herpes Virus, Feline Distemper, Calicivirus, and Feline Leukemia Virus are some examples of common pathogens against which cats are vaccinated.
Believe it or not, in significant numbers fleas can cause life threatening blood loss in kittens. These ectoparasites can debilitate the young and fragile. Care should be taken when purchasing and administering flea preventative to your kitten. Many of the over the counter flea and tick products can have side effects associated with their use. It’s best to speak with your local veterinarian regarding the safest product that they sell which can readily be used on kittens. Long lasting topical products such as Frontline Plus or Tritak and Revolution are generally well tolerated.
Kittens should be encouraged to play and be handled frequently. This is important to their overall development and aids in their acceptance of being in the indoor environment of a human companion. Rough play exhibited by many kittens should be discouraged. Other avenues of play should be encouraged and explored to help avoid this behavior.
Neutering (male) and spaying (female) is recommended. Often kittens adopted from shelters are neutered or spayed as early as eight weeks of age. Kittens can become pregnant as early as four to six months old. This can certainly become a problem in multi-gendered litters. Aside from avoiding unwanted pregnancy, spaying female kittens before they go into their first heat cycle can greatly reduce the chance of developing certain kinds of mammary cancer in the future. Intact male cats have the tendency to mark the inside environment and show aggression toward other male cats. These males are much more likely to run away seeking females in heat, leaving them susceptible to outside environmental dangers such as catfights or vehicular trauma.
I hope these tips and reminders will better equip the new kitten owner, and help get these furry friends a head start on a happy and healthy life. – Peter Olson, DVM
Peter Olson, DVM, is a 2007 graduate of The Ohio State University School of Veterinary Medicine. He and his wife Beth share their home with two dogs, two cats, four turtles and a Russian Tortoise.