Thinking about adding a kitten to your family? As you welcome a new tiny fur-ball into your home, here are my top 10 recommendations to get kittens off to a great start.

1. Vaccinate. Healthy kittens need to be vaccinated against core pathogens. The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) recommends vaccinating all cats for feline panleukopenia, feline viral rhinotracheitis, feline calicivirus and rabies. AAFP also recommends that all kittens receive an initial feline leukemia vaccine series. If as adults, the kittens are indoors only and not exposed to other cats, they no longer need the leukemia vaccine.

2. Start parasite control. Preventing fleas, ticks, heartworms and intestinal worms are all part of a comprehensive parasite control program for cats. Even indoor-only cats are a risk for getting parasites. The American Heartworm Society recommends that all cats receive heartworm prevention every month of the year. Unlike dogs, there is no treatment for heartworm disease in cats making heartworm prevention all the more important. Heartworm preventatives are medications that require a prescription from a veterinarian and they cannot be bought at the pet store.

3. Test for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus. Feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) are retroviral infections that can be associated with anemia, cancer, secondary infections, chronic inflammatory conditions, ocular disorders and blood disorders. Cats that become infected with these diseases remain infected for life. Any new cat, kitten or adult entering a household should be tested immediately so their status is known.

4. Provide appropriate scratching surfaces. Scratching is a behavior that is natural for cats and allows them to shed old cuticle, sharpen their claws, leave scent marks and even stretch their muscles. Cats provided with appropriate scratching material are less likely to use furniture or carpets for scratching. Some cats prefer vertical scratching sites while others prefer horizontal surfaces.

There are numerous commercial cat scratching posts and mats available or you can make your own. Sisal rope or carpet are both ideal materials for a scratching post. The location of a scratching post is very important as cats use them to leave scents to mark their territory, and yes, that territory is your house. Place scratching posts in prominent common areas of the house. It is not recommended to declaw cats as it can lead to chronic pain in the feet and back and cause urinating or defecating outside the litterbox.

5. Socialize. A kitten’s key socialization window is shorter than a puppy’s and takes place from 3 weeks of age until around 9 weeks of age. During this time kittens are using their curiosity to learn about the world. Socialization starts in the shelter or with the breeder. Once in your home, it is important for kittens to explore new environments and meet lots of different people, healthy dogs and cats (or whatever animals they’ll be living with) in a positive way. They should also be exposed to new objects, vet visits, grooming and different sounds and really anything they may encounter later in life, again all in a positive way.

6. Crate train (free access). Instead of retrieving the carrier from the garage only when it is time for a road trip or vet visit, it should be left out at all times and should be encouraged to become a safe haven for the cat. The carrier should have the door open and be placed up on a bench or dresser, as cats prefer higher quarters. A favorite towel or blanket should be placed in the carrier along with toys and treats. Kittens are naturally curious and having the crate out and open from day one will allow the cat to accept the carrier as her own personal space, even if the carrier is being used to transport her to the vet.

7. Provide an attractive litterbox (or better yet, two). The average cat uses the litterbox 3-5 times a day and they need their toilet to be clean and suit their needs. Litter box hygiene is very important. Litterboxes should be scooped twice daily and thoroughly cleaned with soap and water several times a month. Litterboxes should be replaced every year since the porous plastic can absorb odors and bacteria that are impossible to get rid of.

The size of the box matters and bigger is generally better. The litterbox should be big enough for the cat to comfortably stand on all fours and turn around in. Most cats prefer uncovered litterboxes and fine-grained, unscented litter. When it comes to litterboxes, the real-estate saying “location, location, location” holds true. Litterboxes should be placed on every level of multi-level homes and away from any loud appliances or air ducts. Cats don’t like to eliminate where they eat and drink, so keep boxes away from food and water bowls. When it comes to the number of litterboxes, the standard recommendation is number of cats in the house plus one. Remember litterboxes placed next to each other count as one, not two.

8. Feed a high quality diet. Optimal nutrition can help a pet thrive. Pick a food from a reputable company and a diet that is right for your pet’s life stage. Kittens are in the growth stage. When searching for a pet food, look on the label for an Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) Nutritional Adequacy Statement saying that the diet contains all the nutrients in the right balance to meet a pet's nutritional needs during growth. Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they require some nutrients that are only found in meats. A cat food should have protein and fat that comes from a meat source. There are pros and cons to feeding dry and canned foods. In general, canned foods have a higher moisture content, more animal protein and fat and less carbohydrates than dry foods making them more ideal for cats. Talk to your vet about how to pick the best food for your cat.

9. Plan ahead for emergencies. Emergencies are unexpected, so it makes sense to be prepared. Does your vet see after hours emergencies? Do you know where the nearest emergency clinic is? It is also very important to think about the cost associated with emergency veterinary care. Emergency care can be expensive and being prepared financially can sometimes mean the difference between a good and a poor outcome. Think about getting pet insurance for your new kitten or keeping a line of credit in case of emergency.

10. Commit to wellness care. Cats need to have routine wellness exams, at least once yearly. They also need dental care including professional dental cleanings by the veterinarian once they build up tartar. For senior cats, annual wellness care may also include routine lab work such a chemistry panels, complete blood cell counts and urinalysis. Illnesses such as hyperthyroidism, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, chronic kidney disease and diabetes mellitus are common in older cats. Even though your cat is just a kitten now, it is wise to think about how you will provide for medical care for your cat down the road.

Dr. Randee Ardisana is a veterinarian at Stateline Hillcrest Animal Hospital, Danville.

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