Cats and kittens - from a vet's perspective
In this article we answer some of the most common questions about looking after a new kitten.
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Are you thinking about getting a kitten, or are you about to welcome a new kitten into your family? In our article all about kittens you will find answers to the common questions that owners ask our vets, including information on:
- Flea treatment
- Litter training
- Pet insurance
Feline panleukopenia virus (also known as feline parvovirus or feline infectious enteritis) - a cause of severe vomiting and bloody diarrhoea (haemorrhagic gastroenteritis). Outbreaks of this virus are common and unfortunately a high proportion of affected cats can die.
Feline herpes virus and feline calicivirus - these two viruses together are the main causes of upper respiratory tract infections in cats (cat flu). As such, vaccines for feline herpes virus (FHV-1) and feline calicivirus (FCV) are always combined in the same injection. Affected cats typically show sneezing, nasal discharge, conjunctivitis, eye discharge, and mouth ulcers. Clinical signs vary from mild to extremely severe. Occasionally other complications may develop including pneumonia. With FHV-1, even after the initial signs subside, most cats will remain permanently infected with the virus and some go on to develop recurring eye infections or other signs.
Feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) - this is an important disease that can be spread through fighting, mutual grooming, and sharing of food/water bowls and litter trays. Kittens may acquire infections from their mum before birth. FeLV causes a wide variety of problems in persistently infected cats including immunosuppression, anaemia, and lymphoma (cancer of the white blood cells). Most persistently infected cats will die as a result of their infection. Vets recommend that all cats who go outside are vaccinated against FeLV as they may come across other cats of unknown vaccination or disease status, and are therefore at risk of being exposed to FeLV.
What vaccinations should a kitten normally have?
1) 1st vaccine from 9 weeks of age
2) 2nd vaccine from 12 weeks of age (there has to be 3 to 4 weeks between the 1st and 2nd vaccinations). Vets usually advise that kittens should not go outside until at least 7 days after their second vaccination. However, we do not recommend letting them outside until after they have been neutered.
3) Adult boosters are given yearly from their second vaccination.
When should I treat my kitten for fleas?
Kittens can be treated from around 0.5kg in weight or around 6 weeks of age or weaning. There are many flea and parasite control options, which are available from your veterinary clinic. Please check the manufacturer’s instructions for the particular flea treatment product that you are using. A cat-specific product must always be used for your cat. This is because dog products contain certain drugs that are highly toxic to cats and may cause seizures and death. 90% of fleas live in the environment, and not on your pet. A planned schedule of flea treatments is recommended because treating intermittently provides ideal conditions for the development of flea allergic skin disease in animals; in addition, it will not provide good flea control and makes a household infestation more likely.
When should I worm my kitten?
Roundworms are extremely common in kittens. Kittens can be infected through the mother’s milk so it should be assumed that all kittens are infected, therefore, worming should be started at a young age. We recommend treating your kitten for roundworms every 2 weeks, from 3 weeks of age until 12 weeks of age, and then monthly to 6 months of age. A regular worming program to suit your cat as an adult should then be discussed with your vet.
Tapeworms are only usually a problem in older cats, unless your kitten has fleas, which can transmit tapeworm larvae. We recommend treating adult cats (over the age of 6 months) every 1 to 3 months with a product that is effective against both tapeworms and roundworms. Ask your vet or make an appointment with one of the FirstVet vets to discuss worming your kitten or cat.
Should my kitten be neutered?
Traditionally male and female cats have been neutered at six months of age. However, cats reach sexual maturity before this age. Both male and female cats can scent mark with urine. Urine marking is most common in male cats and can be reduced by neutering. The urine may have a strong odour, which usually reduces after neutering. It may also stop them roaming in search of female cats in heat. Female cats come into heat every three weeks. Once in heat their cycle will last for five to ten days. They will typically become very vocal when in heat and the only way to prevent cycles is by neutering. Therefore, for social, health and population control reasons, it is now recommended neutering should routinely take place at around 4 months of age, or once your kitten reaches 2kg in weight. Your kitten can start to go outside once it has been fully vaccinated and neutered.
When can I microchip my kitten?
A microchip is a small electronic chip about the size of a grain of rice which contains a unique microchip number. It is inserted under the kitten’s skin by a vet, or other trained individual. Using a microchip reader, it can be read, identified and matched to the owner’s contact details, should the need arise. In kitten’s microchipping is often done whilst they are being neutered (under an anaesthetic) or receiving their vaccinations. The important part is to keep your details up to date on the registration database. For example, remember to change your details if you move house or change your phone number.
How should I feed my kitten?
The breeder or rescue charity should advise you about what they have been feeding your new kitten. It is recommended that you continue to feed them the same food when you first take them home. You can then slowly wean them onto a diet of your choice. Hills provide further advice on how to do this. Many pet food companies provide good quality complete food for your cat. Cats have unique and special dietary requirements. It is extremely difficult to provide a good balanced diet for cats with home-prepared foods. Feeding a good quality commercial cat food (tins, sachets or dry food) is therefore preferable. Dog food should never be fed to cats because it does not contain the essential nutrients that cats need. Apart from kittens, most cats have low levels of the enzyme lactase in their intestine and this enzyme is needed to digest milk. For this reason, consumption of ordinary cows milk, especially in high quantities, can often lead to diarrhoea so is not recommended.
Kittens that are 8 to 12 weeks of age should have four meals a day. Once they reach 3 months of age you can slowly reduce this to 3 meals a day. From 6 months of age you can reduce them to 2 meals a day. Under natural circumstances, cats hunt and consume their prey throughout the day, therefore, some domestic cats will prefer to ‘graze’ throughout the day. This can make it hard to control how much they eat so it is best to measure out their food each morning. You can then divide the food into several small meals and, especially if using dry food, these can be hidden in 'feeding puzzles' or hidden to provide your kitten with some interest and fun in tracking down and finding their food. This will also help to reduce the risk of obesity in your cat as it gets older. Here is some more information from The Blue Cross.
Cats prefer to eat from shallow bowls so that they can look around at the same time as eating, and so that their whiskers are not brushing against the sides of the bowl. It is also better to feed them from a glass or ceramic bowl, as plastic bowls can pick up odours and metal bowls can be noisy if they wear a collar/tag.
Cats often prefer rainwater or running water to drink. You can easily collect rainwater or provide a small water fountain in the house. Please wash their bowls and change their water frequently.
How should I look after my cat’s teeth?
Kittens lose their baby teeth between 3 and 6 months of age. Start by checking your kitten’s mouth each day. You can feed a small treat as a reward afterwards. This way, as your kitten grows up, it will get used to frequent dental checks. If you notice a fractured baby tooth or a baby tooth persists longer than normal, then these teeth are likely to need removing by your vet. Teeth brushing can help to prevent the build-up of plaque, periodontal disease and bad breath. Start to introduce tooth brushing slowly once all of their adult teeth have come through. Cat-friendly toothbrushes and specially-flavoured cat toothpaste are available from most pet shops.
How do I litter train my kitten?
Kittens and cats are very hygienic animals and can easily be trained. Basic advice is that you need to have more litter trays in the house than cats. Make sure that they are tucked away, out of sight as cats like to be private. Make sure that the tray is big enough for your kitten (and eventually your cat) to turn round in and use more than once without getting contaminated with their own waste, although some cats might still not use the litter tray again until it has been cleaned.
The Blue Cross offer excellent advice about how to start litter training your kitten and International Cat Care have an article explaining about the different cat litters, trays and how to clean them.
Should I get my kitten insured?
We recommend that you insure your kitten as soon as possible before they suffer from an illness or injury. There is no National Health Service (NHS) for pets. TV programmes rarely highlight the associated costs of treatment.
Pre-existing conditions are any illnesses or injuries that your kitten suffered from before you purchased an insurance policy. It is very unlikely that a pet insurance company will cover pre-existing conditions, and you will not be able to claim for them should they recur. So, the younger and healthier your kitten is when you insure it, the less likely it is to have any pre-existing conditions. It is also important to realise that if you have started claiming for or have run out of cover for a particular condition with one policy and decide to switch to a new policy (with the same or a different company), that condition is treated as pre-existing, and will be excluded on your new policy automatically.
Lastly, a few extra ideas:
- Kittens are very inquisitive. Let your kitten dictate the pace of the relationship and always let them make the first move.
- Don’t disturb your kitten when it is asleep or resting; respect their space.
- Ignore your kitten if it is perched on a high place, like a shelf or cupboard; this respects it’s desire at that time to watch without being seen.
- Less is more in the cat world; don’t overdo the stroking.
- Try not to stare at your kitten when it comes into the room - most kittens like to feel that they can move around without always being the centre of attention.
- Get them used to having tablets when they are young by placing a small piece of meat or cheese at the back of their mouth occasionally. If you have to give a tablet then follow it up with a small tasty piece of food to make sure they remember the nice taste. Here is some more advice on giving tablets to your cat.
- Make the cat basket a place of solitude and not a thing to be scared about when travelling or going to the vet. Spray the inside with Feliway or Zenifel (then wait a few minutes before putting the cat in the basket) and make sure that there is something inside the basket for the cat to sit on or even better hide under. Ideally leave it out somewhere in the house for them to use regularly.
Read more from The Blue Cross about owning a kitten or a cat.
The Kitten Checklist has been developed by a number of professional bodies, including vets. Download yours to get started!
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