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Top 5 Kitten Behavior Tips

Ellen M. Lindell, VMD, DACVB, Veterinary Behavior Consultations


|February 2016|Peer Reviewed

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Top 5 Kitten Behavior Tips

Without guidance to owners, kittens can become cats with behavior problems. Most owners do not communicate expectations to their kittens, so they can be surprised and distressed when kittens exhibit undesirable—yet normal—behaviors. Some simple interventions may prevent unwanted behaviors and assure kittens can grow into behaviorally healthy cats.

1. Offer Claw Counseling.

Many clients erroneously believe that property damage is inevitable as long as kittens have intact claws. Requests for elective or prophylactic declawing were once common, but it is the veterinary team’s responsibility to educate clients that declawing surgery is not necessarily standard; neither is it routine, nor should it be undertaken lightly.

Most unwanted destructive behaviors can be prevented with thoughtful management.

Most unwanted destructive behaviors can be prevented with thoughtful management. The main reasons for scratching surfaces are claw care and communication. Kittens need the opportunity to engage in these normal, species-typical behaviors. Appropriate scratching posts should be made readily available.

Scratching posts should be placed near favored resting places, as kittens often scratch after waking up from a nap. To facilitate the placement of communicative scratch marks on suitable surfaces, additional posts should be placed in prominent areas rather than corners.

Until a kitten’s preference can be determined, a variety of substrates should be provided. Commonly preferred materials include wood, corrugated cardboard, sisal, and loosely woven carpet. Vertical and horizontal posts should be offered.

Kittens need supervision until they can consistently select appropriate scratching surfaces.When supervision is not available, kittens should be confined in a cat-proofed area with scratching posts, toys, food, water, and litter box.

Mildly aversive deterrents (eg, double-sided tape) can be used to deter the kitten from scratching on valuable furniture or rugs, but an appropriate post should be placed in the immediate vicinity. Positive reinforcement delivered immediately after the kitten uses the post may strengthen preference for the appropriate surface. Owners should be advised to refrain from using punishment. Cats that are punished (eg, water spraying, verbal reprimand) may become fearful and reluctant to interact with owners.

To avoid incidental damage that can occur during climbing, cat trees and elevated walkways should be provided. Teach owners how to keep kitten claws trimmed or schedule regular trims at the practice. If unwanted destructive behavior occurs despite these preventive measures or if owners observe aggressive behavior in their kittens, a behavior consultation should be scheduled. In most cases, treatment will not require surgical intervention.

Related Article: Scratching Behavior in Cats

2. Prevent House Soiling.

House soiling can be a life-threatening, preventable condition, and it is the major behavioral reason that cats are surrendered to shelters. It is poorly tolerated, yet clients may not mention the behavior unless prompted. Be sure to inquire about litter box use during every appointment.

Provide owners with litter box guidelines:

  • Litter boxes must be appealing and accessible. Young kittens do not have a strong location or substrate preference and may not be motivated to search for a little box of sand in a large house. Place boxes in a convenient area on each floor.
  • Shy kittens may view dogs, other cats, and/or humans as barriers to the box. In addition, boxes should not be placed near noisy appliances or furnaces, any of which may deter the cat from using the box.
  • Litter boxes should be cleaned at least once daily. Many kittens will not use a soiled box and will search for a clean, absorbent surface. Comforters and piles of clothing are frequently targeted, as these substrates absorb urine. Empty bags or boxes are also popular targets.

If a kitten is already eliminating inappropriately, early intervention may be curative. First consider a medical cause, particularly if the frequency of urination or defecation is abnormal or if the kitten demonstrates diarrhea. In most cases, however, house soiling in kittens is related to an inadequacy in litter boxes.

Review hygiene, location, and substrate to address all inadequacies. Until litter boxes are used consistently, kittens should be supervised or restricted to a cat-proofed area with a litter box.

Related Article: Feline Housesoiling

3. Allot Enough Time to Assure Low-Stress Visits.

Young kittens are sensitive and primed to learn. Even 1 frightening encounter at the veterinary hospital can plant the seed for a lifetime of stressful veterinary visits for all parties involved.

Take time with new kittens, and make every effort to offer a positive experience. Use minimal restraint during the examination. Be prepared with treats, toys, and a towel. If a blood draw is needed, try using a 3-person team. One person can gently restrain the kitten in his or her lap using a towel wrap, another team member can distract the kitten with an interesting snack or toy, and the third team member can collect the sample. If the kitten is distressed during a noncritical procedure, reschedule when sedation would be safe and available.

Related Article: Managing Feline Aggression

4. Encourage Appropriate Socialization and Handling.

Even if owners do not bring their cats to other people’s homes or to cat-friendly public spaces, every cat will eventually encounter another human as well as likely share a home with another pet. Encourage clients to introduce their kittens to adults and children; if available, introduce kittens to cat-friendly dogs and healthy, social kittens and cats. If a cat is to be let outside for supervised play or leash walks, introduce it to a leash and collar.

Related Article: Socializing Kittens

The most sensitive period for feline socialization ends at about 7 weeks of age. Beyond that age, kittens may be less flexible; it is particularly important that all socialization experiences are done gently. Counsel clients that socialization should be fun, or at least neutral, and never scary. Kittens should interact eagerly, without hiding or hissing, and should not be overwhelmed.

While kittens are young and at their most adaptable, prepare them for future handling. Daily examinations can be practiced at home. Kittens can earn treats for cooperating with being touched, being gently bundled into a towel, having their claws clipped, and receiving medication.

Related Article: Techniques for Towel Restraint of Cats

Suggest keeping a carrier out and accessible at all times and invite clients to periodically hide toys and treats inside. To reduce future stress associated with veterinary visits, invite clients to bring their kittens to the practice for tabletop play. Weekly car trips that end at pleasant destinations should be encouraged as well.

5. Educate on Environmental Enrichment.

A rich environment is essential for healthy development. Increase the size of the indoor world with vertical spaces in the form of shelves, perches, and catwalks. If it can be arranged safely, provide an outdoor enclosure. Offer kittens an opportunity to hunt by hiding food and toys in tunnels and boxes. Portions of meals can be placed into food-filled toys.

Play is important for communication and bonding.

Play is important for communication and bonding. Even if there are other cats in the home, owners should play with the kitten daily. Discourage chasing or batting at hands and feet by redirecting kittens toward an appropriate interactive toy. Spraying kittens with water is not an appropriate remedy. Punishment elicits fear, can disrupt a kitten’s bond with the owner, and can potentially lead to aggressive behavior.

Reward-based training provides enrichment for kittens while strengthening the relationship between kittens and owners. Clicker training is enjoyable, and just a few minutes of daily training can improve communication and increase predictability.

All veterinary team members can get on board to help kittens develop into well-adjusted cats. Consider offering kitten socialization classes where tips can be shared and young patients can get off to a great start. 

Related Article: Environmental Enrichment for Cats

References and Author Information

For global readers, a calculator to convert laboratory values, dosages, and other measurements to SI units can be found here.

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