Bringing up kitty
Special to the Tribune
Expected or unexpected, kittens are welcomed into many homes this time of year. As with all youngsters, there is a critical time to help a baby kitten develop into a social, well-adjusted member of the family. Contrary to popular stereotyping, the feline species is social. A cat may hunt alone, but it does seek affection and company from other cats and humans as well. A mutual bond must be established early.
Genes do affect a kitten’s temperament. Behaviorist Sandra McCune of Cambridge University discovered that, among other inherited traits, the father of the litter influences the friendliness of his offspring. However, friendliness can be nurtured in any cat with human attention from an early age. The period between two and seven weeks is the sensitive time to socialize a kitty. Nicole Cottam, behaviorist at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, suggests that age 2 weeks opens the door, because that’s when a kitten gains sight. Visual development leads to independence and exploration away from Mom.
Since most people choose kittens after they are weaned at seven weeks of age – the end of the sensitive period – it is important to observe how the prospective new family member interacts with humans at the home where she was born or how she acts in a shelter setting with or without litter mates present.
Observe and ask if the kitten is being handled gently and how often each day. Tufts’ recommendation is 15 to 45 minutes of human interaction daily. This promotes adjustment to people and things and lessens natural fear reactions to the unknown, such as another family pet in the new home. At the shelter or in a private home, handle the kitten and pet him or her in your lap. Look for enjoyment at your touch and general calmness. Have someone make a noise and watch for a reaction that indicates curiosity or wariness, but not extreme fear. Offer a treat to see if the kitten is relaxed enough to at least sniff or nibble.
Behaviorist Cottam identifies three adult cat types: alert, social, and calm. With time and attention, any kitten can develop into a cat with one or more of these traits and grow into a rewarding, loving and entertaining pet. Grooming your kitten helps you bond. Talk to your kitten and he or she will talk back with chirps or meows. If kitty had litter mates, she or he learned how to temper use of teeth and claws for acceptable play. If not, a human can signal that biting fingers and hands when petted is unacceptable by withdrawing attention or redirecting biting to a toy substitute.
Provide an enriched environment for your developing buddy with toys that are rotated at least once a week. Kittens get bored. Perches and tunnels offer not only a safe getaway but also self entertainment. Even an empty paper bag is an adventure for a creative cat. Ping pong balls make for a lively chase.
When you bring your new feline family member home, do not force interaction with other family pets, such as older cats or dogs. Give the kitten a safe place of his or her own for a few days. along with a litter box. The others will become familiar with the smell of the new arrival. With supervision, it won’t be long before the kitten is accepted. Do not allow children to be alone with a kitten. Inexperienced or kids age 6 and under do not understand how fragile the kitten is.
Remember that kittens need the extra nutrients in kitten food until they are about 9 months old. Shortly after bringing the kitten home, visit the veterinarian for a wellness exam and kitten vaccinations. Keep your kitten indoors for health and safety. To prevent cancers, spraying, roaming and surplus kittens, spay or neuter after four months. Note that litter and house buddies do mate with each other.
– Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and S.P.C.A. to help “Keep Tahoe Kind”. Dawn Armstrong is the executive director.