A Message from the Vet - January 2014
Adopting a New Kitten

Adopting a new kitten can be a very exciting and rewarding experience. It's hard to resist those big ears and bright little eyes. Understanding cat behavior can be very challenging, but it is an important part of avoiding unwanted behaviors and making sure you and your kitty will have a lifetime of good memories.

First, cats can have very different personalities. They can be cool and laid back, or cautious and more reserved. These behaviors are a product of several different factors: genetics, maternal influence, and environmental factors. Unlike dogs, the period of socialization in cats begins early and spans only from 2-7 weeks of age. During this time it is important to make sure the kitten is exposed to and handled by as many humans and other kittens as possible. Gentle handling of the paws, ears, and nape of neck can reduce anxiety when handling your kitten in the future. Introducing your kitten to humans as well as other kittens or animals will help them be more confident when meeting new animals as well. While older kittens can learn appropriate social behavior, it is a much slower process after 7 weeks. If you are adding a kitten or another pet to your household, an early age introduction may be more likely to create a bond that will last for a long time.

Scratching is a natural behavior for cats and should be encouraged. Cats develop a preference for scratching certain objects early as well. You can avoid unwanted destructive behavior by offering an appropriate scratching post and encouraging its use with positive reinforcement like treats, catnip, or a favorite toy. When you observe your kitten scratching the post be sure to reward and reinforce this good behavior.

Positive reinforcement is a method of training in which you encourage a behavior by offering a reward in the form of food, a favorite toy, or even friendly petting. Training a cat is very similar to dog. To train the command "come" hold out a favorite treat and repeat the word "come". When the cat comes to you, reward them with the treat. You can also use this same method to encourage use of the scratching post. It is also important not use the same command to call a cat for punishment. This leads to fearful behavior and maybe even aggression.

Play aggression sounds harmless enough but can actually become quite severe with hard bites and deep scratches. Play aggression is a normal cat behavior but needs to be appropriate. This type of behavior can be very difficult to overcome and there is no easy fix. It is important to teach the kitten at an early age when and how to display this behavior. It should never be encouraged to play with human hands. Always use a toy that is on a wand or string. A laser pointer is also a fun tool, but you must be careful to avoid shining it into the eyes of your pet or other people in the area. Cats that have ample opportunity to explore and play tend to sleep better at night and are less likely to attack owners.

If you are having trouble with your feline companion, feel free to ask your veterinarian. They will help guide you through the appropriate steps to ensure you and your pet develop a healthy, lifelong relationship.

Candice Denham-Soquena, DVM

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Last updated 2014 May 10.