Are you getting a new kitten or cat? If so, have you heard the expression “Do as I say, not as I do?”
I’m a veterinarian but also a prime example of what not to do when getting a cat or kitten.
What Not to Do
Take my very first cat, Skate, for instance. In my second week of work at my first job, Skate came into my life. The Dockyard Cat Rescue lady brought in this terrified scrap of a feral kitten, trapped that morning in a Portsmouth dockyard.
It was love at that first frightened “meow,” and we were destined to spend the next 16 years together.
But I was so ill-prepared for keeping a cat that I had to borrow a litter tray and a food bowl from the clinic and shoot off to the pet store during my lunch break.
This is a great example of what not to do. Never get a cat on impulse.1
Preventing Behavior Problems in a Kitten
You need to be responsible and plan ahead to meet all your pet’s needs.
Luckily, Skate turned out just fine. But this isn’t always the case.
Not getting things right can lead to bad behaviors such as toileting outside the box, scratching furniture or aggression toward other cats … whereas understanding your kitten’s needs and meeting them sets them up to become a well-adjusted, happy adult cat.
Which would you prefer? A furry tyrant or a snuggle-monkey?
OK, so you’ve bought into the idea of doing right by your kitten. Be wiser than I was all those years ago and try the following tips. What we’re going to do is try to put ourselves in the mind of your kitten.
Preventing Behavior Problems in a Kitten: Litter Box
House soiling is a big reason that cats end up at shelters, but no one sets out thinking it will happen to them. Dodge the bullet by doing things right.2
Here’s what goes through your cat’s mind when using the litter box:
- Where is the tray?
- Is it easy to get to?
- Am I safe when on the tray?
- Is it clean?
- Does it smell right?
- Does the litter feel right under my paws?
- Who else has used the tray?
For each one of the questions answered with a “No,” the risk of house soiling goes up.
Kittens have short memories. Help them remember the tray’s location by regularly placing them into the tray. Try to use the same litter that the rescue or breeder used. This helps the kitten or cat recognize it as their toilet.
Put the tray in a place the cat considers safe. A corner of a room is great — the kitten feels protected on 2 sides. However, avoid locations such as near the cat flap (another cat entering may startle them and put them off) or in a laundry room beside the washer (the noise may frighten the cat).
Cleanliness is important, so scoop daily at least. Also, wild cats like to pee and poop in different locations. So for truly happy toileting, give each cat 2 trays!
Then there’s the question of several cats sharing facilities. This is a no-no, since meeker cats worry about toileting where there’s a strong smell of a dominant cat. Stick to the golden formula: 1 tray per cat + 1 spare tray = 2 trays per cat.
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Preventing Behavior Problems in a Kitten: Clawing and Scratching
Cats don’t rip at the furniture to annoy you — they do it because of deep instinct to territory mark.
This is what goes through your cat’s mind when scratching:
- Do I get a really good stretch as I claw?
- Does this feel nice beneath the paw?
- Where’s the closest place to my bed?
- Where is a prominent place where other cats are going to see my mark?
Take this golden opportunity to direct your cat’s clawing behavior to scratch posts. In practical terms, this means giving thought to where you put the scratch posts, the orientation (flat or vertical) and what the posts are made from.
Also know that cats like to stretch and rake. They look for a solid object that isn’t going to move and feels nice beneath the paw. This is why sofas are such a favorite.3
To mimic this, anchor the post down so it doesn’t shift, even under a hearty claw. Cover the post in a substance the cat really likes. So if they favor the carpet, cover the post in carpeting.
Check out where the cat or kitten most likes to scratch:
- If it’s rugs and flooring, they’ll like a horizontal scratch pad.
- Door frames and sofas indicate a vertical scratcher.
Go with the flow and choose a scratch post that mimics this.
Also, place the scratch opportunities where the kitten wants to scratch. This is all about visibility and letting other cats know whose patch it is:
- Doorways (entrances and exits) and prominent places are a good choice.
- Cats also like to stretch their back with a scratch on waking, so place a post right next to their bed.
Preventing Behavior Problems in a Kitten: Playtime
Cats are hunters. That’s what all that kittenish pouncing and swatting is about.
A happy cat is one who gets to practice their hunting moves and has a chance to play.4
This is what your cat is thinking when it comes to play:
- Can I play with something in short bursts?
- Does the plaything flutter or scurry about like a bird or mouse?
- Is the plaything interesting enough to chase?
Play is part exercise and part mental stimulation. When you actively play with a kitten or cat, they burn mental energy.
To boost the burn, try using puzzle feeders. The cat has to bat and swat at the feeder or solve a puzzle to get the goodies, which mimics hunting behavior.
Know also that cats are sprinters, not marathon runners. They prefer to play in short bursts spread out over the day. Do this, and you go a long way to preventing the boredom that can lead to bad behavior.
Playing with your cat is fun. Plus, when your cat gets a chance to expend swiping energy on a toy in a playful way, they’re less likely to leap on your ankles or hands.
Preventing Behavior Problems in a Kitten: Perches and Walkways
A contented cat is one who is encouraged to behave like a cat.
What does this mean? Think of the stereotype of cat behavior: climbing a tree.
This ticks a lot of boxes in the feline mind. It involves climbing, then perching in a high place. Cats love watching things below them — they get a great view and feel safe at the same time.
When you copy this at home with kitty ladders and cat shelves, your cat is going to be super happy. If you don’t fancy constructing wall-mounted platforms yourself, then invest in a really tall cat tree. Better still, sit the tree beside a window so your cat can watch the birds in the trees and the clouds.
Another great plus is that perches and walkways allow cats to stay away from one another. Cats prefer to avoid conflict. If they don’t get on with all the cats in the house, then not confronting them goes a long way to keeping the peace.
This vet gives great tips when it comes to preventing bad behavior in kittens:
Building Self-Confidence to Prevent Bad Behavior in Kittens
Many a cat who hisses, spits and generally lashes out is misunderstood.
Yes, they are being aggressive, but deep inside they are fearful or anxious.
When pushed outside their comfort zone — say, by a toddler who corners the cat — their thoughts go something like this: “If I make myself look big by fluffing up my fur, perhaps they’ll go away. No? OK, I’ll up the ante and growl. No? OK, they’re trying to touch me, so a warning swipe across the hand should do the trick.”
Of course, it’s crucial to avoid cornering the cat and making them feel anxious. But you can help in other ways.
In the same way we socialize a puppy to different sights, sounds and smells, it helps to socialize a kitten. Simple things, like inviting a friend home to pet the kitten, can really help.
But a word of caution: Make sure the visitors know how to act around cats.
- Have them sit quietly on the floor and not make eye contact with the kitten (cats may find eye contact threatening). Entice the kitten closer with a treat, and then engage them in a game.
- Never force the kitten to be held or intimidate the kitten so they feel out of control. Doing this will have the opposite effect, so avoid it.
Oh yes, and on the subject of socialization, get the kitten used to a cat carrier from the get-go. Leave the carrier out with a comfy bed inside. Hide treats and toys in there so the youngster links the box to good things.
That way, when it comes time to visit the vet, they won’t be stressed out.
What became of Skate?
He started out an anxious, fearful kitten, but with a lot of patience and understanding, he grew into the most fabulous companion.
He was as loyal, loving and devoted a cat as you could wish for. When my husband, a member of the armed services, went to the Gulf War, it was Skate’s steady companionship that kept me sane.
Skate remained contented throughout the many changes in his life, despite an inauspicious start with his new human.
But you shouldn’t leave things to chance. As I said in the beginning of this article, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Start preventing behavior problems in your kitten today.
- “Selecting a Pet Cat.” American Veterinary Medical Association. https://www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/Selecting-a-Pet-Cat.aspx.
- “Common Cat Behavior Issues: Litter Box Problems.” American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/common-cat-behavior-issues/litter-box-problems.
- “Feline Behavior Problems: Destructive Behavior.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. March 2018. https://www2.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feline-behavior-problems-destructive-behavior.
- Horwitz, Debra, DVM, DACVB, and Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM. “Kitten Behavior and Training — Play and Investigative Behaviors.” VCA Hospitals. 2013. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/kitten-behavior-and-training-play-and-investigative-behaviors.