Understanding Your Kitten

July 5, 2013

Bringing a new kitten home is always an exciting time. We gain so much enjoyment from our new companions. While we have previously blogged about kitten healthcare, we often gloss over the importance of your kitten’s behavioral development.  Understanding why your kitten has certain behaviors will help you provide an environment for him or her that is both safe and enjoyable and will also help to prevent unwanted behaviors from developing. Just like babies and children, kittens go through several stages of development. Over the first few months of life, kittens will transition from being primarily dependent on mom for food, grooming, and protection to exploring their environment, sampling foods, and learning to hunt. Some of the most common normal behaviors we see that we may interpret as negative are:

Kittens and cats scratch for two main reasons: 1) to sharpen their claws and remove loose bits of nail and 2) to distribute their scent or ‘mark’ their territory. Providing an acceptable place for your kitten to scratch is critical. Experiment with both vertical and horizontal scratching posts as well as those with different materials to find one your kitten will like. Posts with toys on the end or a ledge for treats will also encourage your kitten to use it.

Cats in the wild will often climb trees to get a better view of their surroundings and avoid predators.  Kittens will also often begin to explore the house by climbing whatever they can: curtains, couches, etc. Again, this is to gain a better view of their surroundings, but also very young kittens don’t jump well so they often reach elevated areas by climbing. Providing cat trees, posts, and window perches will give your kitten acceptable items to use for climbing and playing.

While kittens learn a lot of hunting behavior from mom, some of it is instinctual. Kittens will often stalk moving objects (feathers, feet, hands) and will pounce, attempt to bite or kick (‘kill’) the object once it is ‘caught.’ While this is often harmless for us with kittens, adult cats that are not trained to not attack hands or feet can become a danger. It is alright to encourage hunting behavior, but always direct it to inanimate objects: feather toys, moving toys, crinkle toys, or stuffed animals.

Food Exploration
Just like children, kittens will also put many items in their mouths during exploration. It is important to keep small objects away to avoid choking hazards. String toys also can be extremely dangerous if ingested so they should not be left unattended. Remove any toys that your cat begins to chew a piece off of/destroy so they won’t ingest pieces. Offering your kitten to a variety of foods in different locations will encourage appropriate food exploration. We recommend canned or freeze-dried/flash frozen raw diets because they most closely resemble a cat’s natural diet.

Litter Box Habits
Kittens also learn appropriate places to urinate and defecate by exploring their environment. It is normal for kittens to scratch around/explore litter before they decide to use it. It is innate for kittens to cover their urine, but they learn to cover their feces from their mom. This is why some adult cats do not cover their feces-they never learned how! In the wild, cats will use separate areas, often with different types of ground (grass vs. dirt vs. sand) for urinating and defecating. For this reason, we recommend providing at least two boxes for your kitten, in separate locations, in quiet, less-traveled areas. For multi-cat households, more litter boxes may be needed as it is not natural for cats to share areas where they eliminate in nature. Try a variety of litters, but avoid those that are scented or heavily fragranced.

Providing an environment that allows your kitten to safely explore while encouraging its natural behavioral development will help prevent unwanted behaviors in the future. Please also see our Environmental Enrichment handout for more ideas!