What is the most important thing to know about raising a healthy kitten?

When you first get it, you have to decide whether it's going to be an inside kitten or outside kitten or both because that is going to dictate what vaccines you're actually going to give to your cat. Other just things to consider for overall health and well-being is nutrition because food is medicine. Every day, you're going to give it food, so you want to make sure that they get the best food they possibly can to improve the quality of the cat's life. Those are the two first two things that come to mind—deciding if it's going to be inside or outside because that determines the vaccines and daily nutrition.

Dr. Bob Parrish
Carolina Value Pet Care

What are the right and wrong ways to pick up my kitten?

The easiest way to pick up a kitten, because they're so tiny, about two pounds, you can just kind of scoop them up and put them on your shoulder if you want to. I will suggest there are certain situations where if you need to, you can get them on the scruff of the neck. Please don't do this with a puppy. Why do I suggest that? If you've ever seen photographs, images, or videos of a mama cat when she's transporting her kittens, she gets them at the back of the neck. We do find that we can take advantage of that when we're handling cats because it sort of calms or disarms them long enough so we can do what we need to do, especially when giving vaccines. While you could pick them up by the back of the deck, why do that when you can scoop them up and carry them around or put them on your shoulder and just enjoy them?

How can I tell if my kitten is happy and healthy?

It depends on their play activity as much as anything else. If you've never had a kitten before, they can be full-on and then switched off, and there's not much in between. However, kittens do spend a lot of their time sleeping. That's normal in nature. The big cats, like tigers, lions, pumas, and cougars, typically sleep up to about 22 hours a day. So it's not unusual if you think your cat's lazy. He's just a small version of a big cat. So he's just economizing his energy. Of course, when they want to cut loose, then you'll know. That's one thing about kittens. They have a lot of energy and fun, and it can be pretty entertaining. Turn off Netflix and just watch your kitten.

How should I feed my kitten?

Most the cat owners, when they first get a cat, will introduce some canned food, dry food, or a little bit of mix, depending on the age of the kitten, and then they'll gravitate towards dry food. I'm going to be speaking of adult cats here in particular. We know for a fact that the leading cause of obesity in cats is not because of inactivity as much as it is commercial dry cat food. Unfortunately, dry cat foods are too high in carbohydrates and not enough protein because cats have a very high demand for protein. The recommendation is that at least half of their diet, even starting as kittens, should consist of canned food. I know it's messier, it's inconvenient and costs a little bit more, but in the grand scheme of things, it does improve the quality of your cat's life if at least half of its diet consists of canned food.

What are some products I might need for my kitten?

It depends on what products you have in mind. We're concerned about cat carriers. We do get some cat owners who bring in their cats without a carrier, not really understanding the circumstances. Not just for our clinic, but any clinic for that matter, get a carrier. It's so much easier, and there's a wide range of carriers available. There are collapsible, leather, fabric, and plastic carriers. That's the key thing as far as just everyday stuff for your cat goes. Go ahead and get some toys for your cat, especially for a kitten. I will make a point here, which is crucially important. If you get a lot of joy out of using a laser pointer for your cat, I'm going to beg you to stop using a laser pointer for your cats.

There have been proven studies in the last two or three years that show a lot of cats that have developed psychosis from the use of laser pointers. And it makes sense when you think about it. Cats are, obviously, hunters. Big cats, like lions and tigers, are hunters. So when they catch their prey, and they have a hold of their prey. But if we use a laser pointer, they jump on the little dots on the floor, and then it's gone, and it's over here. So they jump over there, and the dot's gone. That constant mental mix-up in their mind and frequent playing with a laser pointer can create some psychotic issues or psychosis in cats. So please put away the laser pointers. Don't use it for your cats. If you're compelled to, for whatever reason, just use them for the bare minimum of times. One thing I would suggest is an alternative. You can get a little rod or reel with a feather or a little mouse at the end that will give them something to kind of chase. Catnip toys are great because most cats, not all cats, but most cats really get turned on and get sort of subdued by the presence of catnip. But a little rod reel that you can cast out and reel back in and let your cat chase is perfect. That way, they can grab it and hold on to something. That would be a much better choice for a cat.

How soon should I bring my new kitten to see a veterinarian?

We generally start vaccines at about eight weeks of age for kittens, for the most part. Although, we will start a little bit earlier, as early as six weeks at the earliest. Something we had talked about in an earlier episode about dogs is that it all circles back to what we call colostrum. Colostrum is the first milk that kittens get from their mama. This is true in dogs and in people, but it works a little bit differently in people. We know for the first about six weeks of life, they're going to get antibodies to protect them against a range of different diseases, but they get that from that initial milking, from the mama cat. At about six weeks of age, those antibodies start to leave the system or become inactive, and we don't know exactly when that happens. It's going to vary from cat to cat how long those antibodies are going to remain in the system, but by the time they're 16 weeks of age or four months, then those antibodies are basically gone. That's why we want to make sure that we get vaccines, and they get a series because we don't know when the antibodies are gone, and we want to make sure they're going to get protected.

What will a veterinarian look for during an initial kitten care visit?

The first thing we're going to look at is just what is the disposition or the behavior of the kitten. Does it seem responsive and curious? You put it on the table and wiggle your finger, and we see if it wants to a paw or bite at your finger. Those are pretty simple things. Things that you, the kitty owner, should be looking for the same type of things to get a good sense of if your kitten is alert and active. Unfortunately, we see a lot of kittens come in with upper respiratory diseases; they have really goopy eyes. We can do some things about that. And, of course, intestinal worms. That's another thing we're going to be looking for. We'll check to see if a kitty might have intestinal worms, and they're easy to get rid of because most kittens, like most puppies, are born with what we call roundworms and/or hookworms.

What are some early signs and symptoms of health issues in kittens?

It really depends on the conditions. That's kind of a weird question. The first thing we're going to be looking for, typically, is if your cat stops eating. Granted, some cats are a little bit fussy, and if you change diets abruptly, some cats are going to protest that dietary change. But for most cats, if nothing else has changed and they stop eating or are not responsive, those are the things we're going to be looking for to say that something's just not right. Look for the bowel movements, see if there's diarrhea, and watch for vomiting. Although, cats do get hairballs, and sometimes a perfectly healthy, happy cat will vomit because of hairballs. So overall, just recognize what their normal attitude or disposition is, and if anything is not normal, then keep a close eye on them. In many cases, it's in their best interest to have them seen by a veterinarian.

Why is it important to avoid self-diagnosing possible kitten health problems?

Good old doctor Google. People who have had cats for a long time have had enough interaction with their veterinarians that they have a pretty good sense of cat care and what could be going on with the cats. However, for new cat owners, it's easy to run off the rails by going to Dr. Google and trying to diagnose their cats. You can easily find the most obscure things going on with her cat on the internet. If you have questions about your cat's behavior, if you're concerned about some health issues, bring them to a veterinarian so they can check and find out what's going on.

I will make one comment I thought was brilliant. When I was in veterinary school, one of my professors had this comment: "If you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras." What the heck does that mean? This is where people get into internet searches and really go off the rails looking for the worst-case scenario. But if you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras. If a cat, or any animal, for that matter, comes in not doing well, we're going to focus our attention on the more likely causes. If all our diagnostics and examinations don't bear that out, if we don't find anything unusual, that's when we're going to look for those zebras, the more obscure causes that could be going on. It's worth keeping that in mind. If you have questions about your cat, see your full-service veterinarian to have it checked out. In general, it's well worth your time to develop a relationship with your veterinarian. They'll have much more information about your individual cat's health than Dr. Google will.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (704) 288-8620, you can email us, or you can reach out on social media. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

Kitten Care - FAQs

Dr. Bob Parrish
Carolina Value Pet Care

What are the core vaccine requirements for kittens?

Rabies is required by law for dogs and cats alike, but rabies is a core vaccine along with distemper in cats. Let me clarify distemper in cats because it is quite a misunderstanding. Distemper in cats and distemper in dogs are not the same disease. They are two separate diseases, so it's a little bit confusing. I didn't name them, so don't blame me. They are two different diseases. When we give a distemper vaccine to a cat or kitten, we're not only vaccinating against distemper. We're actually vaccinating against several different diseases in that one vaccine. Another way of putting it is called FVRCP. Sometimes you'll see that on your kitten's or cat's medical record. It stands for feline viral rhinotracheitis, chlamydia, and Calicivirus, so it's a myriad of different diseases that we're vaccine for, which include primarily upper respiratory infections that we see in cats and kittens.

For more information on cat and kitten vaccinations, click here.

What are non-core vaccines for kittens, and why does my kitten need them?

The one non-core vaccine is feline leukemia. I think it is crucially important to vaccinate for it, even though it's not considered non-core. The reason I would not consider it non-core is that not every cat needs it. It depends on their lifestyle and the environment they're in. If you've got a cat that goes outside, they definitely should be getting the feline leukemia vaccine. If they never go outside and never come into contact with another cat that goes outside, they don't need the leukemia vaccine. But for those cats that go out, even if they're in and out only going out for short periods of time, they should definitely get the feline leukemia vaccine because it is a life-threatening disease that's primarily spread through saliva and blood exchanged in cat fights or cats that groom one another. In one way, you can consider it non-core because not every cat needs it, but for those cats that do go outside, they 100% should be getting it.

How soon should my kitten be vaccinated?

Typically, we'll start when they're about eight weeks of age. We'll start with feline distemper. Sometimes we don't see the kittens when they get eight weeks of age. We might see them at 12 weeks of age or whatever the age. The age at which we see them is going to dictate how many vaccines they get. We know for a fact, for the reasons I've mentioned in our earlier video about colostrum, the mother's milk, and the need for vaccines once the antibodies from mama cat start to get out of their system, that they do need a series of vaccines, but it all depends on what age we start.

Does my kitten need vaccines if they're only going to stay indoors?

Absolutely. Rabies is required by law. Here's the problem. Suppose somebody comes into your house and your cat has never been vaccinated for rabies, and let's say they accidentally stepped on its tail, or they were in a rocking chair and rocked over his tail, and it turned around and bit them. If it's not been vaccinated for rabies, you are legally responsible for making sure that the cat is impounded, at your expense, for ten days through animal control because your cat's not been vaccinated. So again, it is that serious. I'm sure the cat's not showing any signs or symptoms of rabies, but it's just the law, and it's to protect us more than to protect your cat. It's really to protect us because we can get rabies from rabbit animals, dogs and cats included, and it is a life-threatening and deadly disease. If you get rabies, you're going to die.

The other consideration would be the feline distemper vaccine. Even if your cat never goes outside, unfortunately, we can bring in the feline distemper and give it to a cat. The feline distemper virus is very similar to parvovirus in puppies. Parvo is a highly contagious, life-threatening disease if you're not familiar with parvovirus. It's really an ugly death for puppies. That virus is very similar to distemper in cats. Unfortunately, if somebody goes to a dog park and picks up the parvovirus from other dogs on the sole of their shoe and comes back home and goes into a house, they can potentially expose their own cat, and it can be a life-threatening disease. I highly highly recommend every cat, indoor or not, to get the rabies vaccine, as required by law, and also the feline distemper vaccine.

Are there any risks or side effects associated with kitten vaccines?

There's always the potential. With kittens and cats, we seldom see vaccine reactions. In my experience, most of the vaccine reactions I see are associated with the feline leukemia vaccine, which we talked about, which is ideally meant for outdoor cats. However, usually, the biggest side effect we see with the leukemia vaccine is that those cats are kind of sluggish for about half a day, maybe a full day. Then, after that, they're back to being themselves again. The other consideration we always have to think about when we see a cat for vaccines is if they go home and they're just not themselves; you can imagine how incredibly traumatic coming into a veterinary clinic must be for them. We get the carrier, and it might be a complete rodeo trying to get them into the carrier in the first place.

Then you put them in a car, and they're freaked out by the car. Then you bring them into the veterinary practice or one of our events. Then we get the vaccine, they go back in the car, and they have a whole freak out from that. It's an adrenaline overload; it's off the chart. So a lot of those cats just need some time to decompress after a stressful situation like that, but that's not all cats. There are ways of trying to help with that. Quite simply, and I'll mention two things very quickly. One is a product called Feliway, which comes in a spray that you can spray into their carrier, and catnip toys. Just put a catnip toy into their carrier. Those are two things that will help, but an answer to the question, can they get an adverse reaction to vaccines? Is it possible? Yes. Is it likely? No, not at all.

What if my kitten misses a vaccination?

If a kitten misses a vaccine, at the first opportunity, you bring it to one of our clinics so we can get it up to date.

Can my kitten go outside if not all vaccinations have been given yet?

Good question. My recommendation is with extreme caution. You'd actually have to know your environment really well, but because I am concerned about feline leukemia and distemper in cats, I would personally wait because, typically, we can start these vaccines early and get them completely vaccinated by the time they're about four months of age, you can let them go outside. There's no need to do it beforehand unless you just don't want a cat in the house, and that's the choice. But I recommend that they should be fully vaccinated before letting them go outside.

Why is it important to get my kitten vaccinated by a veterinarian?

It's important for a couple of reasons: the quality of vaccines makes a huge difference. I'm not going to point fingers at any of these places where they might be selling vaccines, but I always wonder about the quality of the vaccine manufactured in the first place and the reaction rate to vaccines. Second, how are those vaccines handled? They had to be refrigerated continuously. If they have not been properly handled and refrigerated, say it's a hot summer afternoon, and a truck backs up with some pallets on the back loading dock of a big box store with cat dog vaccines, and it sits out there for a few hours, it's probably not the best thing for you or for your cat or your dog for that matter. The other consideration, I can't tell you how many times I've had clients who tried to give their dogs or cats vaccines, and they shot all the way through because they don't really know or are not comfortable giving a vaccine under the skin. They go all the way through the skin and squirt the entire contents out on the other side of the pet. They just wasted a vaccine unnecessarily. The two big concerns I have are the quality of the vaccines they're going to purchase and also the actual administration of it. In North Carolina, and I can't speak for other states, only veterinarians can purchase rabies vaccines, and only veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and registered individuals by law can legally administer a rabies vaccine.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (704) 288-8620, you can email us, or you can reach out on social media. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.