Choosing a kitten

You have decided you want to share your life with a kitten and be responsible for it all through cat-hood. Your commitment could last for the next 14 to 15 years or even longer. This is a serious undertaking and you want to get it as right as you can.

There are lots of places to go and get a kitten (click here for more information on where to get your cat or kitten) but once you have made this decision, you have to choose one individual.

More often than not it is looks that we go for – a particular favourite colour or marking. However, there is much more to it than that - what do you ask and what do you look for? You want to know about the kitten’s personality, the kitten’s needs and the kitten’s health.

What shapes a kitten’s personality?

Think of the different cats you have met in your life. Some have been extra friendly, some nervous or fearful, some bold, some even perhaps aggressive. The cats we come across in our lives can vary from pet cats to community cats to wild living or feral cats. How they have come to be those cats depends on their parents, where they were born, how much handling they have had, and what experiences they had both at an early age and later in life. All of these things can have a profound effect.

A pet cat could be defined as one that’s happy to be around people and to interact with them – just what most of us want. However, at the other end of the spectrum is the feral cat, an amazing creature which, although it looks exactly the same as a pet cat and is of the same species, can behave very differently – in fact more like a cat belonging to a wild species (more of this later).

Cats have a wide range of personalities. How confident or fearful a cat is in adulthood will be affected by what happens in kittenhood. Much of this ‘personality’ development has already taken place before we get our kitten. For the cat, learning to enjoy the company of people takes place pretty early in its life – somewhere from about three weeks to seven or eight weeks old. During this time the kitten hasn’t yet learned to fear everything, and its mind is open to forming bonds with other animals or people and learning how to deal with new experiences without being overwhelmed by them. Think about human children when they’re toddlers, and how fearless they often are – running off without a care, touching and tasting everything, falling over and getting up again. But as they get older they begin to worry and look for reassurance when they do things.

If kittens don’t experience people or human things during the early weeks of their lives they may never be able to see them as part of ‘normal’ life. Whatever happens in the feline mind as it matures in the first couple of months, it learns to avoid and fear things that aren’t familiar to it and this then seems to be fairly fixed thereafter. So a kitten which hasn’t been handled by people, met dogs or experienced everyday things such as vacuum cleaners, doorbells, children laughing and screaming and so on, may automatically find them very threatening and react accordingly. The cat may try to avoid any interaction with things it fears, perhaps hiding away or being aggressive if it’s pursued to be stroked. This often happens with kittens born to stray or feral cats which don’t meet people at an early age. People think that they are being kind in trying to nurture or ‘tame’ such cats, but often they are causing great stress. The cat’s mind doesn’t really have the ability to respond because the pathways weren’t created when it was young enough. Cats do continue to learn beyond eight weeks of age, but if the fundamentals are missing there may be little or nothing to build upon. So a fearful kitten is likely to be a fearful cat and no amount of love from an owner may have a great effect on this.

The point of this discussion about cat personality is to to try and help new owners to understand what shapes the potential personality of a cat in relation to being a pet cat and living closely with people. Most owners want a cat that enjoys being with them and their family and friends. If you choose a fearful kitten because you feel sorry for it, and think that just by being kind you’ll bring it around, you may have a long and disappointing relationship. The kitten may actually develop into a very stressed adult because you’re asking it to live in a household that holds many fearful challenges for it. On the other hand, if you live a very quiet life and want a cat that’s not too demanding and will gradually get used to you and won’t be challenged by noisy teenagers or loud music, banging doors or lots of visitors, a rather less robust character may suit perfectly. If you want a cat that lives outdoors most of the time and simply want to respect it as a cat, appreciate its mousing activities and feed and care for it at a distance it’s comfortable with, then there are some less people-orientated kittens that will grow into cats which will be very happy to live this type of life.

Armed with this understanding you can approach a rehoming/rescue organisation, or a breeder or answer an advert in a newspaper and ask questions to ascertain if the kitten has had the right early experiences to fit in with your needs and lifestyle. Choosing a kitten should involve your brain as well as your heart; selecting a kitten because you feel sorry for it or want to rescue it from a squalid environment may result in many years of heartache and inadvertently encourage bad breeding practice (by rewarding the breeder because you have bought a kitten). So, research the litter just by asking questions over the telephone before you view. If you are not satisfied with any of the answers to your questions then it may be better to look elsewhere for another kitten – it may also save a lot of time travelling.

What questions should I ask over the telephone?

1. What have the kittens experienced in their first 8 weeks of life?

As explained above, this is a sensitive time in kitten learning. The best scenario is that kittens have been kept in a home environment (or moved into the home environment well within the first 8 weeks of life) and are used to all those things associated with human living – people, noises, smells, visitors, children, dogs etc. The worst scenario is that the kittens have been isolated from all the things associated with normal living so that when they do experience it in a new home it is frightening and they never really get to grips with it. This can happen in rehoming/rescue facilities if kittens are kept in a pen and not handled or exposed to everyday living – many good rehoming/rescues organisations expose their kittens to these things and make sure they are handled by different people. This can also happen in the pedigree breeder situation where too many cats are being bred, often in outside pens, and each litter is not getting the handling and exposure it needs to make good confident pet cats. It is also a risk with kittens born to free-living or feral cats, such as on a farm, where again they gain no exposure to humans until it is too late.

2. What is the temperament of the mother cat (and the father if known?)

‘Friendliness’ can be influenced by genes and, like people, cats will have a genetic component as to how they react to the world. Some will be bold, some naturally nervous or shy. For moggies or non-pedigree cats, the combination of genes from each parent is not usually controlled by people and frequently the father of the kittens is never seen. A friendly mother will pass on friendly genes as well as being relaxed and interactive with people as an example to her kittens. For pedigree cat breeders who control the matings of their cats, there is a chance to breed from friendly cats to incorporate this into the next generation. It should always be possible to view the other kittens should you decide to visit.

3. If I decide on a pedigree breed, is there a breed disposition for a certain type of behaviour?

Cats in general have very individual personalities – some are noisy, some are active, others are very laid back. However, there are some breeds where some aspects of personality are likely to come through – Siamese cats for example are known for their talkative nature and some breeds are quite demanding of attention. So it is best to ascertain what you might be taking on or what you want your cat to do – there is no guarantee it will happen, but it is more likely where this behaviour is seen among this group or breed of cats.

4. Ask about your particular requirements

If you have a dog at home, it is a lot easier to integrate the kitten if it has already met a dog or dogs and is not frightened. Likewise, if you have children, ask if the kitten has met children – those that have will take the high pitched voices and somewhat erratic or sudden movements of children in their stride. If the kitten has just been around women and not met men it may be fearful of loud deep voices, so again ask the question.

The answers to these questions will give you an idea of of the quality of care the kittens are receiving. The next step is to visit and view the kittens.

Looking for clues about the kitten’s health

When choosing a kitten, you should check the animal for signs of ill-health, such as runny eyes or nose, dirty ears, a dirty or sore area under the tail which may indicate the cat is suffering from diarrhoea. The kitten should look well, with bright eyes, a good coat and be able to move easily.

Ask to see the other kittens in the litter and the mother to make sure that they are healthy too.

Follow your instincts and don’t be taken in by stories of how that runny eye had just happened etc. Many people come away with a kitten which is not 100% because they are told it will all be fine by the breeder or rescue.

If you have arrived to find that the rescue/breeder/pet shop or whatever facility is homing the kittens is dirty, smelly and has lots of other cats and kittens then be very wary. Good hygiene is essential to keeping kittens healthy and they can be very vulnerable.

What questions should I ask to ascertain a kitten’s needs?

1. May I handle the kittens?

Ask to handle the kitten to assess how relaxed it is with people. Is it well socialised and friendly or is it scared? Spend a bit of time with it in case it is just initially a little wary of new people but soon adapts, or whether it just tries to hide away. Ask to see the whole litter to see how they react to you, each other and the environment. Ideally you should be looking for a kitten that responds in equal measures to all of these!

2. What sex is the kitten and how old is it?

Ask about the cat’s sex and how old it is. Pedigree kittens are usually over 12 weeks old when they are rehomed but non pedigree or moggies may be around 8 weeks old.

3. What type of coat will the kitten have?

It can be hard to tell if a moggie kitten is going to be long haired unless its mother has a long coat (often the father is never seen). However, if you are taking on a pedigree cat then you will know how it is going to turn out. A Persian will need daily grooming and other breeds with slightly less undercoat will need regular grooming as well. However, lack of a coat does not mean the kitten will be easy to care for – some of the Rex breeds (with a sparse wavy coat) and the hairless breeds such as the Sphynx need a lot of time and effort spent on keeping the skin clean. Some will leave greasy marks on furniture and will need regular bathing (click here for information on breed health).

4. What other care will the kitten need, both now and as an adult?

Some breeds, such as Persians and Exotics, have very flat faces. In making the face this flat the natural drainage of tears from the eye may be blocked and the tears overflow over the face. This must be very uncomfortable for the cats and can cause staining or skin problems. Owners must be able to clean the eyes and face on a regular basis. Other breeds with more pointed skulls may have more inset eyes which may also need care.

Ask about vaccination – most pedigree kittens will have had their vaccinations before they can be homed, but it is worth checking. Many kittens from rescue may also have had at least one vaccination, depending on the age at which they are homed. Make sure you get the vaccination certificate if you take on the kitten.

Have the kittens has been wormed and treated for fleas? If so, what with? 

Have any of the kittens got ongoing health issues requiring medication? (If this is the case and you still wish to take on the kitten, ask for advice on how to give the tablets, eye-drops or ear-drops so that you know what you have to do. )

If the kitten is a pedigree, ask about any tests for inherited diseases (click here to look at individual breeds and what they can be tested for).

5. How much attention will the kitten need, both now and as an adult?

Some breeds are more needy of attention and company than others, others will be much more independent. Again decide what suits you.

6. What food, litter etc is currently being used?

Ask what the kitten is currently eating, what type of litter it is used to etc. Check up on whether the information you have been given is correct (click here for information on feeding kittens and cats) as sometimes people have not been feeding the best diet for a growing kitten. However, if you are changing food, do it gradually so as to avoid stomach upsets.

7. Ask if the kitten is insured

In countries where it is available, such as in the UK, many breeders, rescue organisations and even individuals who have bred an ‘accidental’ litter will provide new owners with insurance cover for the kitten which lasts for the first 6 weeks in its new home. This covers health issues and other benefits. The insurance company will then contact the new owner to see if they wish to continue with the insurance. Insurance to cover vet fees (and other things) is a great idea and gives peace of mind about payment should problems occur – the first year of a kitten’s life can be its most hazardous because kittens and young cats can get themselves into all sorts of trouble – the saying ‘curiosity killed the cat’ is based on some truth. Kittens must learn fast as they grow and this means being inquisitive; it can however get them into trouble. To decide whether you want to keep the insurance cover check what it actually does.

Be prepared to walk away

Potential owners must be prepared to walk away and not purchase a kitten out of pity because it’s ill or scared, just in order to ‘save’ it from its current environment. Although this sounds very hard, you don’t want to be left with a kitten that may have health or attitude problems for years to come and is likely to be difficult and disappointing to live with.

Do your homework

Do your homework first, and then go and visit. Most breeders will ask you to come along for a first viewing when the kittens are still a bit too young to rehome (the breeding organisations require them to keep kittens until they’re about 12 weeks old and have had at least their first vaccinations in order to protect them). Don’t go from one breeder to another and handle the kittens – you could carry viruses on your hands and clothes which could be passed on to vulnerable kittens, so breeders may be quite strict about asking you not to do this in order to protect the health of their cats. A good breeder or rescue centre will want to find out if you’ll care for the kitten properly and will give you lots of advice. They should be able to provide help or advice if you need it, and will want to hear from you if you have any problems. They should also be willing to take the kitten back should serious problems arise but this does not always happen and often new owners have fallen in love with the new kitten and can’t bear to give it back. Knowledge and information is the key, and ignorance is no excuse for either producing or buying a kitten that’s ill or poorly socialised.

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