Bringing a new kitten home for the first time: Tips & advice
Bringing a new kitten home is a very exciting experience, although there is often lots to consider and prepare before you actually set off to pick him up. When you arrive home with him, you’ll need plenty of patience and certain supplies to best help him gently settle into his new life. Cats are often stressed by a change of environment, so whether you are bringing home a kitten home for the first time or you’re adopting an older cat, it can take a few weeks for him, you and the rest of the household to feel relaxed and comfortable in each other’s presence. Knowing what to expect when bringing a new cat home will greatly facilitate this transition.
Preparations before bringing a new kitten home
It’s important to know in advance what taking care of your new cat will entail, particularly if you’ve never owned a cat before. Before you bring him home, you will need to purchase all the essentials he needs for his first day and night (in the next section you’ll find a “bringing kitten home checklist” of the items your new kitten requires). You’ll also need some time to get your home ready and to prepare your kitten’s new living space. Here are some suggestions how to make it safe, cosy and comfortable for him.
Conduct a home inspection
An inspection of your house to ascertain potential dangers is essential before bringing a kitten home. Certain plants, chemicals and other items which are toxic to cats should be removed from the house or securely stored away. For example, many varieties of lily are particularly toxic to cats – see our article Intoxication (poisoning) in dogs and cats for more information on other common household dangers.
You should also inspect all screens and windows to make sure they are secure, and your cat won’t be able to escape through them. Cats like to hide in small dark spaces when they’re scared, so be sure to block off small spaces to prevent your kitten from getting trapped in them.
Prepare your cat’s living space
A new cat or kitten will need a quiet, comfortable and secluded space of his own for as long as it takes him to adapt to his new environment. This is because it’s recommended to gradually introduce a new cat to your home, starting ideally with just one small, quiet, uninhabited room, away from noise and foot traffic. Providing too much space initially can be overwhelming and even frightening for a new kitten.
Before bringing him home, determine where his space will be; preferably a spare bedroom, the laundry room, or if there isn’t a dedicated room he can use, a blocked off space in the corner of your living room. Set up this room or space with a cat bed, litter tray and a small amount of food and water, positioned as far away as possible from the litter tray. Remove anything breakable of potentially harmful from the space, such as wires that could be chewed.
Acquire a familiar scent
Cats are heavily reliant on their sense of smell and will settle much quicker if their new environment smells familiar. There are a few ways you can obtain a familiar scent to assist with the transition, if you plan ahead:
- When arranging to pick up your new kitten, ask his current carer if you can also take home an item of his bedding that is imbued with his familiar smells.
- When collecting him, bring a towel or blanket with you and rub it gently on his family members or along the inside of his sleeping area so that it absorbs some of these familiar scents.
- Help him become familiar with your scent (and the scent of his soon-to-be new home) by taking an unwashed item of your clothing or a towel or a blanket from your home and leaving it with him for the final few days before you take him home.
Checklist of items you’ll need for your kitten’s first night home
The essentials you’ll need for your new cat’s first day and night:
- One food bowl
- One water bowl
- Food and water
- A soft, warm and comfortable bed
- A litter tray
- A cat carrier
Food, water and bowls
Your new cat will need separate food and water bowls. Plastic bowls are not ideal as they tip over easily; heavier china, pottery or porcelain bowls are preferable. It is important to keep the dishes clean and the contents fresh, as cats may reject old food or stale water.
If possible, find out from the breeder, adoption centre or previous owner what brand or type of food your cat has become accustomed to, and continue with it for at least the settling in period. It’s advisable to speak to your vet before embarking on a change of brand or type of cat food and making any changes very gradually. Any sudden change of diet can cause an upset tummy.
Place your kitten’s food and water bowls away from each other while keeping both as far away from the litter tray as possible. Provide only small amounts of food at a time for the first 12 to 24 hours. Make sure fresh water is always available.
The litter tray
Your cat must have access to a litter tray, and most cats will instinctively use it. Many cats prefer simple litter trays without hoods and unscented, fine-textured litter. If possible, duplicate the type of tray and litter material used in the previous environment. Young kittens and elderly cats suffering from arthritis will need a tray with sides that are low enough for them to enter easily.
Once he’s used the tray for the first time, it’s a good idea to leave his droppings in it for the first 24 hours, as this will help him recognise where to continue toileting in the future. Thereafter, be sure to keep the litter tray clean and to change the litter frequently, because cats may avoid a litter tray that isn’t clean.
A cosy bed
If it’s a simple cardboard box with cut down sides containing soft, warm blankets that your kitten can hide away in, or a fancy faux fur cat bed – most soft bedding will do nicely. The important thing is that he has a warm, cosy place to sleep, positioned somewhere quiet and safe – after all, kittens can sleep between 15 to 18 hours a day. Try to make the bed as snug as possible, because cats love to curl up in snug places. If the weather is cold, put a hot water bottle under the blankets.
Remember to place that familiar piece of their bedding that you brought home with you in their new bed and don’t throw it out or wash it during the first few days. It is embedded with the cat’s scent and will feel and smell familiar, thereby reassuring and comforting him.
A cat carrier
This is essential for trips to the vet and of course for bringing your new cat home. There are lots of different designs, but the most important thing is to choose one that is secure, well ventilated and sturdy and is easy to get the cat in and out of. A lid on the top will be very helpful for this purpose.
What you should get in the next day or two after your kitten’s arrival:
- A brush
- Cat toys
- Something to climb up (a sturdy shelf or cat perch)
- A sturdy scratching post
- A place to hide (a cardboard box can do the trick)
- A kitten pen
- Cat pheromones can help some kittens feel calm and adjust to new surroundings more quickly (ask your vet for more advice).
Taking your new kitten home
Try to allocate plenty of time to collecting and bringing a kitten home for the first time, so that the entire process is calm and unrushed. Your new kitten needs to feel comfortable with you as soon as possible, so start your relationship by interacting with him in his familiar environment where he feels safe and secure. Spend some time playing with and cuddling him before taking him away.
Make sure you take a cat carrier or basket when bringing a new kitten home and do not leave him loose in the car. Cats prefer cosy spots, so they often enjoy being in a carrier. By encouraging your kitten to travel in a carrier, you are providing safety and security, as well as starting a good routine that you can maintain for future car rides. Remember to place the familiar-smelling bedding or clothing item in the carrier with him; it’ll reduce stress during the journey and help him settle in once he arrives home.
Arriving home for the first time
A new home with new sights, sounds, and smells can be a scary place for a young kitten, but you can help to make his adaptation easier. The first few hours after bringing a kitten home can influence how he’ll adapt to his new life. As excited as you and your family may be to welcome him, don’t rush him; prepare to be patient and don’t pressure him into doing things he may not yet be ready for.
Once you arrive home, place the carrier on the floor in his allocated room, close the door, then open the carrier door and allow your kitten to come out in his own time. When he emerges, let him move around the room as he wishes, giving him time (at least an hour, but some cats need longer) to investigate and explore his new space before introducing yourself and/or your family.
If he chooses to hide, sit quietly on the floor at his level and talk to him gently. When cats are frightened it is normal for them to hide, so don’t get upset or try to force him to come out. Observe how he is acting – if he seems very scared, leave him alone for a few hours and let him take time to adjust. Pop in every few hours to check on him and talk to him in a calm and friendly voice. If he is eating, drinking and using the litter tray, there is no need to worry. If he is too scared or shy to eat, try moving his food bowl closer to his hiding place and leave the room. Hold off on the introductions to other family members – if you have young children, let them know the cat isn’t used to your house yet and will need some time to settle in.
Give your kitten plenty of time to become familiar with his room before exposing him to the rest of the house. Spend time in the room with him every day so that he gets used to your presence, talking to him, reading aloud or even making phone calls so that he becomes comfortable with your voice. Try to avoid loud or sudden noises in the house as these may scare him. When he seems to be more confident, relaxed and ready to explore, take it slowly and let him gradually discover his new surroundings one room at a time, always staying with him when you bring him to another room.
Tips and advice for the first night
The first night in a new home can be challenging for owners as well as the new cat or kitten, so try to make it as stress-free as possible. When it’s time to go to bed, leave him in the small room or enclosed area of the house that you have designated for him, in his cosy bed. Make sure he has the piece of bedding or scented item brought from his previous home, as the familiar scent will help him feel more secure.
It’s a huge change for him, so cries for attention are normal, even for the first few nights. Resist the temptation of taking him into your bed, as he may have accidents during the night. Some tips to comfort him during the first night (or two) include:
- Warm up a blanket (you can put it in the tumble drier or place a hot water bottle underneath it) to mimic the warmth he would get from his mum.
- Raise his bed up off the floor (if you have a low table or other platform that it can securely rest on) as kittens tend to feel safer at a height.
- The carrier can be a comforting place if your kitten is frightened or sleepy – place it near his bed with its door open so he can go in and out at any time.
- Leave a low night light on in his room while he is getting used to his new environment.
- If you prefer to have him close to you, place his bed on the floor or on a platform next to your bed.
How to foster a bond with your kitten early on
Over the first few days let your new cat get to know you by spending some time in his room each day. Don’t rush him, rather let him come to you when he’s ready. You will foster attachment by handling him in a non-threatening way from an early age. When he comes to you, place him gently in your lap and play with him, pet him and talk to him in a gentle, soothing voice. This will help him feel safe with you and welcome in his new home. With time, your scent will replace the smells associated with his old home and you will become his source of security.
If he is reluctant to engage with you, you will need to be extra patient. Begin with those types of handling that most cats enjoy, like scratching him behind the ears. Speak to him in a kind voice while petting him. For a cat to learn to receive and enjoy physical contact from people, it is essential that the human hand only be associated with positive experiences and that physical punishment is not used. For unwilling cats, you may consider giving a treat as positive reinforcement during play and petting sessions.
The level of physical contact with humans that a cat will tolerate can vary according a cat’s personality and their experiences of being handled at a very young age. Some cats do not enjoy being petted, kissed or cuddled. It’s important to continue to interact with such cats, but in a way that they prefer. Predatory play sessions, grooming and verbal communication are other forms of social contact between owner and cat that can continue to foster the bond between them.
Tips and advice for leaving the kitten alone
Your new kitten will find comfort in having you around, but you can’t be with him all the time so he must learn to stay at home alone. It’s important to have a safe and secure area where you can leave him when you are not around to supervise. This is can be the same room or area that you’ve set up for his first few days at home. Divide the room into a separate feeding area, litter box area and resting/play area. Make sure the entire space is cat-proofed by removing things that may cause injury (sharp objects, string, electrical cords, rubber bands or other items that could be swallowed) and inspect for nooks and crannies where a kitten might hide or get stuck.
An enriching environment is key to keeping your new kitten happy while he is alone at home. Food-releasing toys and puzzles, movable toys, scratching posts, sunny perches and places to climb will all help keep your kitten or cat mentally and physically stimulated. If you don’t have a permanent room that can serve as your kitten’s secure and stimulating space, investigate options such as kitty play pens, portable enclosures and pop-up tents that can be set up in an area of your home when required. See our article Outdoor Cat Runs for some great ideas for creating enriching indoor and outdoor spaces for cats.
Considerations and tips for pet owners bringing home strays or rescue kittens
Whether you have just brought home a cat from a shelter or are trying to befriend a stray off the street, the process of acclimatising him to you, your home and any existing pets is likely to be an extremely gradual one. A semi-feral stray is going to be very wary of humans and will initially avoid being touched, maybe even scratching or biting when you attempt to handle him.
As much as you may want to pat and play with the new arrival, rather than overwhelming him, give him as much time as he needs and wait for him to approach you on his own terms. Keeping your interactions as relaxed and non-threatening as possible will lead to him gradually coming to trust you. He will come to you when he is feeling safe. For further info, see our article Adopting a Stray Cat here.
Introducing your cat to your family
Once your cat seems comfortable and confident with you, it’s time to introduce other family members. Remember to do this gradually, with each family member greeting the cat one by one. It can be overwhelming for your new cat to meet everyone at the same time.
If you have children, they are likely to be excited about the new arrival, but it is important to keep them calm. Let the cat come to them and when he does, show the children how to gently stroke and interact with him. Don’t let them pick up the cat in the early stages, as he may feel threatened, and even the friendliest cat will defend himself if he is pushed or pulled too much. Wait until he is completely settled and knows that the child is not a threat.
Introducing your new kitten to other pets in the home
Meeting other pets can be stressful, both for the new arrival and the resident animal. The key to a successful outcome is to introduce your kitten to other pets slowly and gently. For the newcomer, it’s important to have his own area where he can feel safe and secure. If possible, divide up your home so that old and new pets are kept as far apart as possible, with the new cat in one area of the house and the existing pet in the other and with a “no man’s land”, such as a corridor or staircase, between them, so that they cannot encounter each other (not even under or through a door) unless supervised.
Be aware that it’s not just the new kitten or cat that may be feeling insecure or threatened. In fact, existing dogs, particularly those that have a strong territorial drive, may have more of a problem adapting than the new arrival. Try to keep things as normal as possible for the resident cat or dog and avoid spending too much time with the new arrival to the exclusion of the existing pet. If you think that your dog or cat might be aggressive towards the newcomer, plan their introduction with safety in mind.
The first step in the introductions should be swapping each other’s scent, rather than any face-to-face encounters. Don’t wash your hands between touching them to allow them to smell each other on you. If you have a gap under the door of the room let them smell each other through it. Place your new cat in his carrier and introduce your other pets to him without letting him out. This way he feels secure and your other pet will not be upset. After doing this a few times you should be able to sense when they are relaxed around each other.
Once both old and new pets seem comfortable with each other’s presence, you can open the carrier and let them explore each other. If the resident pet is a dog, ask him to sit and stay if either he or the kitten becomes agitated during the introduction. Have him on a leash or harness in case a hasty retreat is necessary. Resident cats may not respond to voice commands, but they can also be placed on a harness for quick avoidance of aggressive behaviour.
Don’t expect your pets to get on well together right away; some pets need time to adjust. Continue to supervise their interactions for a few months after introduction. Do expect some hissing or growling – this is very normal behaviour.
Make sure that your new cat continues to have a safe place to retreat to if he becomes anxious or overwhelmed.
When both are sharing the house equally, if the existing pet is a cat, be sure to minimize competition for resources such as food, water, beds and litter trays by providing ample of these (a good rule of thumb is one for each cat, plus one spare). Keep their feeding and sleeping in separate locations, at least for a while. Also, continue to deter competition for your attention and affection by giving these equally to each animal. The desirable outcome is a peaceful household in which pets have formed friendly relationships, or at least accept each other’s presences calmly.
This process can take anywhere from a couple of days to weeks or even months.
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