Cat Care & Advice

ADOPTING A KITTEN OR CAT

How to provide safety, health and happiness for your new pet.

We often hear people say: “cats can take care of themselves…” or “cats have nine lives…”. Having homed cats and kittens for over 20 years, and met many people who have told me the often tragic story of their previous pet, I think that such remarks show a rather superficial if not irresponsible attitude. All too many cats have had very short lives, ended by accidents that could have been avoided.

 

Travelling with a cat

A safe journey is the start of the kitten’s new life. Although the kitten may have been delivered to its new home, it is nevertheless essential that it has its own safe travelling basket made from wire or plastic – waiting for future trips to the vet. In such confinement the cat may turn into a howling bundle of misery, but pay no attention – and please DO NOT open the basket during the trip to comfort it. The

AA, in their leaflet Driving with Animals, say of cats in cars: “During a journey a cat should be confined in a proper carrying basket or cage – a cardboard box is not suitable.I witnessed myself two separate cases when friendly domestic cats had clawed and bitten their way out of cardboard cat carriers within minutes, and I heard of another with a tragic ending – the owner took her kitten, wrapped in a towel in her arms, to the vet by taxi: as they arrived the kitten struggled free and was killed by a car in front of her eyes. Another cat was used to travelling loose in the car, but one day went literally wild – for no obvious reason – and flew at the driver’s face, who lost control and had to stop abruptly. Unthinkable if this had happened on a motorway. An additional warning from the AA: do not leave cats in parked cars in hot weather without ventilation, and always park in the shade. I recommend that animals should not be left unattended in cars at all.

 

Settling in the new home

It is impossible to predict how a cat will behave on arrival: it can range from positively curious to apprehensive, fearful and upset, or even panicky: at the worst, aggressive if approached. Any of these reactions can apply for any cat or kitten, domestic or ex-feral, because all derive from the same wild ancestor, the African wild cat, and their original wild “pedigree” will surface when provoked. We therefore always advise starting the cat off in one closed room provided with food and littertray for several days, or even weeks if necessary. Ideally this should be the living room, so that cat and people can get used to each other faster.

On arrival, we let the cat look out of its basket for a while to get used to the new sights, smells and noises. Since I always deliver the animal myself, I use this time to check the place for hidden dangers like open floorboards, which are often concealed inside cupboards, behind kitchen units or in cubbyholes. These need to be covered securely before the cat is let out of the basket. Cats have travelled under floorboards from room to room via gaps in the joists and been unable to find their way back. In these cases we took the “service board” out, a short loose plank usually situated centrally under the carpeting in the hall. We then left the board open until the cat had found its way out.

Apart from losing a new cat or kitten from the house all together, there is only one possibility worse than a cat under the floorboards: a cat up the chimney. To prevent this, either close the fireplace with a tightly fitted, solid piece of wood or hardboard or – much easier – stuff the flue entrance with a large black refuse sack stuffed with crumpled newspaper and secured firmly to cover the irresistible hole. This is not all: windows and doors need to be checked (1/2″ is enough space for a kitten or cat to attempt an escape) and the catflap must not only be locked but also secured with strong tape. One cat, intrigued by the smell of freedom and fresh air, tampered with the lock and nearly escaped within 5 minutes of arrival.

After all these precautions we return to the cat waiting in its basket. To calm it I stroke it for a while inside the basket; the new owner can join in gradually, then I hold it until it is relaxed, then hand it over to be cuddled by its new people. This way a bond is established between cat and owner before the cat starts exploring the room. If it is very nervous we make sure the littertray is near its hiding-place; I scratch in the clean litter to indicate its position to the cat. Cats are naturally clean and easily take to the littertray provided it is within reach. In a few cases where a domestic kitten had been denied proper catlitter and trained to go on paper we have initially added a good amount of shredded newspaper to the catlitter, which could then be slowly reduced.

On rare occasions a cat will feel instantly at ease and relaxed enough to follow its new people around. Many others, however, because of their previous hazardous lives as strays, have learned to make themselves “invisible” in order to survive; they will often sleep in hiding-places for many months. If we home an ex-feral cat or kitten we sometimes recommend borrowing a kitten pen from us for the first few days in order to prevent it hiding away in a place of its choice where it cannot see people or be stroked. The playpen is a “hideout” with a purpose: the kitten feels secure but learns to socialise at the same time, and the owner feels accepted and finds enjoyment in stroking and cuddling the new pet. This way the phase of panic and fear is cut short and the desired bond is formed faster. (Kitten pens have also been found to be a great help when introducing a kitten or cat to a new home with dogs or resident territorial cats.)

Once let out of its playpen the kitten should remain in the same room until it is fully confident and will come to its new owner; it can then be introduced to other rooms gradually. During this time the littertray should stay in its original place while a second one is put in the spot finally intended for it – usually near the back door of the kitchen or conservatory. By gradually reducing the amount of catlitter in the first littertray to a minimum, then to paper only, we encourage the kitten to choose the tray in the second and final location. During this period of confinement to the house the littertray is indispensable, but even after the cat has started going outside it must always be kept ready for use during the night. Some cats take weeks to become confident enough to use the garden for their toilet – after all, it is already “owned” by other cats. Removing the indoor tray abruptly does not encourage the cat: it only makes it unhappy and confused and may cause the start of a dirty habit. Placing a little of the cat’s own dirty litter on the flowerbed may help to give it the idea.

When can the new kitten be let into the garden?

When it is fully settled in its new home and comfortable with the inhabitants, and provided it has had its full course of vaccinations. Cat ‘flu, feline infectious enteritis and feline leukaemia are lethal viruses, and responsible cat owners will have their cats vaccinated and boostered regularly. If the kitten is already over 3 months old at the time of adoption, it would be advisable not to let it out before it is neutered. Some female kittens can come into season as early as 4 months old! If adopted during autumn or winter, the kitten should be kept inside until the milder weather.

On a warm day the kitten can finally be let out through the back door – never the front – possibly at a weekend when the owner is at home all day. While the kitten explores the outside inch by inch the door must be kept wide open so that it can rush back inside when it feels insecure. It is advisable to allow it many short outings under strict supervision, so that it does not venture too far too soon. Never allow it to stay outside when you have to go out.

 

Catflaps

A young kitten can push a catflap open long before it is ready to understand it and use it properly. Any catflap must therefore be kept locked until the kitten is ready to go out; meanwhile other resident cats will need to be let in and out by hand. Once the kitten is allowed out, at 3 months or more, the catflap can be tied open or removed temporarily so that the kitten uses both the open door and the “hole in the door”.

A harness is not recommended: it is against a cat’s nature to be led along – it needs to explore the outside in its own time. I have met people who have lost their cats while on a harness: startled by a sudden noise or movement, the cats either slipped the harness or pulled free and ran off with harness and lead still attached.

 

The great outdoors

The garden should be as safe as possible, and gaps in the fence repaired before the kitten is let out.

Fishponds can be deathtraps, especially paved ones without at least one sloping side. Large pots filled with earth and containing water plants can be submerged near the edge of the pond, their surface just below the water. These will act as steps for cats, hedgehogs or other small animals to escape. A covering of pondweed is particularly dangerous, as the cat can mistake it for a solid surface.

Almost every cat owner has in his time lost a cat to a traffic accident, and cats need to be discouraged from going near the street. Even a “streetwise” cat will run across the road if it sees a bird even when a car is close: cats act on reflex, not reflection. (In the same way, a cat that can sit safely in an open window or balance on a balcony ledge will jump after a passing insect in response to its instincts, no matter how high up it is.) At night cats do not recognise approaching headlights as a danger; drivers also tend to speed at night when roads are clear and may not even see the cat until it is too late. Cat thieves may operate at night; foxes, who have been observed to kill and devour cats even in daylight, are even more courageous in the dark. Kittens should not be let out until they are at least 8 months old if there are foxes in the area, and even then they should be supervised. Other cats can be a real danger to our pets: unneutered tomcats, whether domestic or feral, will fight and bite at all times but especially at night. They will attack neutered or unneutered cats of either sex, and may pass on the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). This “feline AIDS” is not transmissable to humans, but can be passed from the saliva of an infected cat into the bloodstream of a healthy one. Owners should not let their female cats come into season as they will attract tomcats from long distances. An infected tom will endanger neighbour’s pets, and may infect not only their mate but the unborn kittens. Even if confined indoors, the scent of a female in season will still attract tomcats.

 

Dangers in the house

Never leave a running or full bath unattended. Cats have been drowned, or scalded by hot water. Toilet lids should be kept down. Cats who drink from toilet bowls regularly – given away by pawprints – are in danger of drowning. I have read of one that fell in and was unable to turn round or climb backwards – a plumber had to dismantle the toilet to remove the body. We all know of fatal accidents in washing machines and tumble dryers. Unfortunately cats are attracted by open holes, warmth and laundry baskets. Doors and lids should be kept shut when the machines are not in use, and the cat kept well out of the way when they are being filled. Hot cooking rings can burn paws. Tempted by cooking smells even an “obedient” cat may forget its manners and jump on to the worktop to stroll across the stove. A spare pot filled with cold water should be kept ready to cover the hob when the hot saucepan has been removed.

Toys with string or elastic attached can cause accidents – “cat-dancers” or balls attached by string to scratching posts can act as a noose around a paw, cutting off the circulation. Needles and thread and tinsel are dangerous – once a cat gets them into the mouth it cannot spit them out because of the backward-facing spines on the tongue, and it is forced to swallow them. Burning candles and open fires must never be left unattended. Medicines and toxic chemicals such as disinfectant, bleach and antifreeze must be kept locked away. House plants and flower arrangements provoke cats and especially kittens to play and nibble. Many are poisonous to cats; the most common are true ivies, philodendron, false Jerusalem cherry, Dieffenbachia, Elephant Ear, poinsettia, oleander, parlour palms and Chinese money plants. Cats have gone into kidney failure after nibbling lilies.

We hope this list of warnings will help to prolong your cat’s life. Every cat is a unique and irreplaceable little personality which we sometimes take for granted and fail to appreciate until it is too late. Although cats often get themselves into trouble through no fault of the owner, we must still do our best to protect them – caution is better than complacency. I have so often heard grieving owners say that they did not realise the danger their cat was in…

© Elke de Vries, CAT 1977 Fieldwork Adviser, 1999

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