I’m not your traditional animal lover. The only pet I have ever owned was a cat named Cat that was half-feral with sharp claws and a bad temper. I walked away from that relationship with scars on my legs that lasted an entire summer. Those thin white scars served as daily reminders of my failure as a cat wrangler, and I swore to myself that I would never again own a cat.
So when my boyfriend came home last month with an animal crate in one hand and a bag of kitten food in the other, I felt a sudden rush of panic as memories of my previous cat came flooding back.
“No! Take it away!” I thought hysterically. But the sheepish grin on my boyfriend’s face prompted me to gather enough composure to accept the gift as graciously as possible.
The greatest irony of the situation was that for months leading up to this moment, I had been begging for a dog.
The boyfriend, however, is allergic to dogs and had been firmly rejecting the idea of a puppy. The kitten was his idea of a compromise: he could satisfy the pet void in my life without physically suffering. He had no idea that my own physical suffering could soon be at hand.
But I have often been told that compromise is the foundation of a healthy relationship, so I feigned enthusiasm and guarded my mounting dread as he opened the door of the carrier. From the shadows, a little black kitten emerged, shaking ever so slightly and sniffing at the floor boards.
Almost instantly, he sprinted away, taking shelter under the couch and mewing frantically. Throughout the evening, the boyfriend and I hunkered down, lying prostrate and extending fingers in friendship, responding to his cries with soft words of encouragement. Nothing would coax him out. He remained a bristled and shivering little shadow, untouchable and, most certainly, miserable.
We busied ourselves making our new pet a little corner of the house to call his own; but even after we had gone to bed, the kitten still hadn’t emerged from his hiding spot to eat or drink from the bowls we had left him. He continued to sit beneath the couch, mewing in sharp, pitiful cries.
After that first sleepless night of constant meowing, I decided that if we were going to become good pet owners, we were going to need help; so I called Amanda Rietheimer, an animal behavior specialist who works at the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“When you first adopt a kitten, it is important to confine it to a small area,” she said. “Spaces filled with new smells and sounds can be overwhelming to a cat’s senses. If given free reign, it will launch into flight mode, looking for somewhere to hide.”
After giving myself a mental slap on the wrist for failing the first, most basic step of kitten ownership, I realized that I couldn’t be the only new kitten owner who didn’t have a clue what she was doing. There isn’t, after all, a Kitten Owner’s Manual that serves as the equivalent to What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
While on the phone with Amanda, I decided to put my journalistic talents to good use, to help new clueless kitten owners everywhere.
Introducing a Kitten to a New Home
If the kitten is coming from a shelter, it will be accustomed to extremely small spaces and may need more time to acclimate to a larger habitat. Amanda suggests confining all kittens to a small room, like a bathroom, for at least a week. Owners should gradually introduce the kitten to other rooms of the house by spending brief periods of play outside of the kitten’s primary room.
Amanda works with kittens and cats that have often suffered under extremely stressful conditions. At any given time, the shelter at the Houston SPCA houses 55 to 75 cats, and while housed in cages, it is difficult for them to share their personalities or feel secure. New kittens who are coming from stressful environments can feel extremely anxious in new places, and Amanda suggests using a product like Feliway to calm a distressed kitten.
Feliway is a synthetic copy of a feline pheromone that is released by cats when they feel safe and secure. By spraying Feliway onto a kitten’s sleeping area, or using a scent diffuser in its room, kittens will smell the pheromone and become calm. Though catnip does calm some cats, it can also produce the opposite effect. It is never a good idea to expose a stressed cat to catnip, as it may intensify feelings of anxiety.
For new kitten owners who have other pets, Amanda recommends a longer adjustment period of two weeks. The kitten should spend time separated from the other animals and should not be allowed to interact with other pets without supervision. The first introduction between pets should take place over a fence, through a crate or from behind some other physical barrier. Acting as a type of social buffer, this tactic allows each animal to adjust to the other more gradually.
The goal of the gradual introduction is to slowly increase the kitten’s world. Once a kitten is confident, it will begin to run and play throughout the home. In houses with dogs or other animals, it’s important to watch out for bullying. An animal with an aggressive personality may begin to antagonize a more passive pet.
“Depending on the dynamics of the house, animals are good about working out where each one fits in,” explains Amanda, who then refers to the stare-downs that take place between her Great Dane and her kitten at home. “They’re good at giving each other clues,” she says.
In homes with small children, supervision is extremely important to insure that neither youngster mishandles or harms the other.
“No child should be left alone with a new kitten in the house for a while,” says Amanda. “For the sake of the kitten and the sake of the child.”
But supervision is only the beginning. Just as kitten owners train kittens to play safely – not using claws or teeth – they must also teach children how to interact appropriately with pets. Amanda suggests that kittens and children be introduced to one another in a small, confined space where behavior can be monitored and guided.
“Calm is imperative,” she says, “I often tell children, ‘Be really calm. Sit down. Cross your legs. Let the kitten come to you.’”
I could relate to Amanda’s advice. If only I had known the mantra of the cat whisperer – “Let the kitten come to you” – I would have avoided my first war wound as a new pet owner.
My heart had been in the right place on that first night, even if my tactics were completely wrong. In an attempt to help the kitten adjust to his surroundings, I had left my bed to sleep on the couch. His meowing kept me awake, but his silent spells were equally unnerving. During quiet moments, I would hang my head over the edge of the couch, waiting for a sign that the kitten hadn’t dropped dead from fear.
When he finally crept out of his hiding spot, I scooped him up, triumphantly cuddling him in my arms. By the time I realized I had made a mistake – the kitten was squirming frantically in my hands – it was too late. The claws came out and scratch numero uno was delivered.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Amanda about the kitten’s meowing. What was causing him to cry through the night? Was he in pain? Was he lonely?
“Most kittens come from a litter,” she explained, “so they’re used to having brothers and sisters and their mom. The meowing is a sign of stress. They are trying to figure out why they are there by themselves.” She suggested placing a stuffed animal in his room to replicate another body.
That night, during bedtime, we allowed the kitten to snuggle with us. He only cried through half of the night, which I claimed as a small victory.
The next morning, I awoke to find the kitten’s small furry face next to mine. I froze when we locked eyes and tensed my body for the attack to come. Pouncing on my face and swatting at my nose were the favorite pastimes of my former cat.
But the kitten just meowed.
When I held my hand out to his nose, he nuzzled my fingers and began to purr.
“What should we call him?” I asked my boyfriend.
“I was thinking Milo might be a good name,” he said.
I nodded in agreement. Milo sounded perfect.