Chapter 4: Putting Your Best Paw Forward

Kitten Central

            Every kitten deserves a room of her own. A private room offers several advantages, and more than anything else, helps your kitten more easily make the transition into becoming a part of your family.
            Kittens are so small they can become lost in a large home or apartment. Above all, you need to keep an eye on the baby, especially during the critical first several weeks. Because frankly, if there’s trouble to be found, your new kitten will be in the middle of it.
            By turning one room into kitten central, you help divide the kitten’s territory up into manageable chunks for her to explore and learn. Cats, by nature, are not interested to meet new people or other animals and make friends until they are first familiar with their surroundings.
            A whole house overwhelms the new baby, but a single room allows her time to explore, cheek-rub to leave her comforting scent, and find all the really good hiding places. This room becomes her safe-haven, a place that’s comforting, familiar, and stress-free for her to retreat when the world becomes too much. This should be a place she can go to nap, play quietly by herself, or escape the hectic pestering of children or other pets.
            It’s easy to create your own kitten central. Choose a room that has the least amount of foot-traffic. I chose the laundry room for my cat Seren, but a small second bathroom or guest bedroom could also work. Even a walk-in closet might be appropriate.
            On one side of the room, place the kitten’s litter box. Position her food and water dishes on the other side of the room, as far from the bathroom facilities as possible. Cats dislike eating near their bathroom—wouldn’t you? When the kitten is old enough to manage jumping or climbing, you might decide to place the dishes on a countertop to add some distance.
            Include a kitten bed—a cat carrier with a soft blanket works well—and a scratch object for her to use. Cats like to have a good scratch after they wake up or finish a meal. Finally, don’t forget some favorite toys. Your kitten will spend many hours in her safe haven, and it should be the most pleasant room in the house for her.
Kitten-Proofing 101

            You’ll need to make the house safe for your kitten just like you would for your human baby. Kittens poke objects with their paws. They pick up and bite and taste everything, they climb and explore high perches and squirm into interesting dark empty places. They have no experience what’s safe and what’s not, and may not survive a mistake.
            Besides protecting the baby, kitten-proofing also protects your valuables. For instance, kittens love to invent games like “gravity experiments” where they tap-tap-tap the antique porcelain figurine to see if it will fall off the ledge. They’ll help you by digging up freshly potted plants, use the soil as a toilet, or claw the leaves to pieces, what fun! You want to prevent problems like these, so you can enjoy the baby and build on the bonding experience instead of yearning to retaliate.
            Before anything else, kitten-proof “Kitten Central” and make sure that her safe haven really is safe. Then move on to the rest of the house, anywhere that she’ll have the opportunity to explore. Start first with kitten-level; invest in knee-pads and get down on all fours to see the house from her perspective. Then take into account the second-story kittens, because as she grows, you can be sure she’ll graduate to vaulting onto tabletops and other high perches that hold dangers.
            Once you’ve kitten-proofed the house, don’t relax your vigilance, though. For the first couple of weeks, whenever she’s not safely confined in her room, it’s a good idea to follow her around. Kittens find danger you never imagined, so running after her will ensure her safety and ease your mind. Here are some common household hazards to address.
Electrical Cords

            Kittens aren’t nearly as mouth-oriented as puppies. But like all babies, young cats explore their world by mouthing and biting them, and they love to attack moving objects—like electrical cords. A bite can cause terrible burns or even death when the kitten stops breathing from the shock.
            Eliminate as many electrical cords as you can and remove temptation. For those that are left, immobilize them with tape or run them through a length of PVC pipe to make them less attractive or accessible.
            For a few kittens, a commercial spray called Bitter Apple that tastes nasty may deter mouthing and biting. But an offensive smell usually works better to act as a kitty deterrent. Most cats dislike citrus scents. Another smell that works great to repel cats is menthol, so you can try smearing a bit of Vicks Vapo Rub on exposed cords to keep the kitten far away.
            If the worst happens and your kitten is shocked, be sure to turn off the electricity before you try to help her, or you may be injured, too. More details on first aid for electrocution are found in Chapter 18.

            Kittens adore finding hiding places and cubbyholes to sleep, or to lay in wait and leap out at unsuspecting human feet. In many instances, the dresser drawer, cupboard, or empty cardboard box doesn’t sound dangerous. But you may not hear the baby’s cries if she’s accidentally trapped inside a hiding place and a day or more without food or water can spell disaster. Make sure you check for a kitten inside before you shut doors.
            More lethal places include appliances like dishwashers the kitten may explore to lick soiled plates, or the warm clothes dryer. Even the open oven door can be attractive to a heat-seeking baby. Kittens die every day when trapped inside an appliance that’s turned on. When Seren was a baby, she was once trapped behind the warm dryer until I heard her cries for help. And once I had to pull her out of the fireplace when she thought climbing above the flue would be exciting.
            Block off dangerous kitten-size openings. Check every appliance before turning it on. Make it a habit to bang on the tops or sides of the clothes dryer as a safety check. And if you see your kitten venture into one of these deadly places, it might be worthwhile to temporarily shut the door and then bang like crazy on the thing before letting her out. That may be enough to scare the kitten away from the danger permanently.

            To your kitten, a plant invites a walk—or climb—on the wild side, and an opportunity to play “jungle kitten.” If she can’t climb it, she’ll shred it, bat the leaves into submission, or dump the pot for excavation. Oh, what fun!
            Depending on the kind of plant, Kitty may be in for more than a scolding. Dieffenbachia, philodendron, and English ivy are some of the most common houseplants that can cause toxic reactions when eaten. The kitten doesn’t have to chew the plant to be poisoned, either. Clawing the plant and then licking her claws clean can have the same effect.
            Make sure all plants are removed from the kitten’s room, and either place toxic plants out of reach—or better, get them out of the house. Give them to a pet-less friend. Kitten-safe houseplants like coleus, piggyback, jade plant or others should be placed out of reach on high shelves, or hung from hooks.

            Kittens and even adult cats adore string-type toys like ribbon and yarn. Supervised games are fine, but when you can’t be there, keep them out of reach. If swallowed, thread or other similar string-type kitten lures like fishing line turn deadly.
            Kittens can strangle if hung up in curtain cords, or choke on swallowed pieces of cord. When these materials reach the tummy or intestines, they can block the digestive system or cause cuts on the inside. That can require emergency surgery to remove the string and repair the damage.
            Tie up curtain cords out of reach, or buy the child-safe kind that have a breakaway feature. Keep sewing supplies and fishing tackle boxes in secure cupboards. And be sure favorite yarn, ribbon, and fishing pole-type toys are kept out of reach when you can’t be there.
WARNING!  If you see a string-type object hanging from your kitten’s mouth—or coming out the anus—DO NOT PULL IT! Chances are, it’s attached somewhere on the inside of the body and you could do irreparable harm. Get your kitten to the emergency veterinarian as soon as possible.
Swallowed Objects

            There are no safety standards for cat toys, so it’s up to you to ensure no small objects—like eyes or tails—can come off and be swallowed. Like all babies, kittens tend to swallow lots of nonfood objects. Besides the string-type hazards, sharp items like pins, paperclips and needles are common targets. Coins, rubber bands, and rubber baby nipples can also cause problems because they react with the digestive acids.
            Even objects you wouldn’t think dangerous can stop up the kitten’s innards and cause life-threatening blockages. Anything that the kitten can put in her mouth could potentially be swallowed. Having a kitten around has forced me to become neat and keep the floor picked up.
            Pay particular attention to human medicines, especially if the kitten’s safe-room is a bathroom. Pills are great fun to bat and chase, but most pet poisonings come from swallowed medicine not meant for them. Keep your medication secure and out of reach in the cabinet.
            Cleaning supplies under the sink can also pose a hazard for kittens if they are spilled on them, or the baby walks through something and then licks it off. Some kitties, like my cat Seren, learn to open cupboard doors. In these instances, childproof latches on cabinets that contain dangers are an excellent investment.
            Growing kittens can have voracious appetites and may eat any food scraps left within reach. That can not only interfere with nutritional balance, but could also upset tender tummies. Keep garbage covered and beyond kitten reach. Once the baby is able to leap to countertop level, you’ll also need to put away sharp objects so she won’t cut her tongue licking food off a knife or food processor blade.
WARNING! The most tragic kitten poisonings happen when an owner gives the pet something on purpose, without recognizing the danger. Tylenol and aspirin are poisonous to cats. So is chocolate and onion. Stick to a commercial food, and only medicate on the advice of your veterinarian.
Hot Stuff

            No, I’m not talking about the kitten, although all kittens believe they’re hot stuff. Kittens are particularly at risk for being burned for a couple of reasons. First, they have no experience with fire. Shy kittens may be fearful, but very bold kittens may want to play with a candle flame. They’ll end up with singed whiskers or worse. It’s best to keep candles out of reach, and fire screens in place to protect these inquisitive babies.
            Second, kittens aren’t likely to realize the difference between the stovetop when it’s off and safe or after you’ve cooked and the burners are still hot. Paw pads are the most sensitive part of the kitten’s body, and take a long time to heal. Make countertops near stoves off-limits, and enforce this rule even when you aren’t cooking. Physically remove the cat when you catch her in the act. A long-distance squirt gun can act as a surprise reminder. You can also cover the cover the counter around the stove with tin foil—cats hate walking on this stuff, and it keeps most cats away.
            A love of warmth prompts some cats to sleep too near heat sources. They can tolerate temperatures up to 126 degrees before registering discomfort. That means they can singe their tail by sleeping too near the fireplace or even suffer a burn before they recognize they’ve been hurt.
Holiday Hazards

            Many holidays throughout the year pose hazards to curious kittens. Halloween candy and scary strangers at the door (kittens can dash out) cause dangerous disruptions. Thanksgiving with lots of rich food and friends and family also offer risks. But the Christmas and Chanukah season are the most dangerous of all, because often the holiday decorations offer hard-to-resist feline temptations.
            The menorah and other holiday candles can burn kitten paws, gift ribbons can be swallowed, and Christmas decorations from plants to tree ornaments can prove deadly if swallowed or the cord from twinkling lights is bitten. Spray-on artificial snow that’s lead-based is toxic if swallowed, and icicles or tinsel are especially hazardous when swallowed.      Tree water doctored with aspirin or other preservatives can kill the kitten that drinks from the reservoir. Even tree needles can hurt when swallowed.
            Less dangerous, but no less irritating, the tree seems designed for kitten-climbing enjoyment. A toppled tree won’t make your holiday particularly merry.
            In most instances, you can apply the kitten-proofing tips to the holiday season. Keep candles out of reach. Secure electrical cords, hang breakable ornaments out of reach, and use only yarn or ribbon rather than wire hangers for ornaments. Avoid tinsel and snow-type decorations, and secure the tree so it won’t topple. Some folks have luck placing the tree inside a baby playpen to keep the kitten out, or simply put it in a room blocked off from impetuous pets.
            Some kittens and cats will leave the tree alone when it’s sprinkled liberally with cinnamon. It’s not the smell, but the dust they dislike. Or, look for the tacky sheets available at Home Depot and other stores designed to keep throw rugs from scooting around. Place these beneath the tree branches—cats hate the sticky feel and avoid walking on the surface.
            You might want to invest in a second, small tree that’s decorated with kitten-safe ornaments like catnip mice or dried flowers. That might satisfy the kitten’s urge to play, and save your formal tree.
Crossing the Threshold

            Welcome home, Baby! There’s nothing more exciting than bringing your new kitten home. The first few days--and especially the first night—can be a stressful time for both of you. After all, this budding partnership will change your lives. If at all possible, plan to bring her home at the beginning of a weekend, or take a few days off, so you have the time to devote to getting the relationship off to a good start.
            It’s a good idea to bring something familiar with the kitten from her first home. Cats identify safe places and things by the way they smell, and the baby will certainly miss the scent of her mother and siblings. Plan ahead to scent a small hand towel or baby blanket with the signature smell of Mom-cat and the babies. Simply rub or pet the mother and other kittens with the fabric, then bring it home with your kitten as a friendly reminder. Place the scented fabric in the kitten’s new bed.
            Of course, you’ll transport your new kitten in a cat carrier—or if you don’t have that, a cardboard “pet caddy” available from shelters. When you are in the car, driving is your priority. The kitten must be confined not only for the driver’s peace of mind, but for her own safety. An accident with a loose kitten in the car turns the baby into a furry projectile that probably won’t survive.
            Bring the baby into her safe-room. It should be ready with food and water, litter box, scratch object, bed, and toys available. Set down the carrier, and open the door, and let the kitten come out on her own. Some shy kittens may prefer to stay hidden from sight and won’t want to come out until you leave the room. That’s fine. You can try sitting on the floor, which is less threatening to the baby. Give her ten minutes to come out on her own—if she doesn’t, leave the room and come back in thirty minutes to check on her. Some kittens can’t wait to explore their new home. That’s fine, too.
            She should not leave her room for at least the first day or so. That gives her time to scent mark her home base and build an allegiance to it, and the litter box location. Confining your new kitten also eliminates the opportunity for mistakes. She’s not a mind reader and should be given every opportunity to do the right thing, like scratch the right object (and not your sofa), use the litter box (not the rug), and sleep in her familiar bed.
            After the first few days, you can open the door and allow her to explore the rest of the house, at her own pace. One room at a time works best, and usually it’s best to let the kitten make her own way from kitten central rather than carrying her. That way, she knows the way back to find her food and litter box.
            When you aren’t able to supervise kitten antics, the best and safest place for her is her room. It takes only a few seconds for her to get into trouble. By the time you take the cookies out of the oven, or finish up that important phone conversation, she could be swinging from the drapes or knocking Grandma’s collectibles off the mantel—leaving you a little fragrant pile under the piano bench.
            Seren hasn’t been a kitten for quite some time. She is a little over thirteen years old. And I still use her room as a safe, secure place to keep her comfortable when I’m out of the house. That’s peace of mind for both me and for Seren.
Choosing a Name

            Finding a proper name is serious business. Kitten names come to us in flashes of inspiration, and often seem to be chosen by the pet herself. For instance, my cat’s name—Serendipity—describes how I feel about finding her. Lucky, indeed!
            When you adopt a purebred kitten from a breeder, she will likely already have her name decided, at least in part. The “registered name” is the official identification for the purebred kitten, and can be a long tongue-twister that describes her ancestry.
            First names are usually the cattery where the kitten was born. These often describe the breed of cat as well. For instance, Earmark Cattery breeds Scottish Folds, Wegiekatt is home to Norwegian Forest cats, and Celticurl breeds American Curls. The second name often describes the looks or attitude of the kitten and a final name may be added to cite the name of the new cattery owner. For instance, “Kel-Lin Blazer Girl of Charlicats” is a lovely Burmese female bred by Kel-Lin Cattery, now owned by Charlicats Cattery.
            But kittens need not be registered to sport glorious, exotic, and imaginative names. Cats are named for appearance (Tiger), location where they were adopted (Dallas), for personality (Lovey), and even for famous people (Elvis). They may have descriptive names, like Six-Pack who sports six toes on each foot. Rimshot got his name by paw-drumming his owner’s head each morning to wake him.
            There’s really only one rule to follow when it comes to naming your kitten. Make sure the name is a positive one. Kittens have egos, and she may not know the verbatim meaning of the word but the emotional intent comes through loud and clear. That’s why negative names all too often foster poor behavior, while a positive one promotes self-esteem.
            Once you’ve found a name for your baby, try it on for size to be sure it fits. Kittens have a way of responding to and accepting the perfect name and it may take you a while to find it. Take your time. Kitten christening celebrates the feline spirit, and should complement the individual soul of your special friend.