How to choose a kitten from a litter
It’s a big deal, choosing a kitten. My very first cat lived to 23. If all goes well, the kitten you choose today could end up becoming the other half of one of the longer relationships you will have in life.
On the other hand, it’s a kitten! Even if you ignore every bit of advice in this post, you still get to go home with a kitten. I’m pretty sure you’re about to have one of the very best days of your life, no matter how it turns out.
Enjoy it, and your new little one, too.
Before you meet any kittens, ask yourself some questions
I’m going to assume that you’ve already done your homework. You have a sense about the kind of time commitment involved in adding another living thing to your life. I’m sure you’ve asked your landlord if it’s OK to have a cat in the house, and you’ve checked with the other humans in your household, too. I’ll assume you’ve already thought about the expense involved in becoming a cat guardian.
If not, take a quick step back and read this post, “5 Things to think about before adopting a dog or cat.”
Ask yourself what you really want from a relationship with a cat
Now is the time to take a good hard look inward, before stepping foot into the shelter or the home of your breeder. It’s too easy to fall in love with a kitten who might not be ideally suited for your lifestyle, especially if you don’t give it some thought ahead of time.
Is yours a busy household? Are there children and dogs and people coming and going all day long? A timid kitten or formerly feral kitten would probably not thrive in your household. You need to seek out the bold, confident kitten who has been extremely well-socialized, and, ideally, already introduced to dogs.
(Read this post, “Can cats and dogs get along?”)
Do you have a quieter lifestyle? Maybe yours is a one-person household and you work from home. You need quiet during the workday, and you can’t be giving a cat non-stop attention. In this case, you might feel frustrated sharing your home with a very vocal or demanding cat. Yours might be the perfect household for a shyer or more reserved kitten, or possibly two kittens who can keep each other company (see below).
Are you seeking a lap cat? Clownish kittens are fun to watch, but they’re not for everyone. High energy, super-playful kittens can be exhausting for the wrong guardian. Not everyone is amused by kittens climbing the curtains and getting themselves locked in the linen closet. If you’re looking for a cat who loves a good lap and snuggle, seek out the more laid-back kittens. They might not run right up to you at first, but they’ll make for a more satisfying relationship in the long run.
(Or consider adopting an adult cat, instead of a kitten. I personally prefer to adopt older animals, for many of the reasons found in this post, “Should I adopt an older cat?”)
These descriptions obviously don’t cover every kind of potential cat guardian, nor every kind of kitten. But the shelter (or home of your breeder) is a hard place to think straight. The idea is to know what you are looking for and why, before letting your heart lead you astray.
What affects a kitten’s personality?
Like humans, kittens are who they are based in part upon the genes they get from their parents, and in part on their experiences.
Consequently, cat personalities range the gamut from friendly to aggressive, bold to nervous, fearful to confident, and everything in between.
Kittens need to be well-socialized early in life
One difference between humans and cats is that cats have a short socialization window in their development when they are open to new things and new ideas. This window opens at two weeks old and closes at around seven weeks old, but can extend up until about 14 weeks under the right circumstances.
In other words, a kitten needs to be exposed to everything he’s going to need to know to live with people before he turns seven weeks old. When I foster kittens, I have as many people play with and cuddle them as possible (I even invite the neighbors over). I introduce them to new foods, and let them walk on different surfaces. I ring the doorbell, clang pots and pans, run the vacuum cleaner, and introduce them to my dogs. I even play for them the sounds of babies crying and children screaming, as my own kids are grown.
An unsocialized kitten may never bond with you in the same way
A cat who has missed this socialization window with humans is never going to be as open to forming bonds with people or even other animals, as one who was well-socialized at that critical age. He is never going to enjoy your company in the same way. He will likely always avoid or fear things that aren’t “familiar” (even if he’s seen them a thousand times).
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t adopt a kitten who has missed out on that important early handling. If you live a quiet life and want a cat who isn’t making constant demands upon you, and are willing to wait for the cat to get used to you, it might be a good match. Just understand that your kitten will never grow up to be a life-of-the-party cat.
The shelter or breeder you adopt from is important, too
When you take home a kitten, you are also taking home with you everything that has happened to your kitten so far in life.
There are down-on-their-luck shelters out there, and unscrupulous breeders, too, neither of which make for a good start to a kitten’s life. It can be tempting to take a kitten that is ill or frightened because you are kindhearted and feel for the animal before you. But remember that this is a decision that should involve your brain as well as your heart. Be prepared to walk away.
The one thing you don’t want to do is to reward a bad breeder. If conditions are squalid, or if you suspect unsavory breeding or husbandry practices that hint at a kitten mill (too many cats in one place, too many different breeds being offered), leave. Don’t buy a kitten from someone who will be encouraged to backfill the sold-kitten’s spot with more ill-bred, ill-cared for cats.
The best shelter or breeder scenario for finding the right kitten
The best place to find a kitten is in a home environment.
You don’t want to adopt a kitten who has been raised in a cage or pen for the reasons described above. Similarly, you don’t want to adopt a kitten from a situation in which there are too many cats to be handled and properly socialized.
By the time your kitten is ready to come home, it might be too late for that kitten to have gotten what she needs from her early kittenhood to become a really great pet.
In a perfect world, meet your kitten’s parents
I’ve raised several litters of kittens who had been separated from their mother for reasons unknown. They were all lovely, lovely kittens who become wonderful members of their families. Do not discount a kitten because you are unable to meet his mother.
But that’s not how all kittens end up in shelters. Sometimes mom is right there. And if you’re purchasing a kitten from a breeder, dad might be there, too.
If so, ask to meet your prospective kitten’s parents. If mom or dad are friendly and relaxed, your kitten may have inherited those traits, too. Additionally, a mama cat who enjoys interacting with people will set an example for her kittens, who will be more likely to mimic her social ways with humans.
If you are getting a pedigreed cat, understand the breed
All cats are individuals and have individual personalities.
But pedigreed cats are a little different. They were bred for specific traits, and that includes physical things, like body or head shape, and fur color and length, but also for specific personality traits.
Read in-depth about a breed you may be considering, and talk to a responsible breeder before committing to a kitten from that breed.
A Sphynx cat may be “cool,” but requires frequent bathing and leaves greasy marks on furniture, for example. You might be captivated by the blue eyes of a Siamese, but Siamese cats are talkative and demanding and not for everyone.
Do your research.
The best way to meet with prospective kittens
Before you decide to take home a kitten, meet him. If there is more than one kitten to choose from, meet them all.
The best way to meet a kitten is to get down on the floor and do nothing. Just plop yourself down in the middle of the room. There is no need to talk, or touch any of the kittens. Don’t pick any of them up yet.
Just sit back, and let the kittens tell you a little bit about themselves.
Kittens can’t help themselves. They are who they are, and they will show you who they are. The bold, confident kittens will probably run right up to you and climb on your lap to explore. Within minutes they may be batting at your earrings, or climbing on your head. It’s easy to fall in love with a kitten who comes to you first, asking to play. And maybe this is the right kind of kitten for you.
There may be shyer kittens who are still reserving judgment about your presence. It may take them time to warm up. Some never warm up on their own, but are willing to accept an invitation to play with a wand toy with you – which could be the start of a beautiful relationship.
Some kittens are fearful. They hide when you sit down on the floor and never emerge for your entire visit. Depending upon their age, a fearful kitten might grow into a fearful cat. A young kitten might still have a chance to grow and change with a dedicated person handling her, but she will probably never be an extrovert.
What’s normal kitten behavior?
Wakeful kittens are usually go, go, go. If you pick up an active kitten and he tries to squirm from your grasp, that is normal behavior.
Don’t discount sleepy kittens
There is one factor you should consider before rendering judgment on a kitten: when did he last eat?
Kittens who have just eaten are going to be sleepy. That doesn’t mean that they’re introverted or shy, or disinterested in people. Their whole beings are just busy digesting. Come back another time.
(And read, "Why do cats sleep so much?")
What else to look for when you meet your prospective kitten
Aside from personality, there are a few other things you need to know before you decide to adopt.
Check your prospective kitten for:
- A runny nose or eyes, which could indicate an upper respiratory infection (which is treatable, but contagious).
- Dirty ears or head-shaking, which could indicate mites.
- A dirty or sore-looking backside, which is a sure sign of diarrhea.
- A healthy coat, free of scabs, rashes, or bald spots, which could indicate a bacterial or fungal skin infection, such as ringworm.
- Tiny specs of black dirt on the fur, which could be an indication of a flea infestation.
- Good body condition, with no ribs showing. A hard, swollen belly could indicate a worm infestation.
- Pink gums, not red (a sign of infection), nor pale, which is actually a veterinary emergency.
- Extreme sleepiness, not due to a recent feeding. Dullness in kittens is a sign of illness.
- The age of the kitten. Rescue kittens are usually adopted out at eight weeks to make room for the next batch of kittens who need saving. Deliberately bred kittens should stay with their mother and littermates until 12 weeks.
- How the kittens have been socialized and handled, and whether they have been introduced to dogs or kids, if those are a factor.
- If the kitten has been dewormed, vaccinated, or treated for any diseases.
- If the kitten has any ongoing health issue that will require medication or a veterinary follow-up.
- What and how much the kitten is being fed, so you can feed the same type and amount of food at your house, at least to start.
- The kind of litter the kitten is used to. Be sure to have that kind on hand in your house, too.
- If you’re adopting from a breeder, ask if the kitten can be returned if problems or health issues arise.
Here's a terrific checklist put together by some of the most prestigious cat-care organizations in the U.K. to help you find a healthy, friendly kitten.
Should I adopt two kittens?
Many shelters, including the shelter I foster and volunteer for, will only adopt two kittens together. They may make an exception, and allow you to adopt a single kitten, if you already have a very young cat at home already.
Two kittens will continue to learn socialization skills from one another even after they’ve left the rest of their littermates behind. They will play with each other in a way you, a human, can never really play with them, and they will keep each other company, busy, and exhausted.
If you plan to have more than one cat in your family in the future, it is much easier to adopt two now, than to try to bring a young, saucy kitten into a kingdom lorded over by a territorial older cat later on.
Kittens are not the same as puppies
Kittens, by the way, are not the same as puppies in this regard. Many dog professionals advise against adopting two puppies at the same time, especially not from the same litter. “Littermate Syndrome” in dogs can cause puppies to bond more strongly to each other, rather than their people, and can also lead to aggression between the littermates down the road.
Kittens from the same litter, by contrast, can live in playful harmony for the rest of their days.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.