Choosing a Kitten from a Shelter or Rescue

Adopting a kitten from a shelter or rescue is wonderful.

Not only are you giving a kitten a home, potentially saving her life, but you’re also adding a new little being to your family.

A new kitten requires time and attention from you, however, so make sure you’re going to be able to meet her needs. Plus, she’s going to need a safe place to get to know her new home and family. A spare bedroom or unused bathroom will work. She’s also going to need some supplies, including food, dishes, litterbox, little, toys and at least one cat tree.

So before you start searching for a new kitten, make sure you have the time, space, and budget for your new family member. You’ll have far less stress this way rather than getting a kitten on an impulse.

The Kitten’s Age makes a Difference

The rescue group I volunteer for (fostering kittens) won’t adopt a kitten to a new home until she’s eight weeks old. If her age isn’t known, she needs to be two pounds in weight. A kitten who is younger than this, or smaller, spends a little more time with her foster until she’s reached that milestone.

An eight week old kitten is still a baby, however, and is going to need lots of attention. She’ll need to be petted, held, and protected. She’s also still tiny and potentially fragile. There should be no rough and tumble play, or rough handling.

If the idea of a tiny, fragile kitten worries you, perhaps a ten to twelve week old kitten might be a better idea. These kittens are a bit older and so are a little sturdier. They are still kittens, of course, but by three months of age, are often a full pound to pound and a half heavier. That may not seem like much but it really is.

Many rescues prefer to adopt older kittens or younger adults to families with young children. Young kids can sometimes be rough without meaning to be; hugging the kitten too tightly for example. Younger kittens could be hurt by kids whereas an older kitten or young adult cat would be able to get away rather than be hurt.

There is no perfect age to adopt a kitten. Instead, it depends on your needs, abilities, and family members. Whatever you decide, talk to the shelter or rescue for felines that fit your age needs.

The Kitten Should be Healthy

Young kittens arriving at shelters or rescues more often than not have some health issues. They may have fleas, ear mites, an upper respiratory infection, or any number of other issues. However, rescue groups are set up to handle these issues and work with local veterinarians to help the kittens get healthy. This way, when it comes time for you to adopt a kitten she should be healthy.

Ask the kitten’s foster what issues she’s had, how it was treated, and whether a veterinarian has declared her healthy. Find out when she’s had vaccinations, if she’s been spayed (or neutered if a boy), if she’s been treated for internal parasites, and had any flea treatments. Ideally, you will get a health record with all of this documented for your kitten’s future veterinarian.

A healthy kitten has a soft, clean coat and her skin should be clean. Her ears should be clean with no gritty or black debris. Her genital and rectal area should be clean. She will be small but should feel like she’s eaten well. She should not be skinny but should not have a round, hard tummy either. (A kitten with a bad case of worms will have a round, hard tummy.) Her teeth should be white and her gums a nice pink.

If she has a runny nose, is sneezing, or is coughing; pass on this kitten as she probably has or is coming down with a respiratory infection. Let her stay with her foster until she’s over it. Sometimes this takes three to four weeks. Vomiting, diarrhea, dark messy ears, and other health questions need to be treated prior to a kitten being adopted. Don’t take a sick kitten to try and save it; let the experienced fosters take care of these kittens.

Get to Know the Kitten

Healthy kittens eat, sleep, use the litterbox, and play. And then they play some more. Ask the shelter volunteer or foster for the kitten’s favorite toy and see if she will play with you. The fishing pole toys and balls that crinkle are often favorites. Keep the play soft and easy to begin with because right now you’re a stranger.

After some play, pick the kitten up and see if she’ll settle down in your hands. If she’s still fired up with active play, she may not—but if she’s getting tired, she may be willing to snuggle with you.

Ask the foster about her personality; is she timid and shy? Is she bold and the first to leap into play? Is she middle of the road? What personality kitten will fit better in your family?

Listen to the foster’s comments about this kitten as she’s been caring for them. Sometimes I’ll take in litters of kittens that are as young as three to four weeks of age and keep them until they are ready to be adopted. I’ve watched these babies grow and develop, so I know their personalities quite well.

©istockphoto/suemack

©istockphoto/suemack

Color is Sometimes Important, but Often Not

One litter of five kittens I fostered included four black/white tuxedo pattern kittens and one brown and black tabby. All four of the tuxedo kittens were adopted quickly but the tabby boy wasn’t. His somewhat drab, common coloring didn’t stand out compared to his more striking littermates yet he had a wonderful, appealing, affectionate personality. It took weeks for him to be adopted although eventually someone saw past his coloring and recognized the wonderful kitten he was.

There are some personality traits associated with some feline colors. Tortoiseshell (often called torties) are usually quite opinionated and like things their way. Orange tabby boys are affectionate and bond tightly to their owners. But then again, most cat owners have a preference for one color or pattern that is usually based on a past beloved feline.

Choose a kitten who is going to be right for you and although it’s normal to have a color preference, keep an open mind because perhaps the best kitten for you right now might be a kitten of another color.

Two is Often Better

Although new puppy owners are told that two is not better than one (if you’re considering this please talk to a dog trainer first) cats are different creatures than dogs; two kittens is often better than one alone. One kitten alone can be lonely and afraid and a kitten like this will often not thrive. He may develop behavior problems due to fear or he may get sick.

Two kittens, however, can keep each other company, are built-in playmates, and will keep each other warm (which is important for small kittens). If you have a busy family or work long hours, two kittens will keep each other company so you won’t feel guilty.

It’s not unusual for a foster to ask that two particular kittens be adopted together. This could be because one has more confidence than another and the confident one will bolster the timid kitten. Or maybe the kittens had a rough start in life and were there for each other.

If you decide two kittens might be a good idea, talk to the foster who raised the litter and ask which two kittens got along best. Don’t try to piece together two kittens from different litters as this often doesn’t work. You might have fights or one will bully the other; littermates work out best.

Once She’s Joined Your Family

Once your kitten (or kittens) has joined your family, keep things calm and quiet for a few days. Quiet, calm petting and handling in a quiet room is important for her to learn to trust you. Gradually let her hear, smell, and see your normal home and routine. For more on raising a kitten, check out one of our previous posts which covers almost everything you might need to know.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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