First-Time Cat Owners: A Beginner’s Guide
If you’re bringing home your first floof, you’re probably wondering what to buy and things you should know before getting a cat. Don’t fret—this list of what to expect when expecting a kitty has all the tips, tricks, and supplies to get started on the right paw. Whether your new furry family member is an energetic kitten, a frisky adolescent, or well into her senior years, we’ve got you covered.
Plus, we got the scoop from certified cat behavioral specialists Rita Reimers and Linda Hall. This cat-obsessed team founded Cat Behavior Alliance and helps new cat owners (and experienced) build better bonds with feline friends. Their advice to first-time cat owners? Keep an open mind when it comes to your cat’s budding personality. “You can’t go in expecting a typical behavior—because there isn’t a typical behavior for cats,” the team says.
Bringing a New Cat Home
Is your home as ready for a new furry family member as you are? The first step in welcoming a new cat is choosing a room for her. Your cat will have plenty of time to do zoomies around the entire house. The first few days are better spent bonding in a small room. “If you give them the whole house, they’re going to feel overwhelmed and hide,” Reimers says.
When your new cat comes home, you’ll want to spend your time getting to know one another—not at the pet store. So, the experts at Cat Behavior Alliance rounded up the essential supplies you’ll need.
Comfort and Safety
Help your new cat feel at home with these new-cat owner safety tips and tricks:
- Kitty Proofing. “Crawl on the floor and look from your cat’s perspective,” Reimers says to new cat parents readying their home. She says you can think of a cat kind of like a toddler—using their mouths and sense of taste to explore new environments. Look for small objects like stray buttons, rouge paperclips, and toxic medications like Tylenol. Secure any cords and keep plants out of paw’s reach.
- Pheromones and Calming Sprays. Pheromones and calming sprays are useful when introducing cats to new environments, meeting four-legged friends, and traveling. Basically, any situation that could cause your cat anxiety. Hall says when it comes to kittens, skip any sprays—the smells can be overwhelming for little kitten noses.
- Safe spaces. Long-time resident kitties or new cats need safe spaces they can call their own. This could be as simple as the tried-and-true cardboard box or a favorite bed or cat cave. It’s not always easy to guess which cozy option your cat will like most. So, give her a few to try, taking notes on her preferences.
- The essentials. No matter their age, all cats will need water and food bowls, litter, a litterbox, and toys. Keep reading for your guide on how to choose each one.
Picking the Right Cat Food
Cats at different life stages vary in nutritional needs. So, you’ll need to choose a cat food best suited for your cat’s age. Here’s how to select and dish out the right food for your senior cat, kitten, and all the stages between.
What should I feed my cat?
Cats are obligate carnivores.This means that at any life stage, cats should eat protein-rich cat foods. Look for labels that list meat as the primary ingredient. Avoid (when possible) labels with non-protein fillers like grains, corn, and carbs.
Can cats and kittens eat the same food?
No, Cat Behavioral Alliance says, not all cat foods are made the same. Kitten food is packed full of nutrients important for growth and development that would cause an older cat to gain weight. For seniors, your vet might recommend a special diet to support kidney or urinary health.
Should I feed my wet food or dry food?
Cats love the crunch of kibble. But dry foods lack essential hydration and usually contain more fatty fillers than wet cat food. Reimers says wet food is an ideal diet, but even she feeds kibble now and again.
How often should I feed my cat?
“When you bring home a kitten, they need to eat 4 to 5 times a day,” Reimers explains. Around nine months, you can cut it to three times a day.” Small meals mimic a cat’s natural feeding schedule and reduces their risk of becoming overweight—as do slow-feeder cat bowls. In a perfect world, we would all be home with our cats all day. When you can’t accommodate a multi-meal schedule, try an automatic feeder or consult your vet for the best solution.
How much should I feed my cat or kitten?
“A cat’s metabolism can vary cat to cat, just like it does for humans,” Hall says. “The amount of food you give one cat could be too much or not enough for another.” The best way to determine how much your adult cat should eat is by talking to your vet about their ideal weight and calorie needs. Your kitten, on the other hand, has a lot of growing to do. In general, they can eat as much as they want each meal.
Hygiene and Grooming Litter Boxes, etc.
Your new cat won’t need a regular trip to the groomer like dogs, but they will need at-home grooming and hygiene care.
- Grooming. Grooming is an important part of your cat’s well-being. Your cat will manage most of their bathing on their own but need some routine brushing. Brush short-haired cats about once a week and long-haired cats up to a few times a week. Routine brushing keeps them free of mats, reduces shedding, and prevents hairballs.
- Nail trims. Keeping your cat’s claws neatly trimmed will prevent painful ingrown nails while protecting your skin and furniture. Look for clippers made especially for cats and always reward your patient kitty with a treat after each pedicure.
- Litter Box. CatBehavioral Alliance says the number of litter boxes should equal the number of cats plus one. They should be placed in low-traffic areas away from their food and water. If your home has multiple floors, place a box on each one. The box could be covered or uncovered, as long as your kitty has room to get inside and comfortably turn around.
- Litter. There are a lot of litters to choose from—including eco-friendly, clumping, and even pH-reacting litter. Whatever litter you try, Hall says to choose one made of a soft substrate that’s easy on the paws.
Toys and Entertainment Scratchers, etc.
“Enrichment with play does so many things. It exercises your cat, satisfies their need to hunt, and it bonds cats with the humans that play with them,” Hall says. Enrichment can be mental or physical—and your cat needs both to be happy and healthy.
When choosing toys, look for ones that mimic natural prey in look, feel, and movement. Wand toys are great for moving like prey and some cats enjoy fetching toy mice. Whichever toy you choose, avoid ones with pieces that could easily break off and be swallowed. Toys with strings are a-okay to play with under human supervision but shouldn’t be left out.
Here are some expert-approved methods of enriching your cat’s play and environment:
- Scratching pads and posts. Cats have an instinct to scratch. Scratching marks their territory, helps them stretch, and maintains their nails. Spare your furniture by placing dedicated scratching pads and posts around the house. When you spot your cat using it, reward her with a treat or physical and verbal praise.
- Toys. A rotating collection of toys will keep your cat entertained. Plus, the cat experts say, look for a few toys that your cat can play with on their own, especially if you have long work hours. Both experts are big fans of puzzle toys.
- Laser pointers. “We like laser pointers, but they need to be used in a specific way,” explains Reimers. To satisfy your cat’s predatory drive and minimize frustration, the cat behaviorist team recommends following laser play with soft-toy play or a treat.
- High-up spots. “Cats feel like they’re in a position of power and safety when they’re up high looking down on their world,” Reimers says. Think: cat trees, shelving, window perches, and re-purposed dressers.
Setting Vet Trips and Routine Check-Ups
Welcoming a new kitten to your household means visiting the vet soon after settling in, says Feline Medical Clinic. At their first appointment, you’ll discuss vaccines recommended for all kittens. Plus, the benefits of spaying and neutering if your kitten isn’t fixed.
After these initial visits, adult cats should visit their trusted vet at least annually, or every six months when recommended. Your vet will send you friendly reminders of vaccine boosters that every kitty (even indoor!) needs.
As your kitty enters their senior years (at the spry age of seven), your vet might recommend seeing them two to three times a year.
Bonding with Your New Cat
“Cats don’t see species,” Hall explains. “You are either a predator, you are a prey, or you’re part of my social structure and my family. It takes them time to figure it out.” Some cats, she says, will warm up in a matter of days while others might need more time to become acquainted.
But, Reimers and Hall say, there are plenty of bonding activities that can help your new cat feel comfortable and build a stronger relationship with you along the way.
- Talk to your cat in a gentle, soothing voice.
- Don’t force interactions. Instead, let your cat come to you.
- Use a wand or fishing-pole toy to play, keeping a comfortable distance between you and your cat.
- For older cats, spray your own hands with calming spray and pet your cat.
- Give your cat a treat by placing it near them. Work up to your cat eating the treat out of your hand.
Introducing Other Pets
First things first when it comes to introducing your new cat or kitten to other pets: take it slow and always supervise the first interactions.
- Scent. Use food as a positive association with the other’s scent. To do this, says Almost Home Humane Society, feed your pets near the door separating them, moving the food dish closer and closer to the door. Meanwhile, give your pets an object of the others (like a bed or blanket).
- Swap places. Allow your new cat to roam the house while your resident pet(s) is confined to your cat’s room.
- Sight. Allow your pets to see each other while staying separated. This is best done with a screen door or a secure gate.
- Touch. Under close supervision (dogs on leash) allow your pets to sniff and boop noses face-to-face.
Interactions should remain supervised until you’re certain everyone gets along and knows how to safely interact with the other, especially when introducing a kitten to the household.
A new cat or kitten will bring lots of laughs and joy to any home. With the right set-up of a safe and engaging environment, your new cat will feel right at home soon. But don’t be discouraged if it takes your new cat longer than expected to warm up to you. With play and gentle interactions, they’ll begin to associate you with their social structure—aka their family. Being prepared and taking introductions slow will go a long way in ensuring your new pet adjusts to their home.