Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Kitty Kindergarten: Activities for the First Year

Pet Column for the week of April 19, 2010

Related information:

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

Source - Linda P. Case, MS
Having a young kitten around the house might not be as challenging as tending to a newborn baby, but they do have their similarities. Both will wake you up in the middle of the night and demand a significant amount of your attention. Likewise, both require environmental enrichment in order to grow and mature appropriately.

Linda Case is an expert in the field of animal behavior. She teaches companion animal behavior and training at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, in addition to authoring numerous books on the topic. She says, "nocturnal activity is one of the most common problems I hear about from new kitten owners." Which is not surprising because, from an evolutionary standpoint, cats are nocturnal creatures.

If your new, fluffy bundle of joy keeps waking you up in the middle of the night for a game of cat and mouse, don't despair. You need not stock up on concealer to cover those bags under your eyes the next morning from lack of sleep. There's a simple solution explains Case, "try to schedule play sessions later at night."

Which brings us to the topic of appropriate toys and play behaviors for kittens. For example, playing with your kitten with your bare hand (as in letting it bite your fingers), may be entertaining when their chompers are tiny. But as they grow their canine teeth will turn razor-sharp and you probably don’t want your fingers to be anywhere near them. In addition, "some cats may not always inhibit their bite," notes Case.

Having already instilled in your kitten that this behavior is acceptable, it will be a hard problem to break, and a dangerous one, especially if you have small children in the home. The best way to prevent the situation from occurring is to never use your hand as a chew toy with your kitten.

Instead, try to direct play towards a toy such as a stuffed object tied to a stick that you can move around, like a mouse scurrying across the floor. There are countless play items on the market to choose from; just be sure to monitor your kitten's behavior around them at first to make sure they do not consume the toy, or somehow hurt themselves.

In the past few years, laser light toys have become popular among cat owners, though Case cautions against them. She has seen situations where the cat becomes so intrigued by the light that the behavior becomes obsessive compulsive--which is not healthy for the cat or the owner.

"Teaching the kitten to use a scratching post and not climb on the curtains is also a good idea at this time," notes Case. Which is another situation highlighting the importance of preventing a problem before it starts, rather than correcting the behavior after it is established.

On a final note, owners often wonder if it is a good idea to adopt two kittens at the same time so they have a companion when there are no people home. "This generally works well with cats, though we do not recommend it with dogs," says Case. But it is important to remember that adopting two kittens will be more costly than just one and require more of your time. In addition, it is important to realize that there is no guarantee that two cats who are adopted as companions for each other will actually bond and become friends.

For more information on kitten behavior and enrichment, contact your local veterinarian.