Kittens can be so cute – they make us gasp in delight, and every shelter and rescue group has plenty to choose from at this time of year – colors, coat lengths and markings galore. But how do you know you're picking a healthy baby?
General impressions are important. You should get a sense of good health and vitality from the kitten you're considering adopting. The baby should feel good in your arms: neither too thin nor too fat, well put- together, sleek and solid. If his ribs are showing or if he's potbellied, the kitten may be suffering from malnutrition or worms. Both are fixable, but signs of neglect may indicate deeper problems with socialization or general health.
With soothing words and gentle caresses, go over each kitten you're considering from nose to tail, paying special attention to the following areas:
Fur and skin: Skin should be clean and unbroken, covered thickly with a glossy coat of hair. Part the hairs and look for signs of fleas: The parasites themselves may be too small and fast for you to spot, but their droppings remain behind. You shouldn't count a cat out because of a few fleas, but a severe infestation could mean an anemic kitten, which could be a problem if you're not ready to care for a sick youngster right off the bat.
Ears: Ears should be clean inside or, perhaps, have a little bit of wax only. Filthy ears and head-shaking are signs of ear mites, which can require a prolonged period of consistent medication to eradicate. Again, it's fixable, but you need to be willing to work at it.
Eyes: Eyes should look clear and bright. Runny eyes or other discharge may be a sign of illness. The third eyelid, a semitransparent protective sheath that folds away into the corners of the eyes nearest the nose (also called a "haw"), should not be visible.
Nose: As with eyes, there should be no discharge. The nose should be clean and slightly moist. A kitten who has difficulty breathing or is coughing or sneezing may be seriously ill.
Mouth: Gums should be rosy pink, not pale, and with no signs of inflammation at the base of the teeth. The teeth should be white and clear of tartar buildup.
Tail area: Clean and dry. Dampness or the presence of fecal matter may suggest illness.
Of course, even a healthy kitten will need your veterinarian's help to stay that way. Schedule a new-kitten exam and preventive-care consultation as soon as you get your new family member adopted.
Remember that health is only part of the picture when it comes to raising a kitten. Always keep in mind the cat you want your kitten to be, and create a socialization checklist that gives you homework for shaping your kitten's personality and perspective on life one day and one baby step at a time.
Look for every opportunity to shape your kitten into a relaxed, confident, friendly, affectionate and well-behaved member of your family. Hand-feed your kitten before and in between meals.
When your kitten is already relaxed, use special treats to introduce new experiences such as gentle handling, wearing collars, harnesses or getting one nail trimmed. Think of teeny-tiny baby steps and of creating a positive first impression.
Provide your kitten's favorite treats and finger-scratch your kitten in favorite places to help offset small amounts of stress. Help your kitten recover and relax by going slowly, without using any force.
Finally, ask your veterinarian for tips on how to raise a kitten who tolerates – and preferably likes – going in for wellness care. Too many pet owners say they don't provide this essential care for their cats because their pets hate the carrier, the car and the veterinary exam room. It doesn't have to be that way, so lay a solid foundation now for a lifetime of good care.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.petconnection.com. Back columns: www.sacbee.com/spadafori.