Cat care tips for the first time owner
You’re ready to adopt your first cat, our cat care tips help first-time cat owners navigate the wonderful world of cats so that you and your cat get off on the best foot (and paw).
Cat care begins before the cat arrives home, research and preparation are both vital to ensure you know what to expect and the home is ready for the cat to move into.
Choose between purebred or mixed-breed
The first tip is to decide what you are looking for. Purebred cats are more expensive, but you have a general idea of what the cat looks like and common traits in the breed. For example, the Siamese cat is known to be a quite talkative breed who will often form a strong bond with one person, the Burmese is a sweet-natured cat who loves everyone.
Mixed breed cats come in all colours, shapes and sizes and are no less special than purebred cats. All cats come from the same common ancestor, the only difference is purebred cats may have a unique feature or have been selectively bred over generations for a particular look.
Where to adopt a cat
You wouldn’t think it would adopting a cat would be too complicated but it can be if you adopt from the wrong place. Purebred cats should be purchased from a registered breeder, which means they are affiliated with a legitimate cat council and must abide by their rules and regulations.
Related: Buying a purebred cat
Cat shelters (such as the RSPCA or ASPCA) are the go-to if you choose to adopt a mixed breed cat. All shelter cats are thoroughly checked by a veterinarian and depending on where you live, they will have been desexed (spayed or neutered), wormed, treated for fleas, vaccinated and in some cases microchipped.
Free to good home cats cost more in the long run. By the time you’ve paid for desexing, vaccinations, flea and worm treatment you’re well out of pocket. There’s always the risk that if the cat becomes unwell, you will have to pay for the vet bills, in contrast, animal shelters and registered cat breeders will guarantee the health of the cat for a set period.
Essential cat products
Prepare for the cat’s arrival ahead of time so that everything is set up when the cat arrives
- Food and water bowls – Avoid plastic which may cause feline acne, ceramic or stainless steel are a better option
- Cat food – Find out what the kitten or cat has been eating and stick with that, if you decide to change, do so over a few days
- Cat carrier – Look for a sturdy carrier that opens at the top and front and can be washed
- Cat bed
- Litter tray and scoop
- Cat litter – There are lots of types of litter on the market which includes clay, clumping clay, recycled paper and food by-products (tofu, corn etc). Pros of recycled litters and food by-products are that they can be composted or used for mulching non-food plants and are not as environmentally destructive as clay litters which are mined.
- Nail clippers – The claws will need to be trimmed every few weeks, it is a good idea to get the cat used to this from a young age. It can help if one person trims the claws and another distracts the cats with treats.
- First aid kit.
- Flea and worming treatments – Veterinary approved flea and tick treatments are more reliable than supermarket brands.
- Toys – Select a variety of cat toys including toy mice, wands, and interactive puzzles, make sure they don’t have parts that can easily be chewed off and swallowed).
- Scratching post – Cats need to strop their claws to remove the loose outer layer, if they don’t have a suitable place to do this, they may find an alternative spot, such as a sofa or carpet. As a rule, a scratching post should be 1.5 times longer than the cat.
Setting up the house
Some cats will settle in the moment they arrive at their new home, but for most, there is a transition period while the cat adjusts to his or her new surroundings. It is recommended that the cat be confined to one room to help them settle in before introducing them to the rest of the house.
Some cats will hide if they have access to the entire house if this does happen don’t panic. Most cats will seek out a dark corner to hide. Look behind and under furniture, inside cupboards and wardrobes and behind curtains.
Set up a room for the cat with his or her bed, food and water bowls and some toys. The temperature should be comfortable, not too hot or too cold. Some kittens miss their mum and siblings, a towel or blanket with a ticking clock or a soft cuddly toy can be comforting.
Make sure any indoor plants are safe for cats, medicines are safely locked up, the toilet seat remains down, washing machine and tumble dryer doors are shut and poisons out of reach. Kittens, in particular, are curious and can quickly get themselves into trouble.
As the kitten or cat settles in, he or she can be slowly introduced to the rest of the house. The timeframe can be days or weeks depending on how quickly the cat adjusts to the new environment. Don’t rush things.
Fleas and worms (especially roundworm) are the most common parasites in cats. Even indoor cats can become infected with fleas and worms and should be regularly treated. Options include tablets, pastes and topical treatments which are applied to the back of the neck. The latter is easier to use than worming tablets or pastes. Common brands include Revolution, Frontline and Advantage.
Always administer parasite treatment as per instructions on the packaging and NEVER use a dog flea or worming treatment on a cat as these contain pyrethrins and pyrethroids which are highly toxic to cats. If you have a dog in the house, it is safer to use chews to treat worms and fleas, to prevent accidental exposure to dog topical flea treatments if the cat comes into contact with a recently treated dog.
Spay or neuter
Most cat breeders and animal shelters desex (spay/neuter) all cats before they go to their home, but if that is not the case, it is important to do so. Spaying and neutering is essential to prevent unwanted kittens and it also confers several health benefits, eliminating uterine and ovarian cancer, pyometra, testicular cancer as well as reducing unwanted behaviours such as spraying and estrus in female cats.
Related: Health benefits of desexing cats
Cat-proofing before the arrival of your new cat is necessary to prevent accident or injury. Kittens are at greater risk than adults, but any cat can get into trouble. Common household dangers include toxic plants, medications, poisons (deliberately ingested or which come into contact with the coat and are licked off), toilets, washing machines and tumble dryers.
Cats outside the home are at risk of dog attacks, infectious disease and trauma from motor vehicles. The safest option is to keep all cats safely inside and if finances and space permit, build an outdoor cat enclosure or ‘catio’ which means the cat can enjoy some fresh air but in the safety of an enclosed space. For extra interest, you can add cat safe plants.
Keep long thread-like items such as string, hair ties, cotton thread, wool, angel hair tinsel or Easter grass out of reach. Cats find these fascinating and if ingested can lead to a linear foreign body. This life-threatening condition develops when one end lodges under the tongue or the pylorus (the exit from the stomach into the small intestine) while wavelike contractions pull the loose end along the gastrointestinal tract until the object is taut, at which point the GI tract creeps up the object, causing trauma and a blockage.
Adult cats eat twice a day, morning and night. Cat food may be dry (kibble), canned or raw. I do not recommend feeding a raw only diet unless you have experience with feline nutrition. A variety of foods is usually well tolerated by cats, especially if started from a young age.
Many pet owners opt for a mixed diet of canned or raw and dry food to graze on during the day. This is fine as long as the cat’s weight doesn’t creep up. Varied diets can prevent fussiness in cats who can sometimes become addicted to one type of food which poses a problem if it is unavailable or goes out of production.
In some cases, cats will develop an underlying disease that is managed by a prescription diet. These diets are generally fed to middle-aged or older cats, but in some cases, a younger cat may require a prescription diet.
Wash food and water bowls once a day in hot and soapy water to remove food debris and prevent a biofilm from developing on the water dish.
Older kittens and adult cats drink water, which should be changed every day to ensure it is fresh.
Once a kitten has weaned, he or she has no need for milk and in fact, it can cause gastrointestinal issues for many cats because their body no longer produces the enzyme necessary to break down the lactose in milk. Instead, it ferments in the cat’s stomach and causes flatulence and diarrhea.
Cats are reasonably easy to care for. Their basic needs are food, healthcare and love.
At its most basic, cat care includes feeding the cat twice a day (more if it’s a kitten), and replacing water.
Groom shorthaired cats once a week to remove loose hair, longhaired cats will need to be groomed once a day to prevent mats from forming.
Annual veterinary checks up until seven and then bi-annual. This means that diseases can be picked up in the early stages, making them more treatable. Seek immediate veterinary care if the cat shows signs of sickness, it is rarely a good idea to wait.
Get to know the cat and his or her quirks, this will help you to meet the cat’s needs and pick up subtle changes early which may be a sign that the cat is not well.
Schedule time every day for play therapy, this is so important for the emotional wellbeing of all cats and allows them to stalk, hunt and burn off some energy.
Kittens receive three vaccinations and a booster at 12 months. After that, vaccinations may be annual or tri-annual depending on the cat’s risk factors and local government regulations.
I recommend all cat owners perform a simple monthly health check on their cat which will enable you to seek veterinary care early. Start at the head and work your way towards the tail. Look inside the ears and mouth, check gum colour and the teeth, run your hands along the cat to check for lumps and bumps, check carefully between the toes. If you have scales, weigh the cat and keep a record. All lumps which are larger than a pea and have been present for longer than a month will need to be checked.
Detailed information on monthly health checks can be found on this page.
There are two options for identification, a collar and tag or a microchip. The collar and tag is cheap, but not necessarily permanent as collars can slip off.
Microchipping is the insertion of a rice-sized chip under the skin at the back of the neck and is permanent. Each microchip has a unique number that is registered with a database (these differ from country to country). The number is entered into the system along with the owner details (name, address and phone number).
Some councils have made microchipping compulsory. If a cat is injured and taken to a veterinarian or is lost and turns up at a shelter, staff can scan the cat and check the database for the owner details. Sadly, it is not as commonplace as it should be. A microchip is only effective if the details are up to date.
Cats have a reputation for their independence, and to some extent that is true, however, they should not be left alone for an extended period. If you plan to go away overnight or longer, it will be necessary to organise care for the cat. Options include a friend or neighbour feeding the cat, a pet sitter who will visit the house once or twice a day, boarding cattery or a house sitter. The benefits of house sitters or a boarding cattery are there is somebody to keep an eye on the cat over the day and the cat will enjoy some human company.
All boarding catteries will require the cat is up to date on his or her vaccinations and have been recently treated for fleas and worms. Proof of vaccination will be necessary either before or at the time the cat is boarded. As always, do your homework when looking for a pet sitter or boarding cattery.
If you are considering a pet sitter, speak to your local veterinarian. Many veterinary nurses do pet-sitting to earn extra money, benefits of this are they have medical experience and can often administer medications if necessary. They will also know how to recognise signs of sickness in a cat.