A 13-year-old girl who loves animals and wants to be a veterinarian is going to adopt her first companion animal, a kitten—or kittens, if she has her way. How many of us got our start with companion animals just like that, pre-teens or young teenagers who loved animals and wanted to be veterinarians, and our parents appeased us by adopting a shelter animal?
And are you one of the many who was given a kitten or a puppy as a gift in childhood? If you’re anything like me, that animal made all animals a permanent part of your life.
I rarely travel, and one of the things I look forward to is meeting new people and seeing new things all the way, on this trip from the time I left the house in the pre-dawn darkness to catch the train until the time I arrived back home late at night four days later to greet my startled cats who were apparently looking for me the entire time.
On my way back I overheard a conversation between one of two young girls seated behind me and an older woman across the aisle from them. It was just part of the buzz around me as we all settled in until I heard the word “kitten” my ears pricked up and swiveled around as much as a human’s can do.
In a minute or two I confirmed that a kitten adoption was planned over the coming week. Much as I like to meet new people and converse among the seats, I also prefer to give people their privacy when they are in a conversation amongst themselves, but I couldn’t resist.
I slid toward the end of the seat next to me, leaned back a little and caught the eye of the woman who was apparently the mother who had planned this. She smiled at me so I felt it safe to enter the conversation.
“Is someone adopting a kitten?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Mom, “my daughter loves animals and wants to be a veterinarian, and I’m moving to a place where we can have a cat for her. She’s never had a pet, and she’s so excited!”
13-year-old girls are way too cool to show excitement. When I looked around my seat to the one behind me, she glanced up from her computer game, just moved her eyelids and nothing else, and nodded. I smiled.
“I probably wouldn’t interrupt your conversation, but…” I briefly described my credentials as a cat lady, making myself out to be a professional on the subject of cats instead of just the crazy cat lady who was crocheting a hat in the seat ahead of them, which was also true.
Mom was glad to have someone to ask questions. I was glad to share the enthusiasm I always had for discussing cats and the information I’d learned over the past 40 years of living with cats. Teenage daughter played her computer game but listened, I could tell.
I asked for the details of how they were adopting and when, how old the kitten was, if they had things ready and what their daily schedule was like to see what information I could offer them, and answering Mom’s questions.
As it turned out, the kitten was one of a litter taken in to a shelter in Harrisburg. They had visited the shelter weeks ago and met this kitten and others and decided on this one and possibly a sibling, but had to wait until they had most of their vaccinations and been spayed or neutered. The kitten would be eight to ten weeks at going home, just at the beginning of that growth spurt and ready to raise ruckus as young kittens are programmed to do.
I told them that kittens at that age had a lot of energy and no common sense, and so they had to plan for the kitten to be very playful, but also likely to get into trouble without intending by climbing into or onto places that might be dangerous, scratching things it shouldn’t, and even playing rough with the humans.
And, since the kitten would be home alone all day and even overnight later I told them that two kittens would be a better idea since the kittens would keep each other company during the day, beating each other up instead of getting into trouble while alone.
“Kittens are often misinterpreted as being ‘bad’ and sent back to the shelter because people don’t understand that during those weeks of development from toddler to teenager in human terms, they have to play hard to build muscles and coordination, to explore to develop their senses,” I said, or some variation on that. Kittens develop very quickly, and by sixteen weeks can be completely independent and even sexually mature—all this learning has to happen before that, even if they’ll never use it to kill live prey, defend themselves or mate or give birth.
A good bit of discipline, then, depends on understanding what the kittens are doing, and if necessary redirecting the energy into something more appropriate. I could imagine two little kittens ripping through the house they were describing.
“Little, little kittens can climb into places where you might not even fit your hand,” I said, “and even bigger kittens can get themselves into a mess, so check for everything they can get in to, because they will. And don’t be afraid to confine them to one room for portions of the day for their own safety, while you are away or while you are eating or cooking,” I continued.
Thinking of the teenager who I knew was listening and might be one of the few to actually go on and graduate as a veterinarian, I explained that all cats scratch things because they leave their scent from scent glands in their paws, they groom their claws, removing old layers of cuticle, and they stretch full-length and exercise their muscles. Just figure they’re going to scratch things, give them things to scratch that they like, put them where they’ll use them and usually they’ll just gravitate to what you’ve provided because it’s so convenient and not bother with anything else.
“I’ve used a lot of the cardboard scratchers that just sit around on the floor because the cats and kittens can step right up onto them and they immediately start to scratch when they feel that rough texture beneath their paws,” I said, adding that having at least one in every room is probably what saved my furniture along with a regular carpeted scratching post and a cat tree I’d gathered over the years. “They like rough surfaces—think tree bark,” I added.
“Remember that they think you are big cats, too, and they are going to try to play with you as if you really are just another cat,” I continued. “Don’t fall for it. Touching them is for affection, not wrestling. Never play with them directly with your hand or they’ll think your hand is one of their toys. If they want to wrestle, grab a plush toy and let them tackle that. Teach the little boys (her two young sons) to drag the sturdy string toys around for the kittens to chase, it’ll be a lot more fun for the boys anyway.”
Make sure the litter box is convenient, on the same floor and only one or two rooms away at any given time. Once kittens are litter trained it’s usually permanent, but if they have to go and can’t find the box quickly, they’ll find the next best thing, usually a spot that’s inconvenient to you.
Make sure food and water are always available, too. Kittens need a high-protein diet because of their rate of growth, and unless they are somehow ill they will eat and drink as much as they need to as long as it’s available. But keep the litterbox and the food bowl in separate rooms, if possible, or at least far enough away that the two won’t mix.
I know I offered many more little points in the guise of anecdotes and stories from my own and others’ experience, but finally it seemed as if they had all the information they could hold for one session. I asked the daughter if she had any ideas for names. She said she had lots of ideas but didn’t divulge any, meaning she probably thought I wouldn’t know who or what she was talking about, which was highly likely.
She and her friend got up and went to the dining car, and I had the opportunity to say to her mom what I had just been thinking, remembering about my own first kitten: “Just think of all the years of her life this cat will see, through her teenage years and high school, she might go off to college and leave the cat with you, but the cat will be there for her when she comes home to visit, or she may take it with her when she gets her own place. She could be into her 30s before she loses it. All those important years of her life shared with this one cat you are about to bring home….”
“Wow,” said her mother, “that’s right, cats live a long time and she could be married with her own children by that time.”
Her daughter returned and she pointed this out to her, to little response, but again the glance and the nod. She had to be cool in front of her friend.
Mom had to take a call from her office, even though it was Sunday and we were on the train, and there the conversation ended until they left the train halfway to my destination, when we said goodbye and good luck.
I was left thinking about all the years I’d spent with cats, from Bootsie, my first cat, to those who are with me now, I’ve measured eras in cat lives. I enjoyed the thought of a responsible adult and a caring young woman adopting a shelter kitten, and hoped it brought many happy endings for the people and for those cats, and for other animals each of those children would encounter or adopt later in life, and even for other people, as we know that children learn important interpersonal lessons from animals.
And what a joy for the opportunity to share the knowledge I’d both observed and intentionally learned over the years, gleaned from both the happy and the sad events and memories. Isn’t that what I do every day through my writing and art so I can do my part to make life better for cats and all animals and the people who love them, and give people images and a voice to describe how they feel about their animal companions?
But for now, I’ll still think of the household with one or two new kittens, whichever they decided, and picture the girl with her tabby and the little boys running around with strings for the kittens to chase. It’s a very happy thought.
I’ll soon be telling the story of the orange kitten at the top of this article—another magical rescue story. All the other photos are of Lucy, Fromage and the Fantastic Four and other kittens you may have seen in my articles, but I hadn’t realized such a trend in black kittens in my house in the past several years. I’ll have to dig out those prints on film from earlier litters!
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