Cat Care 101: A Guide for New Cat Owners
If you are a new cat or kitten owner, you probably have a lot of questions about caring for your new friend. As you may already know or will soon find out, cats are so many things: fun, playful, independent, loving, curious, smart, and often very entertaining. Since you’re online seeking information about cat care, your cat is lucky to have a caring owner.
Cats are easy pets to care for and relatively low-maintenance. Once you’re familiar with the basics about feeding, litter boxes, grooming, general health, and safety, all you have to do is love and enjoy your cat.
In Cat Care 101, you'll find the essential topics that new cat owners should become familiar with to have a happy and healthy cat.
We’ll start with the topic your cat probably thinks is the most important.
The food you choose to feed your cat has a big effect on its overall health, so you’ll want to make sure you’re feeding your cat something nutritious that has the right amount of calories for your cat’s age, weight, and activity level.
If you know what brand of food your cat was eating prior to adopting it, it helps to get a small amount of that food to keep him on a consistent diet and make a slow transition to whatever food you plan on feeding him. Changing to a new food takes a little adjustment, so do a slow transition if possible to avoid stomach issues.
Kittens (under one year old) should eat a kitten formula because they’re still growing and need a higher calorie food.
If your cat has health issues or is overweight, underweight, or is a senior, it’s best to let your veterinarian help you select the right food. For example, if your cat needs to lose weight, this needs to be done slowly for the cat’s health.
Remember, cats should always eat cat food to be healthy. Dog food or even a can of tuna doesn’t provide the complete nutrition a cat needs.
For the average, healthy cat or kitten, here is a quick breakdown of the types of food you’ll find in the grocery store or pet store.
Most cats like canned food, also called ‘wet food’, once they get used to it, and the high water content gives the cat some additional hydration. When you feed your cat canned, don’t forget that uneaten food shouldn’t be left out in their bowl longer than a half hour because it will spoil and become unhealthy to eat. Always cover and refrigerate whatever’s left in the can.
Canned food comes in a variety of textures such as chunks, slices, minced pieces, pate, or chunks in gravy. Some cats have specific preferences, so you can experiment until you find what food your cat enjoys most.
There are big differences in the quality of different canned foods, so be sure to read the ingredients before you buy it. The first ingredient should be meat and not grains or fillers. Cats are carnivores and have little need for grains in their diet.
Better quality and premium canned cat foods often have meat (poultry, beef, fish, etc.) as the first several ingredients and don’t contain any by-products, artificial colors, flavors, or fillers.
You can find these foods at most pet food stores. Although they tend to be more expensive compared to grocery store foods, pure ingredients and less fillers means there’s more nutrition packed into one can. Feeding your cat high quality food also means better health for your cat and fewer trips to the vet.
My suggestion is to always read the ingredient label and buy the best quality canned food your budget allows. There are a lot of great resources online to help you choose the best food for your cat.
For more in-depth information, see my article: How to Choose the Best Cat Food for Your Cat.
Cat Care 101 Poll
How long have you had your cat?
Once you find a food that works for your cat, you can often save money by buying food in bulk online. Many cat food companies have websites, e-newsletters, or Facebook or Twitter pages where they regularly post coupons.
Here’s a list of some premium cat foods (in no particular order):
- Natural Balance
- Wellness CORE
- Nature’s Variety
- California Natural
- Blue Buffalo
- Eagle Pack
- Taste of the Wild
- (B.G.) Before Grain
- Nature’s Instinct
Many of the brands listed above also come in dry formulas.
Some people prefer to feed their cats dry food or a combination of dry and canned food. Dry food is convenient for people who aren’t home often because the food can be left out all day without worrying about it spoiling.
As with canned food, read the ingredient label and try to find a food that has real meat in the first few ingredients whether you’re buying a brand from a grocery store or a pet store.
Ideally avoid products with by-products, fillers, and artificial flavors.
It’s best to purchase a smaller bag at first to make sure your cat likes the food and does well on it before you get a larger bag.
How Much Food to Feed a Cat?
Find out what your cat weighs and follow either the directions on the bag or can of food or the recommendation from your vet.
A cat’s activity level should also be taken into consideration. An active outdoor cat needs more calories than an indoor couch potato.
Remember, if you’re feeding both dry and wet food, to take that into account when figuring out how much to feed your cat.
If your cat seems to be gaining weight, reduce his portion size or switch to a reduced calorie or ‘indoor cat’ formula.
For food and water bowls, stainless steel or ceramic is best. Plastic holds food odors and some cats will even develop chin acne from eating out of plastic bowls. Their food bowl should be shallow so it’s easier to eat from.
Make sure your cat has a bowl of water available at all times. Change the water at least once a day and wash the bowl with warm, sudsy water at least a few times a week. To encourage your cat to drink more water, try putting water bowls in a couple different places around your home.
You will want to have at least one litter box for each cat you have. I personally like the standard open litter boxes for my cats. Covered litter boxes can trap odors or make a cat feel confined when they go inside.
Whatever type of box you get, make sure it’s the appropriate size for your cat. Bigger cats (over 10 pounds) may find a regular size litter box too small, so buy an extra large one if possible.
A litter mat is also helpful to keep under the box to catch scattered litter before your cat tracks it around the house. Also buy a litter scoop that works with the variety of litter you buy and a small bucket to dispose of the dirty litter as you scoop.
There are so many types of cat litter that it can be difficult to choose. There’s clay litter, clumping litter, pine pellets, and recycled newspaper litter (Yesterday’s News), just to name a few. Regular clay litter tends to be the least expensive and is usually the easiest to find. If you use clay litter, try to choose one that 'low dust' or 'no dust'.
A great tip my vet gave me when I first got my cat was to stick with one type of litter. Switching litters too often or buying whatever brand happens to be on sale that week can sometimes make finicky cats decide to avoid the litter box.
Scoop your litter box once or twice a day to keep it clean and replace all of the litter and wash the box about once a week or when the litter begins to hold a urine odor.
It may be gross, but always check for anything unusual in their stool or urine (such as worms, mucus, or blood). Also notice if there is diarrhea, any hard stools, or more or less than usual. Cats are masters at hiding symptoms of illness, so if you see anything that doesn’t seem normal, call your vet to be safe.
If you'd like some insight on how to prevent litter box issues, check out my article: Cat Not Using Litter Box? Try These Solutions.
Grooming Your Cat
Grooming your cat is simple and doesn’t take much time. A short or medium-haired cat should be brushed thoroughly about once a week. A longer haired cat such as a Persian or Persian mix should brushed two to three times per week.
Brushing is important to remove loose/dead hair, dirt, and oils and to keep their skin healthy. A regular bristle brush works for most cats. You can also try a brush with metal bristles to remove more hair when they’re shedding a lot. If you’re in the pet store and not sure what type of brush to get, ask the staff to recommend one.
Cats tend to shed more as the weather warms up, so brushing is very important to remove dead hair and prevent mats, which are hard clumps of hair that form if the hair isn’t brushed often enough.
Mats can happen with cats of any hair length, but are more common in medium and long-haired cats. Certain long-haired breeds, such as Persians, are more prone to getting mats. Once mats form, they’re difficult to comb out and you might need to have a professional groomer remove them or even shave them off if they’re severe enough.
To avoid this problem, be sure to brush your cat regularly.
I love the FURminator because it cuts down on excess shedding and helps keep my cats mat-free.
If your cat sheds a lot or is a medium or long-haired cat that's prone to getting mats, you may want to consider the FURminator De-Shedding Tool for Cats in addition to your cat's regular brush. It's a special metal tool that removes more hair than a standard brush.
Two of my cats have fur that tends to mat, but since I started using this brush, they've been mat-free. It's especially helpful to use in the spring when they start shedding their heavy winter coats.
When I use this, my cats look better, have less hair balls and I find less fur on my furniture and clothes. It does remove a lot of hair, so it's best to use the FURminator gently and don't over-do it.
It's available in two sizes and there are versions for both short and long-haired cats.
Most cats do a pretty good job of keeping themselves clean, so it usually isn’t necessary to bathe them unless they are older and not cleaning themselves well or dirty from being outdoors.
If you do need to bathe your cat, buy a very gentle shampoo designed for cats and avoid getting soap or water anywhere near their eyes or ears. Avoid shampoos with chemicals or flea treatments as many cats have had bad reactions to certain flea-treatment shampoos. If you aren’t sure what to buy, ask your vet or groomer for a suggestion.
After bathing, towel-dry your cat well and keep him someplace warm until he’s dry. Once his coat is mostly dry, a light brushing will make him fluffy and beautiful.
You will need a small pair of cat scissors to trim your cat’s claws. I’ve found that trimming my cats’ claws twice a month is sufficient. The front tend to grow faster than the back.
Trimming claws is important to keep them from getting too long, sharp, broken or frayed. Long claws can cause your cat to accidentally scratch you when you’re holding him or snag your clothing or furniture.
Make sure the scissors you use are sharp because once they’re dull, they’ll only tear the claw and will be painful for the cat.
The photo below is just one example of scissors designed for cats.
Claw Trimming Steps:
- Trim your cat’s claws in a well-lit or sunny room.
- Find someone else to help hold the cat still unless you can do it yourself.
- You can set your cat on a table, a countertop, your lap, or the floor, whatever works best for you.
- For front paws, press gently on one toe until the claw extends out.
- Locate the ‘quick’, which is the pinkish vein that extends down through the nail.
- Trim only the very end of the claw, always avoiding getting close to the quick.
- Repeat this with each toe, including their ‘dew claw’, which is the claw on the inner part of their front legs by their wrist.
- Keep a small container of pet styptic powder on hand in case you accidentally cut the quick. If this happens, put styptic powder on the nail and put pressure on it with a paper towel to make sure the bleeding stops. As long as you’re very careful and just cut the very tip of the claw, this almost never happens.
If you’re still not sure how to cut your cat’s nails yourself, ask another cat owner you know to show you how, or take your cat to your vet’s office or a groomer until you’re comfortable doing it on your own.
Some cats are better about having their claws cut than others. I have found they also tend to be more accepting of having their front claws trimmed than their back.
If you start the habit when the cat is young, he or she will get used to it more easily. I always praise my cats and reward them with a cat treat after I cut their claws, so now they don’t mind it at all.
Cats and kittens love their playtime, so get a few types of toys to keep them entertained. I’ve found that different cats prefer different types of toys, so if you get one they don’t like, keep trying.
One of my cats loves any type of small, soft mice toy that he can carry around in his mouth. He’ll actually play fetch just like a dog when I toss his favorite toy around. My other cat is more amused by colorful plastic cat springs. He’ll have fun batting his springs across the floor until he wears himself out.
If your cat is lazy and needs some encouragement to get moving, try ‘Da Bird’, which is a long wand with feathers on the end of a string, which mimic a bird in flight when you swing it around. Even the laziest cat usually can’t resist taking some swats at it or chasing it around.
The Bergen TurboScratcher is a fun toy where cats can push a ball around a circle and use the corrugated cardboard center as a place to scratch.
To keep cats from scratching furniture, make sure you have some type of cat scratcher in a few places around the home. This can be a scratching post wrapped in sisal rope, scratching pads, corrugated cardboard cat scratchers that come in all shapes and sizes, or even cat scratchers you can hang over a doorknob.
Check out the cat aisle in a pet store or pet department for these. They don’t have to be anything fancy. One of my cats loves scratching on anything made out of corrugated cardboard and these types of scratchers tend to be the least expensive.
You can also buy a small container of dried catnip to sprinkle on the scratcher to attract your cat. Whenever he uses the scratcher, praise him so he learns to use the scratcher and not the corners of your couch.
For more tips on scratching, see my article: How to Stop Cats From Scratching Furniture.
Most cats sleep a lot during the day, so make sure yours has a comfortable, quiet place to rest, whether it’s a cozy cat bed or just a blanket of his own.
Some cats prefer a sunny, warm spot to sleep; others want to hide away in someplace dark and private. See where your cat likes to sleep and put his bed or blanket in that area.
I’ve found that having a cat tree is ideal for giving my cats a place to play and rest.
It’s good to keep a bag of cat treats on hand to reward your cat. Some cats also really love fresh greens, such as cat grass.
You can buy it already grown in some pet or health food stores, or buy a cat grass kit in a pet store and grow it yourself. It grows within a few days and it’s fun to watch your cat munch on the grass.
Some cats like catnip, which usually comes dried in containers or bags, but you can also buy it fresh and already grown in a pot. Not all cats react to catnip, but the ones who do will act strange when they eat it. Some will roll around in it. Others will act drunk and fall asleep. Sometimes they get hyper and start running around or acting more playful than usual. It’s really fun to watch and the effect usually lasts less than a half-hour.
You should have a pet carrier for transporting your cat to the veterinarian or anywhere else you take him. A carrier is also important in case you ever have to leave your home in the event of an emergency.
There are many types of cat carriers to choose from in all price ranges. Be sure to choose one that’s the right size for your cat. He should fit into it comfortably and be able to move around a little on all sides. If you have a big cat and can’t find a big enough carrier, a dog carrier will work just as well.
I’ve found the SturdiBag carriers to be great for my cats. They’re strong but also extremely lightweight and have a big, adjustable, padded shoulder strap that makes it easy to carry like a duffel bag and load in and out of the car. The Small and Large sizes are approved as ‘In-Cabin Carriers’ for airline travel. There are various flaps on the carrier with mesh venting that you can easily open or close depending on the weather conditions.
The SturdiBag pictured below is the ‘Extra-Large’ size, which is a good size for large cat. For small to medium-sized cats, the ‘Large’ size should be big enough unless you want a roomier carrier.
SturdiBags can be purchased directly from Sturdi Products at SturdiProducts.com. I’ve seen them available from other online retailers as well, although there seems to be a wider selection of sizes and colors when you buy from the manufacturer.
To learn more about how to select a carrier and for listings of some of the best, see my article: Best Cat Carriers.
Caring for Your Cat's Teeth
Do You Brush Your Cat's Teeth?
It may seem strange to brush a cat’s teeth, but it’s something you should do to prevent all sorts of health problems that are caused by poor dental health. Bad teeth, plaque, and gingivitis can cause bacteria in the mouth that can affect major organs such as the liver, kidneys, and heart, causing serious health problems.
If you start a habit of brushing your cat’s teeth from the start, you can prevent these problems. All you need is a cat tooth brushing kit, available in pet stores or from your vet’s office. Don’t ever use people toothpaste since it is not safe for cats. A cat tooth brushing kit contains a small toothbrush or a rubber toothbrush that looks like a thimble and fits on your finger. It also comes with a meat-flavored toothpaste.
It might take some time for both you and your cat to get used to teeth brushing, but after a little practice, it’ll get easier.
Additionally, you can put an additive in their drinking water that will help prevent plaque formation. This is available from your vet’s office.
Veterinary Care and Cat Health
If you don’t already have a veterinarian for other pets you have, talk with friends, relatives, neighbors, or co-workers for recommendations for good vets in your area. You may want to meet the vet first to make sure they have good credentials, are competent and knowledgeable, and charge reasonable prices. Ideally, this should be someone fairly close to your home so it’s not a far drive in case of an emergency.
It is best to let your vet advise you on how often you need to bring your cat or kitten in for a check-up and vaccinations. Typically, a healthy adult cat should be given a veterinary exam once a year.
Don’t forget to bring a list of questions you may have about your cat and its health. Your vet is a valuable ally in keeping your cat healthy.
As long as they are well cared for, cats can live long, healthy lives. Nutritious, high-quality food and regular veterinary care can prevent many health problems. Since cats are usually very good at disguising any signs of illness, always watch for any changes in their eating or drinking habits, litter box habits, or general activity level and call your vet with any concerns just to be safe.
Kids and Cats
If you have young children in the home, make sure you teach them how to treat your cat with care and respect. Some children, especially young ones, may not know that they shouldn’t pull a cat’s tail or play with it too roughly.
Teach them how to gently pet the cat and to give it its space when it’s eating or resting.
Cat Safety in the Home
Now that you have a kitten or cat in your home, be aware of any potential dangers such as high balconies, staircases, windows without screens, anything they might climb on and knock down, or certain plants or flowers that can be poisonous to cats.
For detailed information about cat-safe houseplants and flowers, see my article: How to Choose Cat-Friendly Plants.
Also keep string and small objects, such as twist ties, rubber bands, or paper clips, away from cats. Being naturally curious, cats will play with these things or pick them up with their mouths and possible choke on or ingest them. Even some cat toys will have ‘use only under supervision’ warnings on their labels.
Always keep your medications in their bottles and well out of reach of cats. Don’t forget cats can easily jump onto countertops and even get into cabinets. Ingesting medicines can be fatal to a cat, so be extra careful not to drop any type of pill or spill medicines on your floor.
If your cat ever eats or drinks something that might be harmful, immediately contact your vet or the ASPCA’s 24-hour/365 day-a-year Pet Poison Control Hotline at 1-888-426-4435 (in the USA). They do charge a fee for this service, but if your vet isn’t available, this hotline could save your cat’s life.
Should You Let Your Cat Outdoors?
In general, indoor-only cats live longer and healthier lives. Cats that live primarily outdoors or both indoors and outdoors are subjected to risks such as diseases from other cats or wild animals, vehicle traffic, dog or wild animal attacks, or getting lost or stolen. Keeping your cat indoors is ideal for keeping him safe and healthy.
Congratulations on Being a Cat Owner!
I hope you’ve found Cat Care 101 helpful and that you enjoy having a cat in your life as much as I do.
© 2012 carolynkaye