Aldie Veterinary Hospital
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Home Care for Kittens

Nail Care
A cat’s claw is a specialized toenail with an assortment of functions, including feeding, grooming, and territorial marking. The claw grows slightly in length but grows primarily in layers, like the layers of an onion. As older layers are shed, underlying sharper ones are revealed. When a cat scratches a surface, it does not sharpen its nails; rather, it removes the outer worn layer.

Periodical trimming of the sharp tips prevents serious injury to others or damage to property. Ask your veterinarian to show you how you can do this at home, or periodically take your cat to your veterinarian’s office for nail trimming. After the nails are trimmed, it takes only several weeks for the sharp tips to grow back. As long as your cat does not scratch inappropriate surfaces, such as furniture, nail trimming should be sufficient to prevent excessive damage.

Scratching Posts
Cats should be encouraged to use a scratch post. You may need to try several different types of scratching posts or boards to determine your cat’s preference. It may also be helpful to place the board vertically on the floor. To encourage your cat to scratch, dangle a small toy from the top so that your cat must stretch its front legs along the post’s surface to reach the toy. If your cat enjoys catnip, encourage your cat to scratch against the post by lightly sprinkling catnip on its surface. A cat’s normal response to catnip, which includes pawing at the source of the herb, can be transferred to use of a scratch post.

Play Behavior
Cats are intelligent and agile creatures. During play, a kitten or an adult cat makes full use of its surroundings to provide itself with mental and physical challenges. Particularly attracted to moving objects, cats investigate new things on ground level or elevated surfaces alike. Play allows a young animal to practice important life skills without adult consequences. Running, jumping, hiding, and other playful antics could be invaluable later when hunting for food or escaping an enemy.

Play gives you an opportunity to teach acceptable behavior to your cat. Avoid forms of play that encourage a cat’s aggressiveness. No cat should learn that it is acceptable and fun to pounce on, grip, bite, or scratch any part of a person’s clothing or body. Such innocent fun as chasing wiggling fingers or toes under the bedcovers could lead to later problems. The target of a cat’s playful attention should be directed away from its human playmate. Introduce a wide variety of toys for your cat to chase, such as light-weight balls or toys suspended from string or wire. Your cat can stimulate attacks without risking injury to anyone.

Young cats often appear to respond to some “phantom” enemy during normal play. The pet may pause as if to listen or look at something and then race away. Some people believe that, during such episodes, the cat is reacting to an imaginary object or intruder. It is also possible that the cat is responding to a real stimulus that people cannot detect.

Undesirable Nighttime Activity
Juvenile cats are normally very active, sometimes overwhelming their owners. Young cats tend to be more active during the evening and nighttime hours and frequently disturb their owner’s sleep. Cats are naturally crepuscular (more active at dawn and dusk) because they have adapted to hunting in relative darkness.

If your cat is satisfied with the amount of attention and exercise it gets before your bedtime, chances are good that its schedule of peak activity will gradually match yours. If your cat tends to nap during the day when you are home, wake it up to play.

Though cats frequently seem to amuse themselves when there is no available playmate, they often thrive on additional social interaction with you. Once you have gone to bed, consistently ignore your cat’s attempts to get your attention and it will eventually stop disturbing you.

Preventing Damage During Play
“Cat-proof” your home by removing or preventing access to valuable or hazardous objects that will attract your cat. Apply screens on windows to prevent accidental falls or intentional escapes. It is normal for a cat to investigate elevated surfaces (tabletops, mantels, etc.) in her territory. Your valuables may be accidentally destroyed in such exploration, or the cat may destroy objects through playful mischief.

If your cat damages items in certain areas, it may be necessary to close the door to that room. Another option to discourage your cat from returning to an area is to make it an unpleasant place to visit. Strips of sticky tape places sticky side up are an unpleasant surprise for cats to step on, as are cookie sheets filled with water. If your cat is destructive or harmful with its claws during play, keep them well trimmed to avoid damage.

Training Your Pet to Tolerate Petting and Grooming
Reasons for Intolerance
Most dogs and cats enjoy human contact, but many animals have areas of their body that are sensitive to touch.  Animals instinctively guard some body areas because these are more vulnerable.  They often protect the abdomen, or belly, and the throat area.  The “sensitive” areas vary with individual animals; for example, some animals resent having their tail touched.

Certain body areas may also become sensitive because of previous injury.  If an animal is sensitive to touch because of past injury or illness, ask your veterinarian how to avoid causing your pet discomfort.  It is probably worthwhile to discuss the possibility of an underlying medical problem with your veterinarian whenever your pet seems uncomfortable when touched.  If your pet naturally resents having certain body areas touched, you may decide to simply avoid touching those areas. If these areas must be manipulated for routine grooming, work slowly to gradually increase your pet’s tolerance by offering a reward at each training session.

Tolerance Training
To improve your pet’s tolerance of being petted or groomed, withhold all petting or grooming for several weeks. When you resume grooming and petting, identify the circumstances most often related to your pet’s intolerance.  How long does it take for your pet to reach the limit of its tolerance and react negatively to grooming or petting?

Once you know at what point your pet becomes predictably irritable, stop well short of the limit.  If you discover that your pet resents these activities at certain times of day, you may wish to reschedule them.  If your cat is most playful and agitated in the evening, as many are, it might be best to brush it in the afternoon, just before its nap.

Practice with minimal grooming and petting for a very brief time.  Over a period of days and weeks, increase the duration of the interaction.  Stop well before your pet shows any sign of intolerance or irritability.  Keep a record of the length of each session to give you a clear idea of your progress.  Lack of further improvement may suggest that more training may not be productive.

Reward your pet’s tolerance of your handling with a small food treat.  Scheduling the interaction before meals can form a positive connection between petting or brushing and eating.  Your cat may enjoy gnawing on the comb for a few seconds in between brush strokes.  You may alternate a stroke of the brush with a caress of your hand.

Choice of Brush or Comb
Although you may not believe you are exerting excessive pressure while brushing your pet, your pet may not agree.  Some of the brushes recommended for your pet’s coat type may cause discomfort.  Although a particular comb may be effective in removing knots from your cat’s long coat, it may also scratch the skin and pull the hair.  Make sure that the comb or brush used to groom your pet is comfortable for the animal.

Though a certain type of brush or comb is recommended for specific coat types, it is of no use if your pet won’t allow you to use it.  Find a grooming device that is both effective and accepted by your pet.  Be careful not exert undue pressure while grooming your pet, particularly in naturally sensitive areas.

Training Your Pet to Tolerate Nail Trimming
Some dogs and cats resent having their paws held or their nails trimmed.  This intolerance is partly instinctive in young animals and may also be learned from an unpleasant experience during nail trimming.

The living portion of the nail bed contains sensitive nerves and blood vessels.  If toenails are cut too short, a dog or cat learns that nail trimming is painful.  This negative experience is not easily forgotten.  Once a pet has learned to anticipate discomfort when its feet are touched, its evasive reaction can intensify each time.  Most cats rarely need to have their claws cut if they use a scratch post.  If a cat is destructive or aggressive with its claws and either fails to respond to retraining or you cannot retrain it, declawing may be an alternative.  For the dog who enjoys regular outdoor activity, nail trimming may not be needed.  In many cases, walking on pavement maintains a dog’s nails at an acceptable length.

Training Tips 
If your pet is instinctively cautious about having its feet touched, and even if it shows no sign of withdrawing its paw, teach your pet that this interaction is not unpleasant.

– Before you ever attempt to trim your pet’s nails, begin by touching its legs, feet, and toes, and associate this with an activity it enjoys.  When it is resting, begin petting it, gently passing your hands over its back and legs.  If this is well tolerated, you may wish to give it a small food treat.  Do not try to do too much the first time.

–  Gradually manipulate your pet’s foot more each time.  Eventually, you should be able to slip your fingers in between each toe, gently squeezing each one to flex the nail, putting gentle pressure as you hold each foot and manipulate the leg.  Do not attempt this exercise when you pet is in an agitated or playful state, as it is most likely to resent any restriction to its movement.

–   Once your pet tolerates having its feet touched during quiet times, you may begin to incorporate this into elements of playtime.  Train your dog to assume a “down/stay” position when it retrieves a ball, for example, and “shake” its paw before continuing the game.

Trimming Tips
If you are unsure of how to trim your pet’s toenails, ask your veterinarian or a technician to show you how.  They can show you where the sensitive nerves and blood vessels are likely to be found.  The nail bed is seen as a pinkish triangle at the base of the nail; however, it may not be evident in dark-colored nails.  There is more variety between the shapes of toenails in dogs than in cats.  Some pets’ nails grow in a more curved shape, as compared with those growing more parallel to the ground.  This may determine how short they may be trimmed.  It is also not uncommon for a pet to withdraw a foot while the nail is being clipped, because of pressure on sensitive nail areas.

It is better to cut less than to cut more than necessary!  Trim off small sections at a time and stop well short of the sensitive part of the nail.  Cutting the nail too short results in a painful experience for your pet.  Cut your pet’s nails frequently, a little at a time, rather than occasionally when toenails are uncomfortable to both your pet and to you.  In this way, nail trimming will become a routine event, rather than a periodic wrestling match.  Continue to manipulate your pet’s feet and toes between nail trims so that it remains a familiar sensation.

Problem Pedicures

If your dog or cat has already had an unpleasant experience with nail trimming, you can train it to tolerate it by starting from the beginning.  Even if you have followed the preliminary training steps above, start over as if its feet had never been conditioned to manipulation and gradually desensitize your pet to this interaction once again.  Your veterinarian may recommend a small dose of a mild anti-anxiety medication to facilitate retraining in extreme cases.

If your pet overreacts to nail trimming at the veterinarian’s office during its annual examination and vaccination, you may wish to schedule a separate appointment for nail trimming.  In some cases, a dog or cat’s reaction to nail trimming is so extreme that retraining is difficult and may not be worthwhile.  For these unhappy pets, nail trimming is best avoided.  When it cannot be avoided, however, your veterinarian can safely do a pedicure on a sedated or anesthetized pet.