How to Choose a Healthy Kitten

Four Parts:Viewing the KittenAssessing the Kitten’s PersonalityAssessing the Kitten’s HealthAssessing the Kitten’s Mother

When choosing a kitten take care not to let cuteness overrule common sense. Try to be objective (though we know this may be hard) and choose a healthy kitten. When choosing a kitten, step up a viewing time and try to assess the health and personality of the kitten, as well as the health of the kitten’s mother (if possible).

Part 1
Viewing the Kitten

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    Ask to see the rest of the kitten’s family if you are viewing him in a private home. When you arrange to see the kitten, ask to see the mother and other kittens in the litter if you are looking at kittens in a private home, rather than at a rescue center. In addition to this, ask to see where the kitten was born and raised in order to get a sense of the living conditions the kitten has been kept in.
    • Take note if your kitten was raised in a run (an outdoor pen). Runs may lead to kittens that are poorly socialized, which means they may be shy or aggressive later on.
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    Use caution if the owner says the rest of the cat family is unavailable. If the owner says it's not possible to see the mother, then say thanks but no thanks. In a domestic environment, or at a breeder's location, there should be no problem seeing the mother. If the vendor refuses, this may indicate that kitten farming has occurred.
    • Kitten farming is where kittens are bred at a different location—often in poor conditions—and then separated from their mothers at very early ages (usually before they are seven weeks old). This is a very immoral practice.
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    Assess the kitten’s living space if you are viewing him in a rescue center. If the kitten is located at a rescue center, ask to view the kitten in his living space (this will help to see if the kitten’s litter box is normal, which will be discussed in detail in Part 3).
    • You could also ask to visit the kitten when he is being fed in order to see what his appetite is like.

Part 2
Assessing the Kitten’s Personality

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    Try to set up a meeting with the kitten when he is three or four weeks old. If possible, visit the kitten when he is three to four weeks of age. If this is not possible for whatever reason, try to view the kitten at the earliest opportunity.
    • When a kitten is sociable and playful at a young age, it is unlikely that he will turn into an antisocial or aggressive cat later on.
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    Look at what the kitten is doing when you arrive at the facility. When you enter the room, watch to see what the kitten(s) are doing. A good sign of healthy kittens is to witness all of the kittens interacting with each other, even if this just means sleeping in a heap together. When the kitten is awake, ask yourself:
    • Is the kitten bold and does he confidently come to see you? This is a good measure of sociability and also eyesight and hearing.
    • Try dragging a toy in front of the kitten's eyeline. Does he follow it? Again, this is a good sign of healthy vision and an energetic personality.
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    Know when a kitten should be rehomed. The ideal age for a kitten to go to a new home is around seven to nine weeks of age. Waiting until this age will allow the kitten to get adequate care from his mother. At the same time, try to get your kitten before he is 12 weeks old, as this is generally when the main age of socialization comes to an end.
    • The socialization period is the time between 2 to 12 weeks of age, when the kitten accepts what he sees and experiences as "normal".
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    Understand how runs can affect a kitten’s sociability. Kittens kept in isolation, such as pedigree cats bred and kept in outdoor runs, have a greater chance of being aggressive or stand-offish in later life. This is because those critical early weeks when they accept human company are spent in a concrete runs with little exposure to the sights, sounds, and smells of a domestic setting. Thus, a normal domestic situation is frightening or threatening to them and they do not readily accept human company.
    • This behavior, if it exists at 12 weeks, is often permanent for the rest of that cat's life.
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    Ask about how frequently the kitten has been handled. Kittens should be regularly handled, and subjected to household sights and sounds, from when they are about two weeks of age. Handling young kittens help them to adjust to family life. If a kitten has not been handled, he will have a harder time adjusting to life in his new home.
    • The peak period for socialization is 2 to 7 weeks, with a tailing off of learning between 7 and 12 weeks. A kitten kept in a run and rehomed at 7 weeks, stands some chance of adapting to a home, however it depends on the individual kitten and how adaptable their learning is.[1] Thus, homing any kitten previously kept in a run may be a challenge.
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    Be aware that most rescue centers have good socialization programs. Good rescue centers have a socialization program in place that helps kittens get used to love and cuddles at an early age. Ask the rescue what their policy is, in order to reassure yourself.
    • From a behavioral point of view, try to get a kitten either from a domestic setting, or a good rescue center.

Part 3
Assessing the Kitten’s Health

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    Consider your general impression of the kitten. Stroke him over the back and ribs. It is fine to feel individual ribs—which should feel similar to when you run a fingertip over the backs of your fingers—but he should not be skin and bones.
    • His ribs and backbone should not feel sharp or jagged. If this is the case, he is underweight. This could be because there is competition for food from his siblings, he is not very bold, or it could indicate he has parasites or a tummy upset
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    Look at the kitten’s eyes and nose. Look for bright, dry eyes that are free from sticky discharges, and a clean, dry nose. Be wary of thick, sticky discharges from either his nose or his eyes, especially if the eyelids are glued together, or the nose is blocked with snot.[2]
    • This is a sign of an upper respiratory tract infection. Some infections are viral, such as the calici or herpes viruses that cause cat flu. These infections can remain with a cat for life.
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    Check out the kitten’s ears. Look inside the ear. It should be a normal skin color, with no thick black waxy discharge. If a thick black waxy discharge is present this is a sign of either ear mites, otodectes, or a yeast infection.
    • While these conditions can be treated, it does mean the kitten's mother is likely to have an ear infection, and thus may not be in tip-top health.
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    Take a look at the kitten’s mouth. Use the fingertip of your right hand (if you are right handed) and press gently downwards on the tip of the kittens’ jaw in order to open the kittens mouth. Look at the roof of the mouth; check that there is a solid sheet of pink tissue, without a gap down the center.
    • If a gap is present, this means the kitten has a cleft palate. This condition usually requires surgery to repair the hole. This kitten is likely to suckle and have milk go down into his lungs, which causes a potentially life-threatening pneumonia.
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    Assess the kitten’s gum. A kitten's gums should be a healthy pink color, much like our own. Pale gums or white gums are a sign of anemia. This can happen as a result of parasites, or a congenital problem with the kitten's bone marrow.
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    Listen to the kitten’s breathing. Check that the kitten makes no noise as he breaths. Noisy breathing most commonly means that the kitten has a respiratory infection in his chest or nose. This condition requires veterinary attention.
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    Look for a ‘potbelly’. It a kitten has worms, one of the most common signs is that of the “potbelly”, a tightly swollen belly that hangs down off of the kitten’s body. These kittens are often very bony, but have a swollen belly. Parasites and worms can be treated with medications.
    • A normal tummy should be nicely rounded—but not tight—when full. The belly should look hollow when the kitten is due for a feeding.
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    Check under the tail. White ‘rice grain’-like objects around the anus are a sign of tapeworms. In a young kitten tapeworms are most commonly acquired from fleas, so it is a sign the kitten also has fleas.
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    Look at the kitten’s litter tray. Check the litter tray for solid poop. Diarrhea is a sign of an upset tummy, and is not normal in a healthy kitten.

Part 4
Assessing the Kitten’s Mother

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    Understand why it is important to look at the kitten’s mother. A queen (mother cat) in good health is likely to have healthy kittens, whereas a mother cat that is sneezing, has a knotted coat, or is riddled with fleas, is unlikely to have healthy kittens.
    • The key questions to ask and things to look for in the mother include the following.
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    Assess the mother’s personality. Is the mother friendly? She may be wary about strangers looking at her babies, but does she seem otherwise relaxed? Look to see if she is nursing the kittens, rather than hissing and spitting when people enter the room.
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    Check the mother’s health. Keep an ear out for sneezing, and look to see if she has a runny nose or sticky eyes. A queen with a cold, or flu, will pass it on to her kittens. It is also a sign that she may not be vaccinated, since cat flu is part of the normal vaccination protocol.[3]
    • An unvaccinated mother has no immunity to pass on to her kittens and this makes them more vulnerable to infections, until they are vaccinated. Kittens can be vaccinated when they turn nine weeks old.
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    Look at the litter tray. Try to get a sneaky peek at the litter tray. Look for solid nuggets. If diarrhea is present this is a clue that either the mother or kittens have an upset tummy.
    • If the mother has an upset stomach it is more likely that they kittens will also have upset stomachs.
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    Ask the owner about worming. Find out when the mother was last wormed. A queen that is wormed regularly is in better health than an unwormed cat, and thus more able to provide milk to her kittens. It is also a good sign that the owner is responsible and has the queen's welfare at heart, and is aware of the need for basic health care.
    • Likewise ask about flea control. A wise owner treats for fleas before and during pregnancy so that the kittens are born into a clean environment.
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    Ask about vaccinations. Is the queen vaccinated and is she up-to-date with boosters? Again, a responsible owner will have the cat up-to-date with vaccinations. Not only does this protect the queen from diseases, but it also provides immunity to the kittens via the mother’s milk.
    • This immunity is important in the first weeks of the kittens’ lives before they get vaccinated.
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    Consider whether or not the mother looks well. A nursing queen with a large litter will look scruffy and quite possibly on the thin side. She has her paws full because she is feeding, cleaning, and keeping a rowdy litter in order, and lacks time to clean herself. Also, when the kittens are three to four weeks old, the calories she expends producing milk, exceed the calories she can eat, and so it is normal for a good mother who is feeding her kittens to look thin.
    • However, is her coat clean, or is she riddled with fleas? If you don't see live fleas, brush the coat in the wrong direction with your fingertips and look for specks of black grit. This grit is likely to be flea dirt, which is a sign of a flea infestation.


  • You can tell a great deal about a kitten's health by using your eyes. Check him over in a methodical manner, starting with a general impression.

Sources and Citations

  1. BSAVA textbook of animal nursing. Cooper, Mullineaux, and Turner. BSAVA publications.
  2. BSAVA textbook of animal nursing. Cooper, Mullineaux, and Turner. BSAVA publications.
  3. BSAVA textbook of animal nursing. Cooper, Mullineaux, and Turner. BSAVA publications.

Article Info

Categories: Getting a Cat