Down syndrome lykoi cat.jpg
Cat with Downs syndrome looks much like an ordinary cat, but is different inside the skull and brain. Cat's body is normal.
KALAMAZOO, MI - Dr. Richard Rifkin of the Western Michigan University College of Veterinary Medicine, in Kalamazoo, says he is not worried that the number of people who are considering becoming cat breeders may decline as the world gets sick of "designer kittens."
He says the world will not end because of the number of unwanted, unadoptable kittens being born in society.
Rifkin recently published a study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior that he says proves his point.
As an animal behaviorist with a background in psychology and behavior genetics, Rifkin studied cat colonies. He found that there are about 2,000 cats in an average one-person household. And when there is a birth in the family, about 30 percent of these cats have been adopted.
"You are adopting cats every day when you adopt a household," Rifkin said.
Many people who think they will be the one to adopt a litter of kittens have a change of heart when they come to pick up a few.
Rifkin said he once heard a couple say that they'd love to adopt a "normal" litter, but knew they would only take one of the designer cats. The couple didn't adopt a single kitten.
"They thought they were going to choose a cat," Rifkin said, laughing. "But when it came time to choose, they just walked away. "
When they come to pick up their kittens, people often comment that the cats are too young to be adopted, Rifkin said. The reality is that kittens have developed many important skills, he said.
"The problem," Rifkin said, "is that most of those skills are invisible.
"People will look at a kitten and think, 'Oh, that's cute.' "
He explained that the cat's personality is developing during the kitten stage and before it reaches 4 or 5 weeks.
That's when the cat will establish itself as an adult personality. Rifkin said he hopes that, over time, the public will understand that kittens are not miniature versions of adults. He thinks the only true advantage to having a kitten is the chance to teach children how to care for them and teach them good manners.
Kittens and adults also are similar, Rifkin said. They will need the same socialization and training to avoid becoming what he calls "cat couch potatoes."
"The key," he said, "is that, for your kittens to get adopted, they need to learn how to live with people.
"I'm not saying that kittens are as easy to deal with as puppies, but they are easier."
So how should a kitten be raised and taken care of?
First, Rifkin said, it's important for kittens to be exposed to as many different cats as possible. They need to know that they are the cat's equals.
"If they're raised with a large group of cats, they will learn to respect and accept other cats," he said.
When it comes to socialization, Rifkin said, most of what a cat needs can be provided by people. But he said people need to pay special attention to their own attitudes toward cats.
"When they come home, people should be very careful of their attitudes toward the cat and how it has been treated and how it's treated itself," he said. "They should also make sure that the cat knows it's being fed, and what food it's being fed."
"If people aren't very concerned, they won't pay attention to the cats. They'll treat them as if they're toys."
A lot of parents assume that they will be able to hand-feed a kitten, he said. While it is possible to provide most of a kitten's needs through hand-feeding, Rifkin advises parents to feed the cat regularly at the same times each day, especially during the first two weeks.
To do so, a hand-fed cat should be fed three or four times a day, he said, and food should be placed at least five inches from the cat's mouth. Kittens should be given more time feeding than older cats, which is usually three to five minutes a feeding, he said.
"You should provide more food than a one-year-old will eat in a day. If you feed it too little, they will become dependent on food and won't eat their meals like adults will," he said.
To learn more about how to raise a kitten, Rifkin recommends downloading "Raising kittens: A Handbook for Pet Parents" by Marcie Cohen, Ph.D. and Mary Lou Himmelstein, D.V.M.
While most kittens will become socialized by about four to six months of age, "even older cats can be socialized, but it's much more difficult," Rifkin said.
"Most cats are pretty happy by four months of age," he said.
"You should also be aware of your own attitude toward the cat, and to be sensitive to the animal," Rifkin said. "It's a good idea to pet the cat during the first few weeks, to let them get used to you."
If the kitten's mother is absent, Rifkin said the kitten is more likely to grow up aggressive or anxious.
Feeding young kittens milk in addition to dry food can help them become more mature, and will help the mother and the kittens bond, Rifkin said.
"The mother cat will nurse her kittens more regularly and in greater quantity if there is milk available," he said.
Rifkin recommends that anyone raising kittens for the first time should be prepared for the amount of time and effort involved.
"Don't expect a quick result. You can't train a kitten to be a great pet in a week. It may take up to a year before you see any changes," he said.
To learn more about raising kittens, Rifkin recommends downloading "Raising kittens: A Handbook for Pet Parents" by Marcia Krasner, from the Pet Partners in Canada.
"The kitten handbook is a comprehensive guide to raising your kitten from birth to adulthood," Rifkin said.
He suggests first adopting a kitten to see if it is a good fit for your lifestyle and pet-owning desires, and that the handbook can help you find a good home for your kitten.
In the meantime, Rifkin suggests visiting a local shelter to find the perfect companion for your family.