Bonding With a Sick Kitten

Long-term medical care seems to interfere with a kitten's ability to bond with her owner. A feline behavior expert offers some advice.

By Pam Johnson-Bennett

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Q: I rescued a 9-week-old kitten who has an upper respiratory infection and has been in isolation for over a month. I have to medicate the kitten everyday, and I fear it is getting in the way of our bonding. To complicate matters, my 7-month-old resident cat cries outside the isolation room door almost nonstop and has become more aggressive toward me. I know the situation is temporary but worry my resident cat will become more aggressive and I won't be able to ever get near the kitten. Any advice?

Johnson-Bennett talks about ways to ease the stress of sick kittens while building strong relationshipsFeline behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, author of Think Like a Cat, says:
I'm so sorry you're going through this. That is so much for the precious little kitten to have to endure but because of your TLC and dedication, she will become healthy and get a good start in life.

Even though the kitten will get beyond the trauma of being medicated so much, this is an important time for her socialization toward humans so continue to do your best to make the medicating a quick and casual experience. If you've been doing all of the medicating at once, perhaps try spacing it out a bit more or distract her by placing a drop of yogurt or cream cheese on her lip (if she likes that taste) when you are going to medicate her ears or eyes.

One method that I have had used for years is clicker training for medicating. Teach the kitten to associate the clicker sound with food and then you can click whenever you medicate her and then offer the food reward. Clickers can be bought at pet supply stores or online. The clicker "marks" the behavior that you want from the cat and then you immediately offer a food reward (canned food works best). Start training the kitten by clicking and then offering a small amount of canned food on a spoon. This way she associates the two together. Then try doing a click as you medicate. If you live alone you'll have to be organized and have everything ready so you won't be fumbling for food or medicine.

The key to making medicating less stressful is to be very quick and casual. Have it be over before the cat knows what happened. After medication, engage the kitten in a play session using a fishing pole toy so she is left with a positive memory of the experience. Do this whether you try the clicker method or not.

As for your resident kitty, the behavior is normal. Try placing the Feliway Comfort Zone diffuser just outside the sanctuary door. Also, don't try to engage your resident cat in too much holding right now. When you see she is agitated or you suspect she may be getting agitated, distract her away from the door with a fishing pole toy and continue a low-key play session.

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Reader Comments

Mynee Kitteh    mars, PA

3/30/2009 6:54:49 PM

I personally think that your older cat is just jelous of the kitten. maybe he/ she isnt used to another kitten being around the house. My kittens had the same problem except my older one just got used to the younger one. give it some time your cat will get used to him/ her :D

Linda    Mandeville, LA

8/22/2008 6:41:06 PM

Good article.

Jocelyn    Puyallup, WA

6/28/2007 7:08:07 PM

I just got a kitten that is maybe 4-5 weeks old if not that then a little bit younger. A man was giving him away at Walmart so i decided to take him home. He stayed over at my boyfriends house and was completely fine. Then we moved him over to my house and suddenly he started throwing up. The throw up looked like his food that we were feeding him which was liquidy but had chicken in it and all that. We also were feeding him some kitten milk. He also has diarrhea all the time now and he seems depressed and is always sleeping. He doesnt move around that much anymore. He meows alot sometimes too. I think he is sick. What could be wrong with him and what should I do? If i have to take him to a vet..how much do you think that will cost?

Dominique    Marina del Rey, CA

10/9/2006 5:35:42 PM

I liked the distraction suggestions given in the article. Turning the dosing of meds into just a small part of an extended positive interaction session is sound advice for sure. I didn't try the clicker or food reinforcer with my sick-from-the-shelter upper resp infection wonder kitten but he was my first so I improvised.
I did make certain that oral meds, eye creams, and any other unpleasantness was neither the beginning point nor the ending point of our time together but instead something that happened as casually as possible between paw play and such (he wasn't terribly active until six weeks of treatment and spent weeks 9 and 10 of his life twice a day in the vet's nebulizer). Perhaps due to the twice daily outings to the vet he remained excited about harness and lead outings and is still a big fan of being placed in a pouch for a shopping trip or walk along the beach. In my case the kitten's illness bonded us closely and rapidly. He's now healthy, fully grown, and seems resentful when he's not invited out for a pouch ride because I'm going somewhere he wouldn't be welcome.

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