If you've decided that a kitten is right for you and you have an idea of the breed you want, then it's just a case of finding your perfect pet. The first step is to track down a responsible animal shelter/rescue centre or breeder.
The shelter/rescue kitten
Cats of all varieties and ages can be found in animal shelters/rescue centres across the country that specialise in finding homes for cats. A good centre will have clean and homely pens with a warm, sheltered area for sleeping, clean litter trays and toys. They will know as much as possible about each cat, his or her background, likes and dislikes and the type of home that would be suitable (i.e. with or without other pets or children).
Staff will be friendly, caring, and knowledgeable, and ask you lots of questions about yourself and your lifestyle to find the best cat for you. Most reputable charities conduct a home visit to make sure your home and its location are safe. Most will also neuter their cats before they are released, or insist that you sign an agreement ensuring the operation is carried out. Vaccinations and anti-parasite treatments should also have been given and usually the kitten will have been microchipped.
To find out more about rescue centres/shelters in your area, contact Cats Protection, www.cats.org.uk, The Blue Cross, www.bluecross.org.uk, the Dublin SPCA, www.dspca.ie, RSPCA, www.rspca.org.uk, Scottish SPCA, www.scottishspca.org or the Battersea Dogs Home www.battersea.org.uk (Battersea look after cats too!).
Finding a breeder
If you would prefer to buy a pedigree kitten from a breeder, carefully consider the breed most suitable for your family and remember there may be considerable costs involved.
First, contact breed-club secretaries for the breed you are interested in. The Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF), www.gccfcats.org, can provide a comprehensive list of breeds recognised in the UK, with links to their official breed clubs. Breed clubs may have a list of litters available, or can put you in contact with breeders in your area. It is a good idea to ensure your breeder and potential kitten are eligible for GCCF registration as this indicates the breeder is following a code of ethics for responsible breeding. You might consider reading publications such as Your Cat. Take a look on their website at www.yourcat.co.uk. You can also try going to a cat show to meets breeders and owners to find out more information. Also read the information on www.fabcats.org on buying a kitten, as well as kitten care. Pedigree kittens are generally available all year round.
Questions to ask a breeder
Are their kittens registered with the GCCF?
Ask them the extent of their interest in the breed. For example, do they show them, breed regularly or are they just pets? These factors may indicate the level of attention being devoted to preparing kittens properly for life as a pet.
How long have they been breeding for? Experienced breeders will have greater knowledge of their chosen breed.
Which cat breeds do they focus on? A breeder with multiple breeds producing litters maybe breeding solely for profit rather than being interested in their welfare.
How many litters do they produce each year? Responsible breeders will only produce one litter per female cat per year. How many litters has this particular cat produced?
In what environment will the kittens be raised? Kittens raised running around in a busy household, with other cats, dogs, children and lots of visitors, will be better socialised than those reared in a quieter home or in a cattery.
Do they offer to take the kitten/cat back in the event of any problems during the cat’s entire life (e.g. health problems, behavioural problems or change in your circumstances)?
Are the cats health-tested for any genetic problems in the breed? (You should research this before contacting the breeder so you are aware of any tests available).
Do they home their kittens with pet insurance?
What after-sales service do they provide? Responsible breeders will offer advice and support for life of the cat.
Are kittens microchipped?
Are kittens vaccinated, wormed and treated for fleas before re-homing? Responsible breeders will treat kittens appropriately at an early age.
Don't be surprised, or offended, if the breeder asks you as many questions as you ask them. This is a very good sign and shows they are genuinely interested in finding the best homes for their kittens. They want to make sure you are prepared and your circumstances are suited to their type of kitten.
Meeting the breeder
If you're happy with the answers given by the breeder - and they are happy that you can provide a suitable home for one of their kittens - then it's time for a face-to-face meeting to make sure you're happy as well.
Assess the environment the kittens are kept in. It should be clean, dry and not smell unpleasant. The mum and kittens should have their own space, preferably away from other adult cats, and there should not be lots of cats in one space. The breeder should be friendly and never evasive when asked about their cats and kittens.
All cats on the premises should look healthy, happy and be friendly, as well as interacting in a friendly manner with the breeder. All the cats should be treated with respect.
You should always meet the kitten's mother and other kittens. Responsible breeders have nothing to hide and will be happy for you to meet the mother and see her with her kittens in the rearing environment. It's natural for her to be a little wary of people viewing her litter but she should be attentive rather than nervous or aggressive. You should also be allowed to handle the kittens (depending on age). Look at her size and temperament as this may provide an idea of your kitten’s characteristics in the future.
Some breeders will also own the kitten’s father, but others will have taken their cat to a stud owned by another breeder. If he is on the premises, ask to have a look. Although males have nothing to do with raising a litter, studies have shown that kittens inherit personality traits from fathers, so character is important. Ask about his temperament and health (including any genetic or health tests if applicable).
Choosing your kitten
You will usually meet your kitten for the first time at around 6 weeks of age, but if possible, try to visit as close to 3-4 weeks as you can and as frequently as possible, so the kitten can become familiar with you. If you can, take the family (including children, but perhaps not all in one visit if you have a large brood) so the kitten can become used to all members of the household.
At this age, kittens should be interested in you and their environment, keen to investigate you and explore the world around them. They should be playful, outgoing and mischievous.
Always avoid kittens that are the smallest (known as the runt of the litter): even if they are the cutest, they often have health problems. Also, avoid nervous or withdrawn kittens as they are likely to need more socialisation, or maybe unwell. The ideal kitten for a new owner is confident but not too independent. Pick them up, cuddle them gently and talk to them in a soft, soothing voice. They should wriggle, be keen to play and purr.
The kittens should be plump, but not be fat, and free of any lumps or bumps. Look for a pot belly as this may indicate an underlying disease (including parasite infection) and check the umbilical region for any swelling that could indicate a hernia. Eyes should be clean, bright, open and clear. Ears should be clean and not red or smelly and bottoms should also be clean. The coat should be soft and clean, with no bald or sore patches, scabs or black flecks indicating a flea infestation, and the kitten should not be scratching. Hearing is difficult to assess in kittens but in at-risk breeds (particularly white cats) you can put the kitten on the floor and make a noise to try and see if you can attract their attention. If the kitten fails to respond you can ask about further hearing testing.
Timing is everything
Time spent with the mother, brothers and sisters is crucial. Through playing, kittens learn how to communicate with other cats, how to be litter-trained and how to hunt. If taken from their family too soon, a kitten can be nervous and shy. Generally you should pick up your kitten around 8 weeks of age. Earlier re-homing is not recommended and may indicate the breeder is not following high breeding standards. Equally, if a kitten is a lot older, there may be a reason the breeder has held them back, so ask why. Late re-homing may mean they will have missed out on the optimum time to form a good bond with you and enjoy life in your home to the full. Sometimes a breeder will ask you to wait until 12 weeks. If so, then ideally choose a kitten from a busy household so they have been well socialised e.g. a home with children if you have children yourself. The timing of homing will also influence what vaccinations the kitten has received. Check with the breeder, who should provide documentation of vaccinations received (along with worming and other treatments). Make sure you are familiar with the breeder’s feeding regime so you can continue this at home, at least initially.