Bringing your new kitten home is the most exciting time for you, but it is the most influential period for your kitten. How well you prepare for and execute the Safe Room process will have lifelong effects on your cat. There isn't a one-size-fits-all procedure. While we have a quick, generic Safe Room article that we previously wrote, this one is meant to be more detailed for those who need specific outcomes to determine when it is time to end the Safe Room process.
Let's stop for a moment and think about the purpose of the Safe Room. Its purpose is threefold, and before you move on to allowing your kitten out of the Safe Room, your kitten needs to master all three sets of skills. While in the Safe Room, the kitten must establish good litter box habits, become comfortable in its new environment, and bond with the members of the family.
The first step is setting up the Safe Room before your kitten arrives. When determining which room of your house should be the Safe Room, we encourage you to pick a room where you will have a permanent litter box which allows your cat to instantly connect with a litter box that will never move. The litter box should be large, uncovered, and filled with unscented litter that has a sand-like texture. Your Safe Room should have a cat tree and several small scent soakers. Scent soakers are small scratching posts or cardboard scratchers where cats are inclined to place their scent in positive ways by scratching with their paws and rubbing their cheeks. Why does your cat need these things? The cat needs a place of comfort. By putting a cat tree in with multiple levels, you will learn valuable information about your new kitten. When it seeks security, does it go up high on the tree or down low on the tree? This will tell you more about how you can best set up the rest of your home for your cat. Having mobile scent soakers is helpful in moving your cat into the larger territory of your home. The more pets you have in the house, the more the scent soakers will be necessary. Your final step in preparing your Safe Room is to purchase a multitude of interactive toys. These are toys that involve you being at one end while the cat plays with the other. Once you have your litter box, your cat tree with both high and low perches, your scent soakers, and your interactive toys, you have the materials you need to set up your Safe Room.
Mastering the first task of formulating good litter box habits is pretty simple. If you meet your cat's needs by providing a large, open-topped box with litter that does not have an odor and feels like the texture of sand, you are not likely to have any issues getting the kitten to use the litter box. Most litter boxes come with a top or a lid. Ditch it as the lids are made for human convenience, not cat convenience. If you want to reduce the mess, get a high sided litter box and surround it with Black Hole Mats. Young, healthy cats have no issues jumping in and out of high sided boxes. We recommend that when you first get your kitten home, take it from the carrier and place it directly in the litter box. This way, the kitten explores the safe room from the box. If your kitten does have any litter box issues while in the Safe Room and you have ruled out any medical causes, then perhaps your Safe Room is too large. Kittens 12 weeks old or older should not need a strictly confined space to use the litter box, but if you are in the unfortunate circumstance that you have brought home a kitten younger than 12 weeks, then you may consider temporarily penning your kitten with its litter box. When we are training our kittens - at about six weeks old - to use the litter box, we will keep them in a small pen while in training. This typically doesn't last any longer than a week.
The second purpose of the Safe Room is to get your new kitten accustomed to its new environment. For cats, safety in an environment is all about scent. Therefore, this is where scent soakers are essential. You will want to fill the room with movable objects that the kitten can place his scent on in a positive manner. To begin with, if your kitten came home with a blanket or bed, first make sure that is in the room as this will smell like the place he currently knows as home. You can place some cardboard scratchers around the room, hang a scratcher on the door, put some blankets here and there, give them a toy with a scratcher in the center, and place scratching poles in the safe room. When your kitten lays on, rubs on, or scratches on these items, it is putting its scent on them. If you do not have any other animals in the house, this step is not quite as critical as when you do. If you do have other animals in the house, you need to start scent swapping before you let kitty explore the rest of the house. Take a blanket from your new kitten's room and swap it out with a blanket that your other animals have been sleeping on. Do this for at least a week, so that the new and the old animals become comfortable with the one another's scent. Before you start to release your kitten full time, you will want to swap spaces with your other pets. Let your established pets spend time in the kitten's safe room while the kitten explores the rest of the house. When it is time to release the kitten into the home, place the kitten's scent soakers near important passageways - such as hallways and entrances to highly used rooms - and in the rooms where the family spends the most time - family room, bedroom, office, etc. This way, when your kitty explores the rest of the house, it already smells familiar making the kitten more confident in the territory.
The third - and perhaps most important - the purpose of the Safe Room is for you to bond with your new kitten. Your kitten has just left its home and perhaps all its siblings and has been placed in a new environment. Your job is to become the savior. The worst thing you can do in bonding with a kitten is to force the relationship too quickly. The best thing you can do while bonding with a kitten is to allow the kitten to control the speed of the bonding. If you have brought home two kittens, and they seem to be bonding with each other more than with the people, then you need to establish two Safe Rooms and bond with each kitten separately. How do you bond with a kitten? You simply follow its lead. Sit in your Safe Room with your kitten. First, just sit in there and talk to your kitten in a soft voice. You can watch your kitten play, or you may read a book or go on your phone. Take note of how much your kitten wants to interact with you. As your kitten approaches you, stick out a finger. Let it sniff and hopefully rub its cheek on your finger. When it does this, it is claiming you by placing its scent on you. Next, you want to get out you interactive toys such as a Dragon Fly Toy or a Da Bird Toy. Play with your kitten for up to twenty minutes. Do your best to mimic a hunt and eventually a catch during your play. Once you have taken your kitten through a hunt and catch cycle, feed it. While it is eating, find yourself a comfortable spot with a book, TV, laptop or some other means of sedentary entertainment for you. When your kitten is done eating, its natural body rhythm will cause it to clean itself, then rest. Your goal is for it to do this while next to you. For this process to work, you absolutely must not, ever, free feed your kitten. You must go through the hunt-catch-eat routine to get to the relaxing part of that routine. You may repeat this process two to six times a day - depending on what your schedule will allow. Once you have your kitten choosing to snuggle next to you, then you have mastered the bonding process.
If you remember the three reasons we have a Safe Room, it will be common sense that you do not move forward from the Safe Room until the kitten has mastered each skill to your standards. If you want it using the box 100% of the time, it doesn't leave the Safe Room until it is using the box 100% of the time. If you want your kitten 100% comfortable in its environment, then it doesn't leave the Safe Room until it expresses 100% confident body language while in its Safe Room. If you want your kitten bonded to you, then it doesn't leave the Safe Room until it chooses to sleep next to you in the hunt-catch-eat-rest rhythm that you establish. You are the one in control; the choices are all yours. But you must remember, it is your kitten's lifelong happiness that is at stake here. If you don't help the kitten establish good litter box habits, confidence in its home territory, and a bond to its humans, then it won't be able to live the life it is meant to live.