Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I got a new kitten yesterday from a litter of strays. She is about 11 weeks old and I am sure she is blind. She is so scared that she will not stand up and will only Army-crawl a short distance. I have her in the bathtub with a fuzzy blanket and some food and water on one end and a litter box on the other, but she can’t find her way around on her own or is too scared to move. She’s just going to the bathroom where she is laying and then gets very distressed and starts crying. She’s easily startled but let me clip her claws and clean her ears without issue and even let me bathe her. I’m just worried about her not walking around on her own–not even to explore her little room. My vet isn’t open until Monday because of the holiday so any advice would be greatly appreciated.
Siouxsie: It certainly is difficult for a blind kitten to adapt to a new environment, and we sympathize with your poor baby’s plight.
Thomas: We’re glad you’re going to take her to the vet to get checked out and find out if she really is blind or if she’s got some other problem.
Dahlia: It’s uncommon for a cat that young to be blind. Typically blindness develops in older cats due to cataracts, glaucoma, or other diseases such as high blood pressure. But younger cats can be born blind due to birth defects or become blind due to infections.
Siouxsie: You didn’t mention how this kitten acted in her old home. Did she move around a lot and socialize with the other kittens and cats? If so, it may have been because she was familiar with that environment and felt more confident. Also, she may have had a “kitty buddy” who helped her find things and took care that she wouldn’t get hurt.
Thomas: The behaviors you describe certainly could indicate blindness. Typically you won’t see symptoms of blindness until the cat is placed in a new home. In her new location she’ll manifest symptoms such as hiding and/or decreased activity level, reluctance to jump or navigate obstacles, slow and cautious movement, clinginess, and perhaps biting or aggression when touched unexpectedly. In some forms of blindness, the pupils of the eyes may stay dilated, even in bright light.
Dahlia: A blind cat learns to navigate its new environment by using its other senses, particularly hearing, smell, and touch. So the way to help your blind cat adapt is to make sure she can hear, smell, or touch things that are important in her life.
Siouxsie: You’re doing the right thing by making sure your baby has a very small space to learn to negotiate before she gets introduced to the rest of the house. You’re also right in putting the food bowls and litter box on opposite ends of the tub.
Thomas: You can help your kitty locate the litterbox by using the same kind of litter her previous family used. She’ll be familiar with the smell of the litter and she’ll be able to navigate toward it. Also, if you put some newspapers under your kitty and she makes a mess on those, put some of that newspaper or some of the bowel movements she makes into the litterbox. The smell will guide her to the appropriate place to do her business.
Dahlia: Use a litterbox with low sides so that she’ll have an easy time getting in and out–and she can put a paw over the edge to feel what’s inside it. You might try coaxing her into the litterbox shortly after she eats, too. Kneel down by the litterbox end of the tub and scrape and dig in the litter a little bit so she can hear that there’s a place for her to pee and poop.
Siouxsie: You haven’t mentioned if your kitten is eating or drinking, but it’s very important for her to feed herself so that she’ll stay healthy.
Thomas: If she’s having trouble finding her dishes, make sure to give her some very smelly canned food to help her locate her meals. You can also splash lightly in the water dish to help her find that, too.
Dahlia: To keep your kitten from being too startled when you come in, make sure to talk quietly to her so that she hears you and knows you’re a friend. Let her sniff your hand before touching her, too.
Siouxsie: We imagine it’s quite scary at first for a blind kitten to get picked up. She doesn’t know where she’s going to land until you put her down–and where she lands may be some place even less familiar than her little tub-home.
Thomas: Make sure to spend a lot of time with your kitten. She desperately needs reassurance that she’s in a safe and friendly place. And the more time you spend with her, the more familiar she’ll become with your smell and your voice. Even if she has to go somewhere, like the vet, as long as your smell and voice are there she’ll feel more comfortable.
Dahlia: Even though it’s scary for blind kittens to be picked up and carried, you might consider gently getting her used to being picked up and carried in your arms. This may be a very gradual process and you’ll have to be alert for any indications of discomfort–squirming, crying, pawing or clawing, and so on–when you’re doing this.
Siouxsie: Bringing your baby to spend time with you while you’re watching TV, reading, working, knitting, etc., can help her get used to the smells and environment of your house in a safe way.
Thomas: Once your kitten shows signs of being comfortable in her tub, encourage her to get used to a slightly larger area, perhaps one room in your house. Once again, bring the food, water, and litterbox and “show” her where they are by using the auditory and smell cues you used in the tub. When you put her in a room, make sure that room is free of potential hazards such as things that could fall on her head, awning cords that she could get caught up and strangled in, etc.
Dahlia: After she seems very comfortable in that room, allow her to explore other parts of the house as she sees fit. Call to her and encourage her to come out into new rooms. Get her toys that make noises, such as crinkle balls and objects with little rattles in them, so she can exercise and stimulate herself; these will also increase her confidence.
Siouxsie: Spend some play time with her using “cat fishing” toys that make noises, too.
Thomas: You’ll need to take some special precautions for your blind cat. For example, don’t rearrange the furniture. Your kitty will get used to navigating your house with the furniture placed a certain way. Changes in that placement could cause accidents or injuries, or a retreat into a fearful state until she can get a grasp on her new home layout.
Dahlia: When you have guests over, make sure they know your cat is blind. Request that they approach her gently and don’t pick her up suddenly.
Siouxsie: And most importantly, a blind cat should never be allowed to roam outside. Because she can’t see, she’s at much higher risk for being hit by cars, attacked by predators, or suffering injuries from common outdoor hazards.
Thomas: If you want your baby to get some fresh air, build her an outdoor enclosure or a special place on the porch. That way she can get fresh air and direct sunshine and be safe from the hazards of free-roaming life.
Dahlia: Good luck to you both, Carolyn. And bless you for wanting to give a special-needs kitty a good home!