Adoption is the most fun and the most crucial of all cat decisions. But it’s not unusual to bring home a quiet cat and find out that he is really a talker—or, to adopt a cat that was born to jump and be hyperactive when you really wanted one that thought moving from one side of the bed to another was a big trip.
Like people, cats have all kinds of personalities, and each one is unique. Most people cannot live with just any cat. Because each cat is different, it’s better to think about the process as a marriage, not an adoption. Although divorce is an option, you want to avoid that by having a thorough, unhurried courtship.
The main goal of this section is to help you adopt a cat you are happy with, not just a cat that is happy with you. It will help you reduce the chance of bringing home, and keeping, the wrong cat. And even if you already have a cat, you will find a wealth of general information in this section.
Do I Really Want a Cat?
Before you head out to look for a new cat, know what you are getting into. Despite their reputation for being aloof, cats are not animals you can ignore. If you aren’t prepared to spend time with them, don’t get one.
If you have never owned a cat, you may not realize that cats do certain cat things, and need certain things. New, unsuspecting cat owners may be surprised when they find that their cats regularly:
- Jump. Cats like to be in high places (on top of your desk, bookcase, filing cabinet, sofa) to watch people and events and gain information about people behavior.
- Play. Cats need interaction with humans. Be prepared to spend time playing with and talking to your cat.
- Scratch. Cats have to scratch. Rather than trying to prevent your cat from doing so, train her to use a scratching post and trim her claws regularly.
- Vomit. Enough said.
Can I Accommodate a Cat?
Where you live plays an important role in the feasibility of owning a cat, especially if you don’t own your own home. Obviously, some landlords do not allow cats, so you’ll have to locate apartments that do. If you have Internet access, you can do searches for apartments that allow cats.
Regardless of where you live, you need to think about the following things:
- Does your apartment complex require declawing or require that cats are kept indoors only? If so, you may face litter box problems that could eat up your security deposit and narrow your living options.
- Is your apartment or home big enough for one or more scratching posts and litter boxes? Can it handle more litter boxes if your cat develops an issue with his litter box? (For a cat with litter box issues it is recommended that the cat owner add one or two more litter boxes. Will you have room to add a litter box or two if needed? (See Litter Box Problems)
- Are you on a quiet street or a busy boulevard? If you live in a congested area, your cat will face increased risks if he goes outdoors.
Where Do I Find a Good Cat to Adopt?
Shelters are unquestionably the best place to find a cat. With thousands of cats being euthanized in your local cat shelters due to lack of homes, adoption is a responsible choice.
Contrary to popular belief, cat shelters don’t harbor “rejects.” They put cats through adoption tests, so your chance of finding a smart, loyal, and appreciative cat is extremely high in practically any reputable shelter in the country. Kittens younger than eight weeks old often are cared for in a volunteer foster home until they’re old enough to adopt. In these cases, the shelter may be able to give you an idea of the kitten’s personality and behavior.
What Kind of Cat Do I Want?
At the shelter, you’ll encounter strays and unwanted adult cats and kittens that have been put up for adoption. Stray cats often make great pets. Even after the stress of being captured, relocated, and caged, strays can be trained to be well behaved.
If you’re thinking of owning only one cat, try to find a cat that is used to being alone. This probably will be an adult. If you want a kitten, it’s best to adopt at least two kittens so each will have a friend.
There are advantages to adopting an adult cat. While it’s hard to know what sort of cat a kitten will become, you’ll know whether the size and personality of a grown cat will be suitable for your home or apartment.
If you do adopt kittens, try to get them when they’re older than ten to twelve weeks. The longer a kitten stays with her mother, the better your chances of having a healthy, stress-tolerant cat.
Call different shelters to find out if they have older kittens and at what age the kittens were taken from the mother. Find out if the kittens were fostered in a household with children for several weeks. Exposure to children and frequent handling make for a social and loving cat.
Be patient. If a shelter doesn’t have what you are looking for this week, it soon will, probably within a month or two. Animal rescue teams are likely to encounter any breed, color, or temperament you want. They can let you know when the exact cat you are looking for arrives.
Other Ways to Find a Cat
During kitten season (about March to October) and when college semesters end, you can find lots of free cats. Many college students think they want a cat. Later, when they realize they have no place for it during the summer, they surrender it to the shelter or abandon it to fend for itself. Post signs on campus to try to get the cat before he’s abandoned.
Newspaper ads are a good resource. (Warning: Do not respond to ads alone, take along a friend and let others know where you are both going.) And some pet stores allow nonprofit animal rescue shelters to use a section of their store or office to showcase rescued cats.
Fostering is perhaps the best option of all, because you get to live with the cat for a while. Many shelters have fostering programs. You care for their cats in your home until they are socialize, health and ready for adoption. In essence, you get to try out a lot of cats. You’ll get to find out if the new cat gets along with your family and current pets.
Where Not to Get a Cat
Avoid pet stores unless the adoptions are sponsored by a nonprofit agency. Conscientious breeders do not sell kittens or puppies to pet stores. Good breeders want to interview adoption candidates to help find good homes for the pets they’ve nurtured. Few pet stores put out the effort to ensure a good home.
As mentioned in “Feral Cats” in The Truth About Cats, Feral Cats section, we do not recommend getting a feral cat. They are difficult and often impossible to train. Some cat owners spend years getting a feral to accept humans.
How Many Cats Do I Want?
Deciding how many cats you can have in your home depends on the space you have available, both indoors and outdoors. It also depends on the amount of time, money, effort, and patience you have for taking care of the cats.
Although we cannot predict what the right number of cats is for your situation. We recommend that you have at least two cats but we also recognize that some people are better off owning only one cat. At the shelter you will meet several cats who get along since shelters nowadays often keep many cats in one room. Cats are social animals by nature. And two cats that get along will groom and play with each other. Some cats are fine having a dog as their social companion.
Owning an Only Cat
If a dog or second cat is out of the question, here are some ways you can help keep your only cat happy.
- Spend as much time as you can playing and being with him. Lure toys, supervised outside walks, and daily massages can really help.
- Help groom him. Pet and scratch your cat often in places he can’t lick: his head and neck and under his chin. Groom him more often.
- Leave a light and radio on when you’re not home.
- Have a special bed, just for him.
- Provide distractions while you’re gone or busy: a bird feeder, TV, or aquarium to watch; safe toys to play with.
- Some videos are made especially for cats and feature birds and wildlife sounds.
- If your only cat will be kept indoors, see Considerations for Indoor-Only Cats in Outside/Inside Training.
For more suggestions on keeping the only cat happy, read 51 Ways to Entertain Your Housecat While You’re Out by Stephanie Laland.
Spotting a Healthy Cat
Cats available for adoption in shelters usually are physically healthy, but you can do your own check for physical and mental health while the cat is still at the shelter.
First, pay attention to these things to find out if a cat is interested in being with people:
- When you walk by her cage, does she stand up and try to get your attention?
- Does she stick her paw outside the cage and try to reach for you in a loving way?
If you find one you are interested in, ask the attendant to take the cat out of the cage. As you play with him, observe the following:
- Are his eyes clear, bright, and curious, or watery and half-closed? Does he move his head to watch you? If only his eyes follow you, he may be frightened of his current situation. Or he may just be too frightened to trust anyone for now, and may mellow out once you get him home.
- Does he notice things? Is he playful? Does he hear the snap of your fingers? Take an interest in you or others? Sniff the air? A cat that takes no interest could be very sick or very frightened.
- How does the cat move and walk? Does he purr when you pet him? Does he rub up against you? Does he put his tail straight up when he walks or runs, or when you pet him? These are signs that he is happy to see you.
- Are any fleas, ticks, or ear mites present? Have the shelter help you check for these nasty critters, because body parasites can be very difficult to get rid of, and it may take more than one treatment. However, don’t let that prevent you from adopting a cat. —Does he talk (meow) too much for you? It’s like getting a barker—some people want noisy pets and some don’t. Be forewarned—the cat won’t change.
- Is he declawed? Our advice is, don’t adopt him. (See Declawing Drawbacks.) Declawed cats are easily stressed, which makes them more difficult to own, and they usually require more time and money because they are physically challenged. It’s also more difficult for them to accept new situations, which means that any changes in a declawed cat’s life can trigger health or litter box problems. In some cases, the adoption papers of these cats carry a statement such as “not suitable for homes with children under the age of four” because declawed cats tend to bite more often than do clawed cats.
- Is he sleeping in his litter box? A cat that’s sleeping in his toilet could have severe emotional problems unless he is allowed outside so he can pee somewhere else.
- How does he act when he walks by other cats? Does he hiss and growl? Hissing at cats or dogs is okay, but think twice about adopting him if the cat shows these signs of aggression against people.
- Is the cat responsive to touch? Does he bite you if you pet him gently, or does it take aggressive petting to get him agitated? You may want to avoid a cat that snaps at you too easily. Some clawed cats can have a nervous bite that will go away after a few weeks in your home, but declawed cats aren’t as likely to stop biting soon.
- Is he affectionate? Gently stroke his stomach and listen for his purr. Cats who let you rub their stomachs usually trust humans.
Once you’ve found a cat you like, find out what the shelter already knows about the cat. Look at the adoption papers, which might give you clues as to how the cat will act around other cats, dogs, or children. Usually the papers state how or why the cat ended up in the shelter. If you can, talk to the people who fostered the cat to find out more about its personality and habits.
Finally, like people, each cat has an individual personality that must be respected. You can train him to use a scratching post, but if he’s a jumper or a talker, you won’t change that. Looks are not enough; fall in love with his personality.
Other Things to Consider
There are many things for you to think about before you make your final decision about adopting a cat. Some of these may seem unimportant now, but keep in mind that owning a cat is a long-term commitment. Making the right decisions now will make life easier and much more pleasant for both you and your cat.
A “free” cat is never free of expenses. Before you bring a cat home, make sure you can afford to keep him. Adoption fees can vary but usually include altering, first vet examination and first shots. These fees do not cover all the shelter’s costs. At any price, you’re getting a deal while helping your community.
The adoption fee may not include a feline leukemia test. If the cost of the adoption and the test seems too high, you may not be able to afford a cat; his upkeep will be much more than these one-time costs. Be aware that you’ll also be spending money on cat litter, not to mention food, toys, scratching posts, cat beds, shots, and so on.
Cats should not be given as a surprise birthday or Christmas present! Getting the right cat is worth the wait. Don’t settle for a cat simply because you want your child to receive it on her birthday. If the right cat for you and your child isn’t available by that day, it’s better to wait.
Your child will appreciate being included to help select the cat. Pick a day when you both can visit a few shelters. Give her an idea of how many different personalities she has to choose from.
Outdoors vs. Indoors
We recommend that people let their cats spend supervised time outdoors. Cats are very smart and can easily get bored when kept inside the house. Time outside helps entertain cats and exhausts both physical and mental energy (curiosity). Adult-supervised outside walks can improve behavior, health (sunshine provides vitamin D; chewing grass helps to eliminate hairballs; rolling in dirt cleans fur and skin) and cat safety (for instance, if your cat accidently gets outside, he will know how to find his way home). Also, as you’ll learn in Outside/Inside Training, supervised walks actually seem to solve most behavior problems in cats.
If you adopt a cat that’s used to being outside, you may or may not have a problem with keeping him inside. Adaptability to living indoors-only is dependent on each individual cat. In general, we believe most cats benefit from and enjoy time outside.
Male vs. Female
Gender is a personal choice. No trait is guaranteed in either sex—it depends more on each individual cat. We have found that male cats like being held more than female cats do. And we also notice that males have a bit more of a laid-back attitude. But again, no trait is true for every male or every female.
Spayed female or neutered male cats usually won’t spray indoors. (And yes, some females have been known to spray.) When neutered early enough, male cats often won’t even spray outdoors, because they were fixed before starting the habit
Color, Breed, and Hair Length
Siamese are thought of as “talkers” or needy. Of course, not every Siamese has these traits. Tortoise, black, white, calico, tabby, orange—all have somewhat different personalities. You need to check out each individual cat. Just because she’s cute or “looks neat” doesn’t mean she’ll make a neat pet. If you adopt based on color, looks, or breed alone, you may be sorry.
One drawback of the color white: White cats are more susceptible to sunburn, which can lead to skin cancer or other skin problems. As a result, white cats should not be kept outdoors. You can let them out for a short while if you apply a baby-safe sunscreen to her ears and sparsely haired spots on her face and nose.
Black Male Cats
Black cats are reputed to be unlucky. But in ancient Egypt, and in Great Britain today, people think black cats bring good luck.
We believe that black male cats are the best. They are the smartest and the most lovable and loyal. What’s more, black male cats are not in high demand, and smart ones are extremely easy to find. A few shelters even have reduced adoption fees for black dogs or cats. You are likely to be saving a life, because they often are the first to be destroyed.
Returning a Cat
The most common adoption mistake is thinking that just because you brought this cat home he should live with you no matter what. Not all cats fit all cat owners.
Think about a cat as a “marriage” rather than an “adoption.” We really should “divorce” the ones we don’t love, can’t trust, or can’t stand. Before adopting from any shelter, find out what the return policy is. Make sure you can return a cat up to six months after adoption, as some adult cats take a while to show their true colors in your home.
Because adoption is often traumatic, it can take cats more than two weeks to adjust to a new environment. The adjustment period for adult cats is longer than it is for kittens, so you should keep an adult cat for two months before returning him. Even though a shelter may scoff at your returning a cat, remember that it’s you, not the shelter, who has to live with the cat.
Foster homes are sometimes forced to keep cats for as long as three or six months and they settle into new homes just fine. Try not to feel bad about finding another home for an adult cat you’ve had for a few months.
Kittens are a different story. Try to return a kitten within two weeks if he isn’t working out. Kittens have an easier time getting adopted.