8 Factors to Consider When Adopting a Cat From a Shelter

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by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

Cats make wonderful pets and there are far too many these day languishing in shelters. To adopt a cat and save a life is a wonderful thing to do and will provide the adopter a friend for life. Cats are easy keepers. Pretty much all they need is a loving home, some toys, food, water, and occasional petting (okay sometimes more than an occasional petting). Although choosing a cat that’s right for you is not as challenging as adopting the right dog, there are still a few things to consider.

While kittens are cute and entertaining, they do require a little more work and more patience than an older cat. There are also various start-up chores, like vaccination, deworming and some training. Then there’s exuberant kitten energy to contend with. Some novice kitten owners think that their six- month old adoptee kitten has gone crazy because it rushes around the house like a mad thing – what we call the zoomies. Others think their kitten may be psychotic because it hides behind doors and pounces on their feet. These are normal (and essential) kitten behaviors which can sometimes last even beyond the first year of life. Kittens’ energies must be channeled by their new owner onto appropriate substrates, such as mobile toys, feather wands, and toys pulled along on a string. Alternatively if two kittens are adopted together they will expend their energies wrestling and chasing each other. That takes the heat off the owner, and think of it — that would be two lives saved!

Most cats fall into a category I refer to as “domestic shorthair”. Basically, these cats are a mix but they can be just as friendly and loving as any other cat. Another category is the “domestic long hair”, one of which I used to own. Again, these are usually very fine cats but the long hair does come with some grooming requirements — but more on that later. Then there are the purebreds, which you rarely find in shelters but, occasionally, one turns up. It is always a temptation to adopt one of these special breeds but remember they come with certain breed-typical behavioral characteristics that you should research before you dive in. Abyssinians, for example, tend to be very high energy cats who are often in constant motion. Persians, on the other hand, are rather quiet. Either type of cat may suit you — or not — depending on your personality and lifestyle. If you don’t mind having things knocked off shelves and find that amusing, an Abyssinian may well be your cup of tea. On the other hand, if you are the sedentary type, a Persian might suit. There are the other exotic Oriental breeds of cat which look just dandy but beware, Siamese for example, tend to be very vocal and all Oriental breeds in general are prone to compulsive behaviors like over-grooming and wool-sucking.

It doesn’t really matter whether you adopt a male or female as cats are usually neutered at the shelter before you get them. That said, a neutered male or female is not an “it” but still bears the hallmark of its true sex. Males may be slightly more likely to get into tangles and are more prone to urine mark. If either of these attributes bothers you, the safer bet might be a female. Also remember, adopting cats of opposite sexes is more likely to result in a more harmonious pair.

Grooming Requirements
Very long-haired cats sometimes have difficulty in keeping themselves properly groomed and may need some help from you. If they do manage to cope with this onerous task, it tends to create hairballs which are then barfed up on your rug. So it’s a good idea to employ a stripping brush or comb at regular intervals to reduce the frequency of this unpleasant event.

Cost of Upkeep
There is nothing worse than bringing home an animal of any kind and suddenly realizing that the cost of upkeep, including veterinary care, a quality diet, and so on, is too much for your budget. Pets are no different from humans in that a healthful, natural diet (including of course Halo natural pet food) correlates with a very wide range of health advantages, including safeguarding against allergies, intestinal problems, obesity, diabetes and other food-related issues. Feeding a high quality natural pet food is your best chance at achieving long term pet health. It may cost a bit more to buy quality food but is definitely a well worthwhile proposition. Think ahead and budget accordingly–and consider getting pet health insurance for costly medical issues.

Exercise Requirements
Believe it or not cats need exercise [it’s not just for the dogs]. This doesn’t mean you have to take them down to the park to run around and, anyway, that wouldn’t be wise. What it does mean is that you should spend some time engaging your cat daily in the kind of play that blows off steam and expends energy. The kinds of games that afford this are, for example, chasing toys attached to strings or a “laser mouse.” This kind of chasing play should provide you with some amusement as well the requisite exercise for your cat. Budget 30 minutes per day for such activities

It is difficult to temperament test a cat but often you’ll get a chance to sit and meet the prospective adoptee in the shelter along with other cats and people. If the shelter staff allow such an intimate interaction, it means they have faith that your cat is friendly. But remember, just because a cat is unfriendly in the stressful situation of the shelter doesn’t mean that it will be that way at home. I adopted a cat who was reported to be aggressive and impossible to place in a home with another animal. I adopted him — Griswold — anyway and though he sometimes gets his back up with a strange dog, he has totally adapted to our home, lifestyle and our two dogs. He is not aggressive at all to us or them.

Interaction with Other Pets
Following on from the previous section it is well to give some consideration to how the new cat may react with any pets that you have. It is a fact that not all cats necessarily get on just because they’re cats. Some are antagonistic toward each other — their personalities just don’t mix. The only way to ascertain this discord is by trial and error. It would be great if the shelter would allow you to bring the cat home in a carrier to see if there are any antagonistic interactions. If they won’t allow that, you’ll just have to make your best guess based on whether your home cat and the cat to be adopted are sociable and equable with others of their own kind. Also, remember that not all dogs like cats, so if you have a dog at home, especially one not used to cats and with a high prey drive, he may see your new addition as prey and chase it and make its life miserable for all.

I don’t mean to suggest that adopting a cat is a super-tricky business that must be engaged in with trepidation and great caution. That’s not really the case. The topics I have addressed above are just things to think about as you stroll around the shelter looking for a cat who you like and who likes you. In most cases, adoptions work out perfectly well for all concerned, but it never hurts to think ahead.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.

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