Six Things to Consider when bringing your Shelter Cat Home

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by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman 1. Advance Planning

You certainly don’t want to bring your new cat into your home and suddenly find you are lacking some vital accoutrement, like cat food or litter box. So, to avoid this potential downfall, it is a good idea to make a shopping list before the big day and get all the supplies that you will need ahead of time. On this shopping list should be all the bare necessities of life for your new feline friend, including cat food – preferably food one that she is used to initially – a food bowl, a water bowl (or even better a water fountain), a supply of treats, a warm comfortable cat bed or two, one more litter box than you have cats (so one cat should have access to two litter boxes), cat litter, and two or three tall sturdy scratching posts that are strategically placed for easy access by the cat. A word to the wise, your litter boxes should be 1.5 times the length of the cat, wide enough for him to turn around and deep enough for you can fill the box with four inches of litter without the risk of it overflowing or being kicked out of the box by the cat. The litter should preferably be scoopable, fine particle, unscented litter. And remember, as far as the litter box arrangement goes, that most cats don’t like hoods or liners. Another vital part of the equipment you will need is a cat collar (of the breakaway type) for tags and ID. Even though your cat should be an entirely indoor cat, cats have been known to escape, so proper ID is imperative. You can even get your cat micro chipped but that is an invisible mark so I think a tag with your cat’s name and phone number is a good idea anyway. Lastly, if you have a long-haired cat, you will need some kind of brush to assist with their grooming. Soft slicker brushes are ideal.

2. To Cat Proof Your Home

People who haven’t had cats in their home before might need to consider the kind of mischief that cats sometimes get into. Some of their antics are just mildly aggravating, but others can be frankly dangerous for the cat. In the mildly annoying department, you might want to move valuables and breakable heirlooms from shelves as it is not a rarity for a cat to navigate these interesting platforms either accidentally – or on purpose – knock off your cherished possessions. Also, make sure heating registers are secured, too, as cats may pry them off and disappear down the vent causing you alarm and perhaps inconvenience and expense if you have to dig up the floor to get the cat out. Dental floss, string, and thread should also be squirreled away out of access to the cat. For some reason they love to chew on strings and can wind up with intestinal obstruction. Even dental floss dispensed in an open trash container can prove a fatal attraction for a cat. This firmly places strings and threads in the department of potentially dangerous items. For cats with a tendency to chew on wires, and there are some, loose wires should be bundled and hidden under rugs or protected with a custom-made cable protector. Furthermore, poisonous plants should be removed from the environment – at least, plants toxic to cats. A comprehensive list of such plants can be found on the ASPCA website,

Finally, remember that cats like to go into small warm spaces so prepare yourself ahead of time to close the door to the washing machine and dryer and to not allow your cat access to the garage. There are always a few fan belt injuries each year as cats snuggle by the warn engine of a parked car.

3. Enrich the Environment

One of the best environment enrichments for cats is another compatible cat. Compatibility between cats, however, is not guaranteed. Adopting two cats when there is an adversarial relationship between them is far from enrichment. The folk at the shelter may well be able to tell you which cats get on so you can do them both a favor by adopting the pair. It is important to enrich the environment for cats, whether you have one or two of them, because life indoors, though safer, can be pretty dull if an owner is not thinking on behalf of their cat(s). In this respect, interactive toys should be purchased to appeal to a cat’s natural tendency to want to chase and pounce on moving things. Various fishing pole devices with feathers attached to a line make exercising your cat easy, even from an armchair. And cats definitely do need exercise – at least thirty minutes daily – which you should encourage through these interactive games. A laser pointer (laser mouse cat toy) can be good fun as your cat chases the laser image of a mouse round a baseboard and up the wall. Next, food puzzles and interactive food toys or balls are helpful to entertain your kitty when you can’t be around. Something as simple as a table tennis ball with a hole drilled in it with a piece of delicious cat treat inside will work wonders on a smooth surface. Another thing cats like is places to hide so the provision of boxes and bags and other spaces into which they can curl themselves up is good to satisfy the cat within. Even a large cardboard tube can be a good hiding place. Moving on, cats are three dimensional animals and do not live solely on the two dimensions that is your floor. They like elevated surfaces and, in this respect, cat condos and climbing frames are excellent.

Window sill cat seats are not only helpful in this regard but allow the cat the opportunity to gaze out of the window at things going on outside. You can arrange a bird feeder outside the window so that the cat has entertainment – “bird TV” – during daylight hours. For windowless, bird-less environments, cat videos can be purchased of birds flying around or rodents running on wheels. Some cats enjoy watching these videos. A final enrichment strategy would be to appeal to the cat’s sense of taste and smell. Some cats respond well to fresh catnip or cat grass grown especially for them (please verify that it is non-toxic cat grass). Not all cats respond to catnip but, for the ones that do, catnip-stuffed toys can provide occasional fun, too. Other scents cats might enjoy include lavender or valerian. Some even enjoy lettuce or green beans.

4. The Day of Travel

Remember that cats are not the best at traveling and many will shriek or scream and have a hideous experience in transit. To ease the cat’s woes during the car ride from the shelter to your home, it is best to use a well-padded, soft flexible carrier that a passenger in the backseat of the car nurses in her arms. During the ride, the passenger can “bill and coo” to the cat in encouraging tones and possibly see if the cat might accept a delicious food treat. Meanwhile the driver takes the low road – the most direct, uncurvy route from A to B to bring the cat home. The high road may be quicker, with all its twists and turns, but that will make the experience less well tolerated by the cat. On arriving home, the cat should be released into a quiet area, a “home room” so to speak that has been set up with all the modern conveniences that I refer to above. As a rule of thumb, it is a good idea to give a cat a couple of days to settle down before allowing him into the house as a whole but that depends a bit on the cat. Some cats are quite confident, are active and curious, and may want to explore earlier. Others are more reclusive and might prefer to hide for more than a day or two before they venture out. For these latter shrinking violets, the issue should not be forced. Food treats and tincture of time are best for these Nervous Nells.

5. Introductions to Other Animals and People in the Home

Family members should be allowed to meet the cat in a low-key, relatively unobtrusive fashion bearing gifts in the form of cat treats or interactive toys. They should probably sit down in the “home room,” spend time, and disperse treats and toys. If they don’t get through to the cat first time around they should not worry because they will break through in time. With other animals, introductions can be a little trickier depending on the personalities involved. Certainly, two cats should not be allowed direct access to each other too soon unless they are happy and purring – and definitely not hissing – on either side of a closed door. If things seem to be going well the door can be cracked an inch (and secured) so they can catch a glimpse of each other. The next stage might be a screen followed by supervised introductions in the same room if things are going well. Of course, if cats are naturally friendly to each other, this process can proceed fairly quickly. With other cats, it’s not quite such an expeditious process. Dogs, too, need to be introduced gradually t cats with the dog on leash and the cat in a carrier, just to see how the two interact. Only when things are truly peaceful would they be allowed together, initially under very close supervision.

6. Arrange a Vet Visit As Soon As You Can

It’s certainly an important measure to find a convenient and compatible veterinarian for your cat as soon as possible. Within the first couple of days of the cat’s arrival is best. A house call veterinarian would be ideal for a cat but there aren’t that many around. Just a meet and greet with the veterinarian might be in order of business, perhaps with a quick vet-check of the eyes, mouth and evaluation of heart sounds and respiration. Noting more invasive first time around. How much you might need to be done eventually depends on what has already been done at the shelter. In some cases, worming may be necessary and vaccinations may have to be updated. Also, unless these tests have already been performed, it is a good idea to ask for a blood test to check for the presence of feline leukemia virus (FELV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Unless these tests have already been done they should be done, especially if you have – or plan to have – other cats.

With all these measures in place there is a very good chance that you have just acquired a wonderful feline friend who will provide you with entertainment, companionship, and general enrichment for your whole family. There is nothing like sharing your home with another species to broaden the mind, reduce stress, and provide a happier, healthier home for all concerned. I know my Griswald – pictured above – has never looked back since his adoption and he has provided us with endless hours of entertainment – plus amusing himself knocking a few ornaments off shelves and signing his John Hancock on much of the furniture. But we love him. Happy cat, happy home.

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 ( 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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