Adopting a Cat
If you've got even the slightest soft spot for furry faces, you'll find it hard not to fall for the kitten that tumbles your way with a plaintive meow. Your kids' heart strings are even more vulnerable. So avoid letting emotions seal the deal before you're ready. "Indoor cats can live for up to 16 years, which is a long commitment," notes Katherine Miller, Ph.D., an animal behaviorist with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. With this in mind, consider these points before you set out for a shelter, and be prepared to spend some time getting to know each candidate.
Kitten or adult? Aside from being cute and cuddly, kittens tend to adapt readily to a new household. Adult cats may be more set their ways, but they've also probably outgrown the rowdy, excitable stage. If you choose an adult, find out whether the cat is used to and comfortable with children.
Male or female? If you chose a cat that's spayed or neutered -- which experts resoundingly recommend — this won't matter much. But it is important if you already own another cat. "A male kitten may drive a 12-year-old female nuts," points out Karen Halligan, D.V.M., a consultant for Animal Planet's Cats 101 and author of Doc Halligan's What Every Pet Owner Should Know (Collins, 2008).
Long haired or short? Most families have zero time to commit to grooming a long-haired cat at least three times a week. Make it easy on yourself and opt for a low-maintenance short-haired type.
Indoor or outdoor? The ASPCA and many vets strongly advise that cats be kept indoors, where it is far easier to keep them safe from predators, cars, poisonous substances, and other hazards of roaming free. Cats can make the switch from out to in, but expect a transition period. Some believe confining a cat makes for a dull life, but in fact, there are plenty of ways to enrich the indoor environment.
The Meet and Greet
Once you have some criteria in mind, the next step is to spend time getting to know your candidates. Well-run, well-funded shelters often have special rooms just for this purpose. If the shelter doesn't have one, ask if you can visit with a cat in a separate room.
If you're considering a kitten, be sure to spend at least an hour with it before making a decision. "Kittens have short sleep/wake cycles," notes Miller. "One that seems really mellow may be bouncing off the walls half an hour later, so make sure you see the high and the lows."
Spend as much time as you can with adult cats. Keep in mind that shelter life can be stressful for cats, who are generally wary of change. As a result, a cat may act skittish, nervous, or unfriendly, particularly if its personality is anxious or shy.
"No two cats are alike," notes Halligan. This can make it tough to provide a fail-safe way to gauge personality. "Go for one that's friendly and outgoing." Often, it comes down to more of a gut instinct. "See which cats come to you, and tug at your heart," advises Tracie Hotchner, author of The Cat Bible: Everything Your Cat Expects You to Know (Gotham, 2007).
While you're getting to know the cat, try to get a picture of his general health. Signs of trouble include a running nose or eyes (a cold), a bloated tummy (worms), dark discharge in the ears (ear mites), fleas or multiple tiny bites (infestation). "Make sure you're willing to take on the extra trips to the vet's and cost that it will take to make a cat like this healthy," notes Halligan.
Before You Adopt
The more you can lean about your cat candidate, the better. Start by asking who brought the cat to the shelter. "If it was Animal Control, you know the cat was roaming for some amount of time," says Miller. "If it was given up by someone, the shelter will have some background."
Next, run through this checklist before you finalize things.
- Has the cat been spayed or neutered?
- Has the cat been examined by a vet?
- For a kitten: Has she had her first set of immunizations and can we have a copy of the records? For an adult: Can we have records of immunization?
- Has the cat been tested for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV) (these infections are one of the top cat killers).
- Has the cat been dewormed?
- Has the cat been checked for ear mites?
- What type and brand of food the cat used to eating?
- What type and brand of litter is the cat used to?
- What is your policy for returning animals?
Before Kitty formally joins the family, make sure you're well-equipped (see Cat-Proofing Your Home). It's also smart to set up a check-up with your local vet to make sure your cats not harboring any unseen illness or condition.
An ideal way to welcome your cat is to provide just one room of your house where it can slowly transition for several days without getting overwhelmed. "Don't pick the basement or the high-traffic area," notes Miller. "The cat needs to see you, and have some peace, too." This arrangement is great for letting your children and your cat gradually acclimate. "Have your child come in quietly, sit down, and then let the cat come to him," advises Miller. Keep visits short at first, and help your child understand that just like kids, cats need quiet time, too. Placing a trail of treats to himself and serving meals will help the cat bond with your child, too.
Your cat is ready to explore a bit more of the house when you see these signs:
- Using the litter box regularly
- Eating and drinking regularly
- Approaching you for attention
- Explores the room with tail up
- Sleeps relaxed, sprawled on his side
"It's best to allow access to only one or two new rooms at a time to avoid a set back," notes Miller.
Though this may sound like a lot of homework for a relatively small creature, the payoff -- years of happy companionship -- is well-worth your efforts.