- How to Choose the Right Shelter Cat for Your Family
How to Choose the Right Shelter Cat for Your Family
We all know the feeling:
You walk into the cat room at your local animal shelter and see cats all over - so many beautiful cats - some shy and timid, some meowing and headbutting your legs. You think some seem sweet, while others seem fun. Each one of these cats has a story and a reason for their mood that day, and you want to make sure that you find the right one for you.
Experts in cat behavior help us understand why cats perform certain behaviors and what these behaviors mean about their personalities or about the situations they are in at the moment. These insights can give a future cat parent the tools to choose the right cat for them.
How important is it to adopt the right cat? Let’s consider a specific scenario.
Say you are a mother or grandmother of three young children, aged 2, 3, and 5 years old. You want a cat that you know they can find entertaining, but you also want to be assured that the cat won’t attempt to scratch or bite any of your kids. You can imagine that adopting a cat from a shelter that seems sweet at first encounter but scratches if you touch her belly or legs might cause some problems in the home. A kitten that tends to chew and scratch will also be problematic. With small children, your cat needs to be very trusting of all humans - kids and adults alike.
Oftentimes, shelters will let you know if a cat is suitable for a home with children or other pets. This is helpful information, but let’s take things a few steps further and explore other factors going into this decision that you may want to consider.
Does Age Matter?
The age of the cat you adopt matters a lot more than most people think. Kittens are the most adopted of all ages of cats, but they require the most work for housetraining. A kitten will usually have to be trained not to scratch furniture, carpets, and rugs, and (if desired) not to climb up on cabinets, counters, tables, and more. They usually also need to be trained not to chew on and scratch people.
Kittens require special nutrition. There are essential nutrients for the first 6 to 12 months of life for a kitten, much like human babies require essential nutrients during the beginning of their lives.
Most importantly, the personality of a kitten has yet to fully develop. A kitten might be playful and cuddly for a time, but eventually her adult personality will develop; she may turn out not to be interested in cuddling or sitting on your lap once she’s past her kitten stage.
If there is a specific personality of cat that you require, it is often better to adopt an adult or senior cat exhibiting those traits.
How Do I Read a Cat’s Temperament?
There are some very common cat behaviors that you’ll encounter in a shelter. Below is an explanation of what they mean and what you should consider when thinking about adopting each temperament:
Cats That Lay in the Middle of the Floor
These cats are dominant personalities, which means they are territorial and are not afraid to fight for what’s theirs. They lay down in the middle of the room - sometimes flicking their tails - and when another cat encroaches on their territory, they’ll usually swat them away or attack. Though this seems intense in a shelter setting, this trait in a cat can actually be very fitting for certain homes, specifically homes with no other pets and usually no children. You may come to find that these cats are very loyal and love their owners. They will stake a claim to you and love you as long as you treat them well. These cats may or may not be lap cats. It’s worth spending some time sitting with them on the floor to see how interested they are in being petted and sitting on your lap. You should also test what happens when you divert attention away from them. Do they cry or meow at you when you walk away? Do they swat? Trust your instincts when you watch how a dominant cat responds to each of your behaviors.
Cats That Hide Away
This is not to be confused with cats that are simply sleeping. A cat may be hiding away sleeping, but that does not mean the cat has a tendency to hide. This is why it’s important to visit multiple times before adopting so that you can get to know each cat’s personality!
A cat that hides away has a more passive personality. These cats tend to be easily startled by noises and are very selective about when they want to have human time. A cat that is hiding away may or may not be interested in interacting. Approaching a cat like this must be a tentative act. Reach your hand out about a foot away from the cat’s nose (do not reach for any other part of their body - this can seem threatening to them). If the cat extends their nose toward you to sniff your hand, this is usually a good sign that they will allow you to pet them. If they do not react and simply stare at you or even pull back, it is best not to approach the cat.
A cat that hides away and does not want to be petted is not necessarily an unfriendly cat. We must consider that these cats are in a room with a lot of other personalities that they don’t have to be around in your home. An environment with a lot of noise and activity can be a major stressor for a passive cat, and it can make them retreat and feel threatened by attention. Once you put these cats in a quiet and calm environment, you may even see them come out to visit you more and ask for petting and attention. If you notice a passive cat in a room full of other cats that you are interested in, find a staff member and see if you can have time alone with that cat in another room to see her in a more comfortable state.
A passive cat usually does well being alone for longer periods of time and would fit in well at a quiet home where members of the household are often gone at work, school, or other events.
Cats That Meow a Lot
It can be really sweet and adorable when you walk into a shelter room full of cats and one comes up to meow and rub against your leg. This one has captured your attention! A cat that tends to meow a lot uses meowing as their primary means of communicating that they want something. Other cats that don’t meow as much may try using their body language to convey their needs more than they use verbal communication.
If you are interested in a cat at a shelter that meows a lot, keep in mind that they will meow a lot when they get home, too. This may not be a problem for some homes, but it could be an irritant in other homes and cause discord between your family and your cat. Discuss with each member of the household how they’d feel about having a cat meowing a lot and verify that this wouldn’t negatively interrupt their daily routine.
A meowing kitty needs a home where she can be her verbal self and rely on her humans to fulfill her needs when she asks!
Some cats require more attention than others. Some really need a lot of love and attention. You can usually identify these cats as the ones that seek your attention first when you enter a shelter’s cat room. They want to be petted, and they want it meow!
Consider your daily routine and how a cat of this temperament may fit in. Would your cat have to spend a lot of time alone while everyone in the household is at work or school? If so, a cat that requires a lot of human attention is probably not the best choice.
A needy cat may also do well having at least one other cat in the house to keep her entertained and not feeling lonely.
Cats in Cages Rather Than Open Play Rooms
A cat in a cage rather than in an open play room might turn out to be the perfect companion for you. Cats are not necessarily caged due to behavioral problems. It can be a matter of space limitations, temperament, staff preference, health requirements, and more.
A cat in a cage will only get the chance they deserve if you approach them thoughtfully and see how they react to your attention. You can usually remove these cats from the cage to see how comfortable they are with you. When visiting a shelter, make a point of visiting all of the cats, whether roaming free or caged. Ask the staff about the best way you can interact with caged cats, as each shelter will have their own regulations and options for caged cat interaction.
Animal shelters will usually note if two cats in the shelter are a bonded pair. A bonded pair has typically been together for most of -- if not all of -- their lives. They rely on each other for happiness and companionship. It is important to keep a bonded pair together for several reasons.
- Bonded pairs provide comfort and stress relief to each other. They will do best in a new home for this reason. If separated, an owner might notice behavior issues with the lonely cat.
- Bonded pairs make your job as a cat parent easier! They can usually entertain each other, so you can be away from home all day knowing that they’re both okay together and not lonely or needing attention.
- Bonded pairs are a great example to children. They can teach your children how to have a positive and giving sibling relationship. Your children can learn the value of loyalty and care for one another.
Cats That Are Visibly Overweight
If you fall in love with a shelter cat that is visibly overweight or obese, you are not alone - fat cats can be so sweet and cute! Still, an owner of an overweight or obese cat must be prepared for helping their cat reach a normal weight for their stature in order to ensure longevity in life and reduce their risk of getting diabetes, arthritis, or other medical complications.
How can you prepare? By consulting with your vet immediately and on every step of the way. Adopting an overweight cat can lead to additional vet bills, so consider this financial responsibility before you adopt. With this being the case, it is important to consider purchasing health insurance for your cat. This may seem excessive but can be very affordable and economical depending on the health needs of your obese cat. Discuss health insurance with your vet to decide if it makes sense for you.
An overweight cat needs to have a physical exam to measure their exact weight, and the vet office will also need to run blood and urine tests. These tests help a vet determine if the cat has normal thyroid hormone levels and normal metabolic function.
Assuming all is normal besides the cat’s percentage of body fat, then a gradual weight loss program can begin! Otherwise, the vet will guide you through your options for addressing your cat’s medical issues.
It should be no surprise that the first step toward weight control for cats is the same as the first step for humans: portion control.
Two to four small portions each day is what a cat needs in order not to gain weight. Cats tend to graze during the day and will typically eat a little bit at a time. You can set your feeding times for the cat to accommodate this natural instinct and not leave the cat feeling deprived or excessively hungry.
Long Haired or Short Haired?
This decision comes down to your willingness to maintain proper grooming care for your cat. Both short haired and long haired cats can shed. Some short haired cats don’t need as much grooming, but you should plan on having a grooming regimen with any cat you adopt.
Long haired cats need more frequent brushing. You should brush their fur at least once a day. Overweight cats and senior cats may also need more frequent brushing due to their inability to groom themselves fully.
Brushing your cat not only removes excess hair and dirt; it also stimulates blood circulation, which improves your cat’s health. This is why regular brushing is important for every cat. The FURminator for short hair and the FURminator for long hair cats are especially effective for grooming, though simple brushes may sometimes be preferable to your cat. Try each out and see what your cat likes.
Cats May Choose Their Human… or Their Spot
Some people adopt a cat to be their own little cuddle bug, only to discover the cat likes to sit with someone else at home. Sad face! There is not really a way to know when or if this will happen when you bring a cat home, but it is something to prepare yourself for if you have high hopes of cuddling your new cat all day long. Cats have their own personalities and preferences in humans just as we have preferences in cats.
Here is one tip to keep you hopeful. Oftentimes, cats will choose specific locations in the house where they tend to nap, perch, or keep watch. Try identifying and hanging out in these spots to get more time with your cat.
Give Your Cat Time to Adjust
We’ve all been in new environments that required some adjustment for us to feel at ease. The same is true for your new cat. If your new cat seems frightened, skittish, or otherwise uncomfortable when you bring her home, don’t worry; this is normal behavior. It will take time for her to get used to her new home. She has all sorts of new scents and sights to learn. Cats are most comfortable when they know their environment.
How can you help your new cat feel more comfortable? Make sure she has items that are all hers, such as her own bed, perch, scratching post, and/or tower. Also, find out what kind of foods and activities she enjoys. Maybe she loves rolling in catnip or matatabi. Maybe she loves a certain brand of treats more than another, or a certain flavor of food over another. Get to know her and show her that you’re paying attention to her needs. She’ll slowly learn that this new environment fills her needs, and she’ll feel right at home.
Follow Your Heart!
Despite all the dos and don’ts, it comes down to how you feel about your new cat. Being aware of certain warning signs can be very helpful, but it is most important to make sure that you and your cat are both happy with the new arrangement in your home. All cats need proper love and care, and if you know you can provide that for your new kitty, we applaud you. Welcome to cat parenthood!