Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, thousands of pet cats are brought to animal shelters and pet rescue groups every year. Millions more exist as feral (wild — completely unsocialized with humans and probably incapable of ever living successfully in human homes) or stray cats, born in the wild with no homes or abandoned and living on their own without human owners. Why are so many cats and kittens without homes?
The reasons so many cats and kittens are without homes are numerous. Some people find themselves suddenly unable to keep or care for their cats. In many cases, people buy cats on an impulse but quickly regret the decision. Some people think cats don’t require any maintenance, and when their kitties exhibit cat behaviors that humans find annoying, they give them up. Other people let their cats wander, and the cats get lost or injured and can’t get back home. If these lost cats are not spayed or neutered, they contribute to the birth of more unwanted or feral kittens. Many homeless kittens are born each year and forced to fend for themselves.
According to the American Pet Product Manufacturer’s Association, up to 49 percent of owned pet cats were found as strays. Some stray cats are incredibly friendly and crave attention, affection, and care, but others get nervous, anxious, or fearful of humans.
Yet, most of the cats in shelters and rescue groups have been screened for adoptability and are friendly felines that will make excellent pets for someone who’s willing to learn about what cat ownership really entails — a cat lover. Yes, cats definitely require some maintenance and they require, and desire, your attention. Yes, cats need supervision, veterinary care, and high quality food. And yes, some strays can become excellent family pets . . . with some patience. Still interested? Then read on to find out more about how to bring a pretty kitty into your life, heart, and home.
If you’ve decided to adopt a cat from an animal shelter, you may need to choose between a tiny, fuzzy little kitten with big round eyes and a mischievous nature or an adult cat that has already matured past the kitten stage. Kittens can be fun and incredibly amusing, but they also involve more work than an adult cat that already is accustomed to life in a human household. Adopted adult cats frequently are fully litter-box–trained and have calmed down enough that they aren’t perpetually climbing the curtains, scratching the couch cushions, or knocking over the teacup collection you thought was safe and sound on that way-up-high shelf. Kittens are not.
On the other hand, adopting a kitten enables you to bond with a cat from an early age, when a kitten’s antics are more fun than a ball of yarn. The choice is a tough one: Is adopting a kitten worth the extra work? Or is adopting an adult cat without a home the better choice? Before you decide on one or theother, consider the factors that come with each choice.
Adult cats can be a real pleasure to adopt. Cats learn a lot by living with humans, and if the cat you adopt has a lot of experience with human households and human behavior, you may have a much easier job on your hands than raising a kitten. Adopting an adult cat has other benefits too. Adult cats:
But there are some disadvantages to consider, too. Adult cats:
- Can have serious behavioral problems if they’ve suffered past abuse or neglect or been roaming on their own for too long without human interaction. They may not trust humans, and regaining their trust can take a long time. They may never be friendly with everyone.
- Can have some bad habits like scratching, biting, or pouncing, because they never were taught not to do these things as kittens. These bad habits can be difficult for cat and pet owner to correct.
- Can have difficulty adjusting to a new home and may need lots of extra patience, time, and training before they feel comfortable. They may even mourn the loss of their past owners or past animal friends.
- May have been exposed to diseases like feline leukemia. This disease can add expense to their care, result in a shorter life, and can affect other cats in the household — not to mention the grief of losing a close friend to an often fatal illness.
- May not have more than a few years left and may be in desperate need of a new home. Most cats live for 12 to 15 years or more.
Boy cat or girl cat?
People often wonder whether they should adopt a male or female cat, but the truth is that a cat’s gender doesn’t make any difference. Sure, some people like to speculate that male cats are more dominant or cuddlier, and female cats are more active or maternal, but individual personality and breed-related traits are much more influential than the sex of your cat. Because your cat will be spayed or neutered, health and behavior issues related to gender, such as spraying or roaming, aren’t relevant. That frees you up to choose the cat you like the best, regardless of his or her particular anatomy.
What about feral and stray cats?
Feral cats are cats that have been roaming without homes for so long that they’ve become wild. In many cases, these cats are born from strays or other feral cats and never have any close contact with humans. These cats don’t usually make good pets because they don’t trust humans, aren’t comfortable being touched by humans, and won’t likely adapt to life in a human household. They’ve missed that important window of socialization in the first three months of life, when cats learn what kind of interactions are acceptable.
Strays, on the other hand, are cats that used to live with humans, but for any number of reasons, they now are homeless. Strays may’ve been abandoned, neglected, or somehow lost, and in the process, they may have picked up some wild cat habits. However, because they were exposed to humans during kittenhood, they often can be taught to trust humans again. Convincing a stray that you’re more than just the person who puts the bowl of food out on the front porch may take time. Another stray may be so happy that he comes right in and makes himself right at home in your house. It all depends on the cat.
Feral cats are rarely, if ever, adopted as pets, because they make terrible candidates staying in shelters waiting for someone to take them home. Some people may choose to feed them or the colonies of feral cats they find living nearby. Similarly some humane societies strongly encourage people to capture feral cats one at a time in live traps and take them to a shelter or veterinarian to be spayed or neutered and then released. Other shelters, and some local governments, believe feral cats need to be captured and, in some cases, euthanized. The bottom line: A feral cat never would be happy or comfortable living indoors.
Strays are another story. If a stray cat adopts you, you may decide that the feeling is mutual. But before you decide to take in a stray, take it to the vet for a complete checkup. Stray cats may look perfectly healthy, but they can have serious diseases like feline leukemia or feline immunodeficiency virus (sometimes called feline AIDs). The cat may also have fleas and ticks and skin infections, or be malnourished. A vet can test, treat, and make recommendations about the cat’s health. The vet also can spay or neuter the cat. After you know your cat is healthy, or at least not contagious, you can try integrating her into your household, but you need to be prepared to patiently endure this sometimes lengthy adjustment period.
Of course, you can always take your cat to a local shelter to have her behavior evaluated, her health problems treated, her reproductive organs — as some say — fixed, and then adopt her to a good home. If, on the other hand, you want the shelter to do these things for you but you’re interested in adopting the cat, be sure to let the shelter workers know when you bring her in. Many shelters are willing to work with people who want to adopt a pet through them. Many also encourage people not to take in strays, but rather to bring stray cats to the shelter first.
Recognizing Signs of a Healthy Cat
Some cats clearly gleam with good health, but others look a little bit the worse for wear. Whether you’re evaluating a stray or the cats in the shelter’s cattery, look for the signs of good health that I describe in the sections that follow. Although an apparently healthy cat may still have some health problems, a cat with signs of certain bad health is a bad risk, unless you’re willing and can afford to treat all of the health problems. Some people are willing to take on a special-needs cat, such as one that has feline leukemia, but you have to be prepared for this difficult job. A healthy cat has a much better chance at a long life as a rewarding and happy pet. Read on for signs of a healthy cat.
Silky coats and eyes like jewels
A cat with a soft, silky coat with no bare patches, parasites, or skin infections is a beauty to behold. Long coats need to be brushed and free of mats. Short coats need to be thick and plush, like velvet. A healthy cat’s eyes are bright, clear, and free of discharge, although some flat-faced breeds like Persians tend to have tear stains that are especially visible on white or light-colored coats. Tear stains are not a sign of ill health, and they can be treated and removed with a special product available from your local pet store.
Itchy kitty? Signs of parasites and skin/coat problems
Whenever a cat is scratching, digging at his ears, or biting himself, he may have fleas or a skin infection. Many of these are easy to resolve and not a reason to reject a cat for adoption, but you may want to ask the shelter to have the cat treated before you take him home. A shiny, healthy coat is one sign of a healthy cat in general, although some cats with healthy looking coats could potentially have other health problems. Signs that your cat has a healthy skin and coat include:
- Shiny, thick fur.
- Clean fur and skin with no mats or dirt caught in the coat.
- No signs of fleas, such as black, brown, or reddish specks (flea dirt) or fleas themselves. Fleas are tiny, black or brown hard-shelled little bugs that jump . . . sometimes, right onto you.
- Supple skin free from sores, wounds, scratches, rashes, or other skin injuries or irritations.
- No sign of lumps, nodules, or other skin irregularities under the skin, when you feel the cat gently all over with your hands.
The tail end
A cat uses her tail for balance, but a tail also can cover up signs of health problems. The view from a cat’s rear end needs to be clean, free of soil, and without any signs of infection, including redness, rashes, or irritation. Longcoated cats also need to be checked for mats around their tail area. A dirty or badly groomed rear end may be a sign of neglect or of a health problem, so ask the shelter about the problem and whether a vet has looked at the cat.
Curiosity quotient: How your cat interacts
Behavior is a big part of good health. Cats that are sick or injured can act fearful, aggressive, or depressed. Healthy cats are more likely to act interested in people and new surroundings and have energy and a lively personality.
Behavior also is also indicative of socialization. If a cat doesn’t want to let any human anywhere near it, he may be feral and won’t ever make a good pet. By evaluating your cat’s behavior and the way he interacts with you, other people, and other animals, you can determine whether you have a healthy, well-adjusted kitty or a cat that needs medical or behavioral care.
Cats, like people, come with many different types of personalities. Some are shy; some are outgoing. Some are happy to help you type on the computer, turn the pages of your magazine, and tell you whether you’ve put enough tuna in the casserole. (“Meow,” of course, means, “That’s too much tuna. Put the rest in my bowl. Yes, down here.”) Others prefer to do their own thing, pose on the windowsill, or slink behind the furniture hunting dust-bunnies. Activity levels and the desire for attention vary among different cats. Time spent in the wild, moving from owner to owner, or enduring long periods of neglect can have a negative influence on a cat’s personality, or it can make the cat less likely to bond to people. However, some cats manage to secure human friends and are outgoing and well socialized wherever they go. It just depends on the cat.
Temperament testing isn’t really a technical term, although some people use it that way, referring to particular tricks they’ve developed that can determine a cat’s personality. Many animal shelters do some version of temperament testing on their cats, either using an established system or simply playing with the cat and testing the cat in certain situations, such as with other cats or dogs, to see how she reacts. Shelters do this to assess whether a cat is suitable for adoption and to help them find the right kind of home for an individual kitty. Unfortunately, these tests aren’t always definitive because adopted cats may be on guard and insecure when they’re tested, so they won’t often reveal the full extent of their personalities until they’ve been in a home for a while and feel safer and more secure. A shy cat may be much more outgoing after a few calm, happy weeks in a good home. An aggressive cat may settle down into a confident and happy sweetheart. Or, issues like shyness and aggression can get worse. If only shelters had a cat crystal ball . . .
You can tell a lot from a cat, however, if you pay attention to a few key issues after an initial gut-check with your own temperament. Observation and interaction tell you plenty about your potential pet. Spending more than one visit with the cat before you decide is another key that can stave off impulse buying and give you a more realistic picture of the cat’s personality.
Determining what traits suit your fancy
One important key to making a successful match is determining the kind of cat that you want and can live with. If you know an extremely active cat will irritate you, look for a mellower cat that prefers a warm spot of sun to a romp around the backs of the furniture. If a kitty’s curiosity, acrobatics, and sense of adventure charm and amuse you, a sedentary cat may bore you. Maybe you think adopting a special-needs cat is worthwhile or that you have the extra patience and time needed to help a troubled cat learn to trust humans again. Or you may just prefer a cat that’s already well-adjusted. Think about what you want, and then look for a cat that exhibits signs of the kind of temperament you prefer. Remind yourself that no matter how cute that kitten is, a personality clash ultimately is much more difficult to deal with.
When you have a good idea of what you want and need, then spend some time getting to know your potential pet. Maybe the chemistry will be instantaneous, or maybe you’ll need a few visits to make sure, but tune in to your cat’s personality to help ensure a great match-for-a-lifetime.
Profiling kitty companions
Personality can be influenced by many things, from past experiences to breed to genetics, but you can get some clues about your cat’s personality without even knowing why your cat is shy or outgoing or has the heart of a hunter. Animal shelters and rescue groups want you to interact with and get to know a potential pet before you adopt, because they want to make sure the cat doesn’t wind up right back in the shelter. On at least one occasion (preferably more than one), you need to set aside plenty of quality one-onone time with the cat you are considering, before you sign on the dotted line. Use this time to help determine your cat’s personality. When interacting with a potential pet, look for the following clues to the kind of pet you have in front of you:
- When you approach the cat or kitten, does she act curious about you? Does she approach you willingly seeking affection, or does she hide, cower, hiss, or act fearful? Cats are naturally curious, but some are more cautious than others. A well-adjusted cat needs to show interest in who you are and what you’re all about.
- What does the cat do when you pet her? Some cats press against your hand, looking for more physical contact. Others want to be petted but have the curious ability to retract from hard petting so that you feel you’re just barely brushing against them. Still others will permit you to touch them for a short period before they’ve had enough. Yes, and some cats simply can’t get enough. Your cat’s reaction to petting can indicate how much physical interaction she wants. If you want an interactive cat, look for one that enjoys petting and seeks out your physical attention.
- Will the cat let you pick her up? Some cats love petting but don’t like to be held. Others let you hold them for a short time, but some cats want nothing to do with being dangled five feet above the ground by an unpredictable human. Although some cats may not let you hold them at first, they will warm up to it later. Consider how important holding a cat is to you. If you simply must hold your cat, or if you have children who want to carry the cat around, look for a cat that enjoys those activities. If you are happy letting your cat do her own thing, then you may be more satisfied with a cat that wants nothing to do with being cradled like a baby.
- Does the cat startle easily? Is she keenly aware of any loud noises or sudden movements you make? If you move your hand quickly, does she put herself on guard? Some cats naturally are skittish, and although a scaredy-cat’s confidence may increase in a secure home, easily startled cats may not do well with active, loud households or families that include small children.
- Do you have children? Be sure to bring them along so they can get to know the new cat. Some cats are perfectly content with adults but don’t like kids. Others think kids are the cat’s meow and follow them around, doglike, looking for fun. Some cats willingly play dress-up and may even fetch a toy. Others consider such silly antics beneath them. The personality of every family member is relevant when choosing a cat.
- Do you have other pets — other cats or a dog? Ask shelter workers whether they know if the cat is good with other pets, and ask how they know. Seeing a cat free in a cattery and interacting with other cats is a good sign of how well she gets along with other cats, but it won’t necessarily tell you how well she gets along with dogs or other pets.
In some shelters with limited space, cats may be housed near the dogs, and the loud barking of the dogs may be a constant stress for some of the more sensitive kitties. If a cat is cowering in the back of a cage, she may be absolutely sweet, lovable, and even self-confident in a mellower environment where she doesn’t feel threatened or frightened.
Asking the experts: Shelter workers provide the skinny on your kitty
Face it, shelter and rescue foster-care workers spend more time than you can possibly spend, even in several visits, caring for the cat you’re thinking about adopting. Depending on the shelter or rescue group, workers may spend a lot of time working with and playing with the cat. They may also know a history of the cat from the people who brought him to the shelter. Shelter workers may be able to tell you how good the cat is with children, other cats, dogs, other pets, in active households, or in quiet households. They may also know how active or mellow the cat is. Take advantage of this knowledge and remember that people who work for shelters and rescue groups often have a deep and abiding love of cats. They may be well tuned-in to your potential pet and want the best for that cat. They want to be sure the cat finds the right home, so let them help you.
Finding a Good Match: What to Expect from Different Breeds and Mixes
A cat’s past experience is only one determining factor of its personality. Breed or breed mix also can influence a cat’s temperament and its activity level and care needs. If you don’t want to spend time brushing your cat every day, for example, then don’t adopt a long-haired cat, regardless of how gorgeous he is. If you want a cat with a calm, tranquil personality, consider a Persian, but if you want a cat that acts like a dog, a classic American shorthair-type cat, or a Maine coon, may be best.
Knowing the classic profiles of some of the more common purebreds can give you insight into your cat’s personality. Plus, it’s fun to speculate just what kind of cat that is. You may also want to consider the color of your furniture and even of the clothes you like to wear. Cats shed. It’s a simple fact of feline life. If you have white furniture and you can’t stand the sight of cat hair, don’t get a black cat. If you usually dress in black, you may want to avoid that snow-white Persian. Many cats have actually been surrendered to shelters simply because their cat hair was too disturbing to their owners. Come to think of it, if you can’t stand the sight of cat hair, you probably should consider adopting a different sort of pet.
But assuming cat hair is okay with you, the breed or mix of breeds that make up your cat can give you some clues to her mysterious cat behavior. Take a good hard look at your cat. What ancient breeds are in your cat’s genetic code? In most cases, until science progresses a little further, you won’t know for sure what breeds contributed to a cat that has no pedigree. Yet, examining a cat’s coat, size, and shape can give you some clues to its breed and behavior. Of course, for every generalization you make about cat breeds, you’ll need to consider many exceptions, thus breed-based assumptions are merely one piece in a complex puzzle. Your Persian cat may be a dynamo! Your Siamese may be a couch potato. But in many cases, breed generalizations hold true. Read on to find out what these generalizations are.
Cats of undetermined origin: Mixed-breed cats
Most cats found in animal shelters are mixed-breed cats like the short-haired cat in Figure 8-1. Few purebred, pedigreed cats end up in shelters or rescues, but it can happen. Purebred cats are a small minority of all the cats living in the world today, but because these types are out there, you can see their echoes — their offspring. Heck, some purebreds actually were created from mixed breeds, blurring the lines dividing what is a purebred and what isn’t.
Many of the cats in shelters, however, look like different versions of two basics: short-haired cats and long-haired cats. And many of these cats don’t have the unique qualities of purebreds — the flat round races of Persians or the extreme skinny bodies of Siamese, for example. No, these cats are, for the most part, various versions of native cats that have existed in America for centuries. Most of the short-haired cats in shelters look much like the purebred American Shorthair, which is a pure strain of these native short-haired cats. Most of the long-haired cats in shelters look much like Maine coons, America’s native longhaired breed. Put simply, they are domestic cats. ’Nuff said.
But, how do they act? Most short-haired and long-haired domestic cats are friendly, affectionate, relatively but not extremely active, healthy (unless they’re exposed to disease), and most make great pets. They can adapt easily to living indoors but enjoy a nice prowl through the grass. (For safety, keep them on a leash or within a fence, so they can’t or won’t climb.) They are curious and can be mischievous but generally are content to settle down for a catnap. They are independent and don’t require constant supervision but are always ready with a steady purr and a soft coat for petting. They are, generally, ultimately lovable.
Of course, mixed-breed cats vary widely in the finer points of personality, so look for an animal you can relate to that will fit into your household. Mixed breeds are just like they sound — a potpourri of ancient and modern felines, rolled up into one charming little furry bundle that may just be the perfect pet for you.
Figure 8-1: Shelters are full of mixedbreed, short-haired cats just waiting for loving homes.
Perfectly stunning Persians (and their relatives)
Persians, like the one in Figure 8-2, are the most popular purebred cat breed, but these cherished beauties usually live indoors and rarely come in to animal shelters. Sometimes, however, a Persian loses her home, often because pet owners tire of all that grooming, or for many other reasons, from shedding to allergies. These Persians need a loving owner to care for them and keep their beautiful coats groomed. You may see a cat that looks like a Persian in an animal shelter, but without a pedigree, you can’t know for sure whether the cat is a purebred. Nevertheless, cats with round heads, large luminous eyes, flat faces, long flowing coats, and plumed tails probably have some Persian in them, even if they aren’t purebred.
Other similar breeds include the Himalayan, which is a type of Persian with Siamese-like points to its color pattern (color only on the face and extremities), and the Exotic. Exotics are increasingly popular because they have the face, shape, and personality of Persians, but they have short, plush coats so they don’t require the heavy grooming that Persians do.
Persians — and their relatives — have a reputation for being calm cats. No racing madly about for these pretty kitties, although all cats, particularly kittens, get the “zoomies” once in awhile and may dash around the room for a minute or two. Persians love to sit, looking gorgeous and being admired. They love affection from the humans they know and adore but may shy away from strangers. Although some Persians undoubtedly are outgoing, many are reserved, elegant, sophisticated . . . aristocratic, even. They’ll sit nicely for brushing and usually enjoy this gentle activity, especially if they’ve been groomed regularly since kittenhood.
Figure 8-2: Purebred Persians are a popular breed with beautiful long coats that require regular maintenance.
Persians sometimes prefer people to other cats. Where many domestic cats would rather bat a catnip mouse around with a buddy, many Persians are happy to preside over a one-cat household. Of course, as always, there are exceptions. Grooming is the Persian’s biggest challenge. Without a daily brushing and combing, Persians can develop mats and tangles that not only look bad but also can promote skin infections. Personality-wise, Persians are low-maintenance, and their long, flowing coats make them a pleasure to pet and beautiful to behold.
Clever Siamese . . . both types!
Siamese are another popular purebred that may occasionally land in a shelter. The Siamese is an incredibly active, vocal cat, and some pet owners tire of all the noise and activity when the Siamese doesn’t meet their expectation of what a cat should be. Siamese need understanding owners who appreciate their sometimes high-strung qualities and communicative vocal style.
Siamese come in two types. The modern, “extreme” type has a long tubular body, wedge-shaped head, and large flared ears. They look like they would have been worshipped in ancient Egypt. The traditional apple-head style is less extreme with a heavier body and a more classic, blunter head shape. Although the modern style takes all the prizes at the cat shows, many pet owners have, and prefer, the traditional style of Siamese, because they were more popular, and perhaps even more memorable, in decades past. These types of Siamese are also more likely to show up in animal shelters and pet rescue groups.
Siamese cats have a winning curiosity and big personalities. They use their distinctive voices often, and they are one of those breeds that just might try to climb the Christmas tree or appear quite suddenly on top of the refrigerator. How the heck did they get up there? That’s just a Siamese. They love to explore, play fetch, climb, get into things, and exercise their formidable intelligence. You have to stay one step ahead of these clever kitties! Siamese are perfect for people who want a highly interactive and vocal cat they can play with. Siamese may or may not be interested in snuggly cuddling, but they certainly keep you amused, and on your toes, 24/7.
The all-American shorthairs
American shorthair cats are a type of purebred, but they look much like most of the cats that you see in animal shelters, because they all basically came from the same origin — the domesticated street cats of early America. Sturdy and moderate, healthy and friendly, these beauties come in every conceivable color and pattern, from calico to tabby, from black to white, and everything in between. American shorthairs are known for being the quintessential cat-like cat — independent but affectionate, self-possessed but not snobbish. They love your lap and want to be with you but aren’t so needy that they won’t ever leave you alone. They are the cat lover’s cat, pure and simple, and for centuries, they’ve been American-made.
Mellow Maine coons, America’s native long-haired cat
Maine coons came over on the Mayflower and have taken over the hearts and minds of cat lovers in America. Rumored to have bred with wildcats — to explain their lynx-like ear tufts and large size — Maine cats have no wild cat blood and are more prone to act like friendly, agreeable dogs than fastidious,elusive, independent cats. Maine coons are great for cuddling, enjoy gentle children, and are truly impressive when they walk into a room. If your cat has long tufty ear hair, a thick shaggy coat, and is particularly large, she may just have a little Maine coon blood in her.