10 tips for finding the right cat – for you – at an animal shelter


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10 tips for finding the right cat – for you – at an animal shelter

Updated Dec 23, 2008

Most people don’t think of an animal shelter when looking to adopt a cat. Very often, a neighbor has a litter of kittens she needs to find homes for or a stray feline wanders up to the front door. But the animal shelter can be a great place to find your next feline friend, since they will provide a health check, vaccinations, and your cat’s sterilization, all for the price of the adoption fee. And you will be saving a life too!

It's easy to read the personality of an older cat.
It's easy to read the personality of an older cat.

Choosing the right cat in a shelter can be a bit challenging though, since cats are far more affected by their environment than dogs. They are easily stressed at the sight and smell of other felines, and the incessant noise from the dog kennels and flow of people coming in and out of their adoption area can keep a fantastic cat from showing off her best qualities.

With that in mind, here are few suggestions on how to get a good read on a feline’s personality in the shelter and find the right cat for you.

Determine what you want in a feline before you go to the shelter. A kitten can be fun and definitely entertaining, but their bundle of energy is endless — and there is no on and off switch. They are babies and need a lot of attention and supervision, which you may not have time to give them.  As they explore their world, they will likely destroy drapes and furniture until they mature and learn that couches are for sleeping, not clawing. Kittens can also be a poor choice if there are already dogs in the house. A dog may mistake a kitten for a toy or, worse yet, prey.

Consider adopting an older cat? An older cat’s personality is much more formed and easier to read than a kitten’s. Older cats also can more easily hold their own when it comes to a dog in the house: they might establish the boundaries by which the dog can engage them whereas a kitten would simply take off.

Find out who is friendly. Look at how the cats in the shelter interact with you as you pass their cages. When you talk to them, some will purr, meow, or rub their bodies against the cage front. They are trying to get your attention. Talk to them. Put your fingers in the cage, if possible, and scratch their neck and head area. If they continue to respond in a positive manner, then the cat probably was well socialized in his or her last home.

Check out all the cats. Certainly, the attention-grabbing cats have the advantage here, but don’t completely overlook the sleeping or more docile cats. Cats sleep, on average, 17 hours a day and they don’t always feel a need to greet every newcomer. And some cats simply prefer to stand back and watch you for awhile before deciding whether to engage you. I would hate for you to miss out on the perfect feline because you arrived at a particular cat’s down time.

Talk to the staff and volunteers. They interact with all the felines everyday providing essential socialization as they wait for their next, and hopefully permanent, home.  They can convey to you some of the special qualities that you might be looking for in a feline, but maybe can’t see because there are three somewhat noisy children stressing out the cats in the adoption area.

Know that cats mostly choose you. You may think you are choosing a cat, but even in a shelter, a cat will often choose you. In a room full of cats, the feline who wants your attention may meow from distance, until she is sure she can trust you, or paw you on the head as you pass by her hiding place in a cat tower. As long as you are moving around the cat room though, most cats will simply sit and watch you. If you sit down, they will usually all get up and start coming over to you. That’s when you can best see who is interested in human interaction.

Determine a cat’s tolerance for simple touch. In a quiet room, away from all the other cats, try to hold the cat. If the cat immediately struggles away, they may not like human contact. Wait a few minutes, though, and try again, since the cat may simply be stressed and need time to get use to you. Most cats won’t stay in your arms for very long, especially since they don’t know you, but you can tell how comfortable they are at being held, especially if they don’t try to bolt in the first 10 seconds. Always find out when the cat arrived at the shelter, as they may still be stressed from the new environment, making it harder for you to take a reading of their personality.

Test the cat for affection/aggression. After petting a few times, some cats will nail you with their claws or teeth. These cats have a low tolerance for touch and often become agitated as a result. This doesn’t make for bad cat, as some cat people don’t mind a cat that is a little aloof, but this would not be a good cat in a house with children of any age.

Avoid adopting a cat for small children. I got my son his first cat at five years old, but not a day before. I wanted to be sure he knew how to behave around the older cats I already had and wasn’t going to make a small kitten crazy with unpredictable toddler behavior. Let’s face it, children under five don’t always control their voices or their body movements and this can scarey to a cat of any age. So I usually recommend waiting until the youngest in the family is at least five-years-old before bringing a new cat home.

Consider adopting two, especially if you have no other pets at home. Once you have one cat, you will likely want two. If you get them at the same time, you can avoid lengthy first introductions into the home. They will arrive together and work out their territories together. They will become lifelong friends pals — and I think it’s important to be around species of your own kind. Can you imagine life on Mars without another human friend?

I hope these tips help. Please don’t think you have to adopt a cat on your very first visit to the shelter though. Cats can live upwards of 14 years or more so take your time now in finding the right feline for your family. That may take many visits to the shelters.


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Cathy Rosenthal (aka The Pet Pundit), CHES, CFE
Animal Welfare Communications Specialist

Cathy brings more than 35 years' experience in the animal welfare field. She is a sought-after speaker, Certified Humane Education Specialist, a syndicated pet advice columnist, an author, a publisher, and of course - a loving pet parent.

Read more about Cathy here or check out her Non-Profit's page to see more ways she can help you and your organization.

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